This essay will develop the thesis of how Steinbeck’s novels integrate the life of the working man like no other modern novel. The novels that will be discussed include Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath. The writing of the working class struggle brought forth a consciousness to the country of the plight and dangers involved in poverty. A brief look at poverty in the country will also be discussed as inclusive examples supporting Steinbeck’s novels and the concept of the working class.Steinbeck’s Cannery Row introduces the reader to Mack and the boys. In the cannery district known as Monterey California are vagabonds, urchins or general destitute people. The object of the novel centers mainly around the boys getting Doc something nice, or doing something nice for him since he is the general care –taker of cannery row (albeit Steinbeck does not only focus on this story but introduces subplots in vignettes in which the theme is central to violence, destitution, and despondency towards the state of life in Cannery Row).
The boys succeed in their party, but due to timing Doc arrives late and discovers a mess in his house; the juxtaposition of this event with the epidemic of influenza as orchestrated by the author are telltale signs of personal identity and its leading evidence as to social maturity and identity through culture as concurrent themes. The party eventually does take place this time inclusive of Doc and the novel ends with a classic Steinbeck reflection of life and identity through culture (Benson 132).Identity as portrayed in this novel is subject to the whims of circumstance in which the characters are either presented as flawed because of violence prevalent in their society or else as in Doc’s character, their identity is strengthened in such circumstances as it affords the character a chance to improve on himself and create around him a more trusting atmosphere. The character of Lee Chong is in direct opposition to Doc. Lee Chong can best be described as a surly man, a miser really whose obsession with perfection and misery allow for Doc’s character to be perceived as more virtuous in comparison.
Thus, individual identity is affected by society and culture and circumstance but the prevailing message offered from Steinbeck is that there is still individual choice as to the performance and mutation of that identity even with economic struggle. Therefore the novel presents extremes of personality each created through similar environments in order to prove the progressiveness of choice in forming identity despite socio-economic circumstances.In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the reader is introduced to the Joads family. This family goes through a type of Odyssey from one end of the country to California searching for a way of living after having been kicked off their farm. They travel and try to make it as a family but on each part of the trip one family member seems to wander off, die, or just lose hope. This is the pinnacle example of the working class struggle as it is seen through the Joads family (Hicks 22).
Steinbeck does not only limit his example of struggle for the family through economic upheaval but also natural disasters”66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from floods that bring no richness to the lnad and steal what little richness is there.” (p. 150). The family survives a great flood as well as fire, which only heightens the sense to the reader of how very desperate the family is in their current situation. The outcry of this family is only seen more clearly as in the novel, or along the journey of the Joads’s, the reader is also introduce to a population of characters who are faced with the same struggles, crimes, and poverty (Pizer 85). This was the testament to economic depravity which are thematic through Steinbeck’s novels “So you’re lookin’ for work. What ya think ever’body else is lookin’ for? Di’monds? What you think I wore my ass down to a nub lookin’ for?” (p.
312). The fact that the reader is not only given a single story of poverty through the characters but the characters introduce the reader to a population ranging into the thousands of people who are in the same situation emphasize Steinbeck’s expression of the working poor.It is in the disparity of the poor that Steinbeck rests his theme of the book The Grapes of Wrath. The struggle of the Joads is meant to convey a story of everyman, as in Greek plays, in which the main character is easily identified with the audience. The point of issuing in a variance of characters is so that Steinbeck may introduce those who succumb to the struggle, those who walk off during the flood and are not found again, those who stay behind with shotguns on their porches ready to kill the bank man or themselves, and the Joads are a complete representation of the entire state of the poor.
As a family, the Joads realize that they must depend on their neighbors to some degree, on the kindness and directions of strangers. One very striking moment in the novel is when the Joads witness the site of the homeless people spread across the countryside, in makeshift tents, in cars, in their blankets and the police brutality executed on them, for simply being poor, and without land as Steinbeck writes,There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trucks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot (348-9).This is the contradiction of the novel, or of the economic situation; the fact that most of the families had land, but that land was confiscated by the bank or the government despite generations having owned and lived on it, so the government forces them off their property and thus begins the great migration west to find a better life, only there are too many people searching for the same thing and the surplus is daunting and the government’s inability to realize the cause and effect nature of their actions leads to this type of economic stress.
