Steinbeck has gone down in history as one of the most famous authors of the 20th century. This sample essay explores Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the role of climate in the story; specifically, the paper explores the relationship between man and his environment.
Role of climate in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck’s work is known for its settings and their importance to the characters, actions, and themes of each book. The Grapes of Wrath is no different. This book, written in 1939, remains an American masterpiece in its portrayal of the dependence on an uncooperative land. The characters and the plot of the story in The Grapes of Wrath are affected by the setting in the book.
The opening chapter is a description of drought, beginning after the last rains have fallen in the spring and continuing to the end of June. Steinbeck paints a picture of a hot, dry summer that is plagued by dust storms. The fury of this weather is captured in the farmers’ reaction to the storm and the weather.
“The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men… looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now,” (Steinbeck 5).
Climate introduced before characters
By introducing the weather before introducing a major human character to the reader, Steinbeck is signaling how important the weather will be. The words he uses to describe it—“hot” and “stinging” and nearly toxic as people “covered their noses from it”—show, too, how inhospitable the climate can be.
Steinbeck introduces a major character in the book Tom Joad by first introducing the fact that he comes from a family of sharecroppers.
“[M]y old man got a place, forty acres. He’s a cropper, but we been there a long time’” (9).
Before readers learn Joad’s name, they are introduced to this fact about his family, which then turns into a conversation in which the truck driver asks Joad whether his family had been “dusted out,” meaning ruined by dust storms (10). Though Joad has been in prison, the truck driver informs him that the climate and new technology (tractors) is ruining small farms. The way of life and livelihood for farmers in the novel is in jeopardy because of climate change.
Characters in The Grapes of Wrath
When readers are introduced to the Joad family, Steinbeck introduces them favorably. They are people of the land, and their failures and hardships are not the results of poor character. Instead, each member of the family has some virtuous or noble quality. Ma is the heroine and the “citadel of the family,” a holy structure (74). Pa is a good man but a victim of circumstance whose fate in the novel makes him weaker and ultimately breaks him down completely.
However, his transformation is not meant to show weakness in him as a character but to show that the difficulties of life as experienced by the working poor who rely on the land are sometimes too overwhelming to even a hard working or dedicated person. Both of Tom Joad’s parents are considered salt of the earth, and while Ma Joad is a symbol of strength, Pa Joad is more truly connected to the land, slowly wasting away by the ravages of change and misfortune.
For the character of Grampa, the land is more important to him than his family, and he only leaves after being drugged and who dies shortly after leaving, the trip being too difficult and the separation being too much to bear as if he were a plant improperly picked form the soil.
Steinback’s literary style and representation of climate
Steinbeck intersperses vignettes between the chapters narrating the main arc of the story to connect and continue the development of the themes of the book and parallel the experiences of the main characters. In several chapters, Steinbeck uses lyrical language, especially about the land and the connection between the working poor and the land, to heighten the readers’ awareness of it.
“The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests” (31).
The lyrical language is strikingly similar to free verse used in poetry and other literature, such as the repetition of “came,” heightens the connection of the landowners and the sharecroppers that Steinbeck creates through the “dry earth.”
Later, describing the mass exodus of sharecroppers, Steinbeck writes, “They stood and watched [their goods] burning, and then frantically they loaded up the cars and drove away, drove in the dust. The dust hung in the air for a long time after the loaded cars had passed” (90).
In another vignette, Steinbeck writes about an abandoned farm being reclaimed by nature, “And the mice moved in and stored weed seeds in corners, in boxes, in the backs of drawers in the kitchens. And weasels came in to hunt the mice, and the brown owls flew shrieking in and out again” (117).
Throughout the book, such vignettes build upon the connection between people and land.
Connecting the characters to the land
As the Joads leave California, Steinbeck makes a connection between the workers who are truly connected to the land and the day laborers who work the land and then leave. Steinbeck warns that the land is more than the sum of its parts.
“Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis” (116–117).
This goes beyond merely explaining the difference between the day farmers and the people like the Joads who are connected to the land, it is a summation of the theme and how the “so much more” that is being described encompasses everything from proper land use to the sustaining of the entire culture. Civilization cannot survive without farming, and Steinbeck illuminates that through the connection of the shared elements between people and the land they occupy and work.
During the journey, the farmers and their families become migrant people or even refugees, having lost their land and means of identity (197). This further reinforces the theme of the connection and fate between people and the land. Without a land or place to be, the travelers to California become little communities unto themselves. However, they are unstable, unrooted, and temporary. In California, Steinbeck describes the political history of the land through the land.
“The Mexicans were weak and fled. They could not resist, because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land” (237).
Conclusions ad summary of The Grapes of Wrath
The themes of weak and strong, rich and poor, local and foreign all revolve around land. California, as introduced in the novel, is not a land of promise, but it is a battlefield between the have-nots for the few opportunities doled out by rich landowners. Steinbeck makes a political commentary here about inequality of wealth as it also pertains to the natural resource wealth of the land.
When spring arrives in California, instead of being a time of growth and renewal, Steinbeck uses the metaphor that titles the book to explain the situation between rich and poor farmers. “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (361). The rest of the novel depicts the life that the Joads make for themselves. The novel ends with a mirror of how it began. Instead of a drought, there is a deluge, and it is still devastating. Still, the family does what it must and continues to live their lives on the land.
Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is a classic piece of literature that captures the plight of poor workers affected by a devastated economy during a time of climate change. Steinbeck constantly reinforces the themes of people’s connectedness to the land.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Web. 25 September 2013. http://126.96.36.199/big/english/novels/GrapesOfWrath.pdf