This example is not only in accordance to Steinbeck’s writing of the novel but may also serve as a social commentary for today with homelessness, the working poor, and welfare, as Cunningham writes,The conditions for agricultural laborers were as bad or worse as those for southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers. While there were small permanent workforces on California farms, the vast majority of the labor was needed at harvest time, and was performed by migrant laborers who followed the crops as they matured over a six-month harvest season. By the 1930s, the pay and working conditions had both been terrible for at least sixty years. Migrant workers had few possessions, lived in substandard company housing or in makeshift camps, and had to provide their own transportation — usually ancient “jalopies.” Their children had limited or no access to schools, and they had little healthcare, making malnutrition and preventable diseases common (2002).Steinbeck introduced his audience with the idea of cause and effect, and these notions are still in accordance to modernity.It is in the travels of the Joad’s that the reader is introduced to the situation in the country or foreclosures, outdated mortgages, repossessed property, in every stop that the Joads take on their travel out west on route 66, the reader is introduced to some situation of poverty. Steinbeck uses a cunning example of poverty and the working poor in a diner; a man is paying for his meal and two kids are eyeing pieces of candy; their eyes like gumdrops knowing that to possess the candy is an uncertainty and yet, they want it nonetheless.
Due to the children’s own desire, and the desperation felt in the country by every working person for their fellow man, the lady behind the register grants the kid’s their wish, and gives the pieces of candy to the two children despite the fact that the man, the father is unable to pay for such a luxury. The woman says that it doesn’t matter. In the eyes of the two children, and their desire met in the form of candy, Steinbeck is relating, not the act of charity in the woman giving the kid’s their candy, but the act was one of hope, and of slight desperation. If the children of the country are suffering in the simplest form of not having candy, then the country is indeed doomed. However, if children may still enjoy life, still receive candy then there is hope. This tiny pit stop Steinbeck takes in the novel is a way station of hope for the reader, the children, the father, the waitress who gave the candy to the kids in the first place.The entire country in Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath seems to be homeless, or else living on communal government property, or else simply traveling with their families in constant movement in order to find a home.
The economy is a character of its own in Steinbeck’s novels. He created a sense of urgency, or failure as well as hope through his stories “Goin’ away ain’t gona ease us. It’s gonna bear us down…
They was the time when we was on the lan’. They was a boundary to us then. Ol’ folks dies off, an’ little fellas come, an’ we was one thing – we was the fambly – kinda whole and clear. An’ we ain’t clear no more.” (p. 500).
It was through this recognition with the character’s of the reader that a sense of social struggle became a historical marker. It is important that Steinbeck wrote about the struggle of the working class, because otherwise, the cause and effect of job loss to homelessness would have been an equation with no solution, no connection, as Cunningham writes in critique of The Grapes of Wrath,The critique encourages the middle-class reader to move beyond sympathy for those more exploited and to a solidarity based on experiences within the same system. The reader is encouraged to care about the Joads and is simultaneously shown that, as society’s unit of economic survival, the family is inadequate, the product of an outmoded social order. The novel relies on the ideological notion of the self-contained family to win the reader’s concern for the Joads, and then argues for the necessity of communal, rather than familial, welfare (Cunningham 2002).
With the reality and the story of the Joads’s as well as the facts of Cannery Row that the reader may better recognize how the struggle of the working class is in direct correlation with the struggle of the entire country, and thus, the equation may be solved. Steinbeck’s emphasis on the working poor, and of the poverty level of the country can best be described as an attributing factor of the plight of the working poor and his recognition of it is surmised to the rest of the country for them to understand the issue of cause and effect.Although Steinbeck’s use of the everyman may be considered to be anachronistic in the form of outdated material of the Okie, and the farm worker, such relevant places in society are still struggling with the same economic and social issues. This testament of the prevalence of such issues relates back to the importance of Steinbeck having written Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath since both novels portend to the same issues in today’s society.
The clever nature of the write alludes to the fact of timelessness, despite the fact that in this case the timeless issue is that of poverty, the relevance is that the same issues that drove the Joads and most middle America west are still in the same crisis.