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THE GRAPES OF WRATH: LITERATURE CRITICISM / NOTES
The novel is structured into three parts: the time spent in the dust bowl
region of Oklahoma, the journey on the road along Highway 66, and the
time in California. Peter Lisca, a well-known critic, sees a relationship
between this three-fold division and the three stages of the Biblical
Exodus: the Israelites' time in bondage when God sent plagues to free
them (chapters 1-11), the forty years of wandering in the desert (chapters
12-18), and the arrival in Canaan, the Promised Land (chapters 19-30).
The plagues sent by God are paralleled by the drought in Oklahoma, the
Egyptian oppressors by the bank officials, and the hostile Canaanites
by the Californians.
The Grapes of Wrath is a protest against the ill-treatment of the migrants in California. It has often been considered as a political novel; it is not, however, proletarian in the ordinary sense of the term. Steinbeck makes no claims that the laborers are always good and always right. Even while he is condemning the exploitation of the laborers, he is also concerned with their moral improvement. He does not approve of any form of extreme radicalism that violates the dignity of human beings. Steinbeck's main point is that the workers must also reform their views if there is to be any real change.
Steinbeck makes a serious inquiry into the eternal problems of humankind--the nature of the divine, the individual's relationship with that divinity, and the results that follow from them. He examines various concepts of God and finds them all wanting, in one respect or another, and finally decides that the most valid concept of the divine is one that closely approximates the Emersonian ideal of the Oversoul. This concept is not stated explicitly, because Steinbeck is writing a novel and not a metaphysical tract. Steinbeck finds religious institutions harmful, an anthropomorphic god unsatisfactory, evangelism evil, and pantheism leaving something to be desired.
Steinbeck stresses the evolutionary idea that humanity must adapt to the changing conditions, no matter what those conditions are. Those who cannot adapt, such as Grampa and Granma, cannot survive. Pa, who lives in the past, relinquishes his titular position in the family to Ma, who has the strength to adapt herself to the new circumstances.
Steinbeck asks the meaning of ownership in the novel. The owners and the tenants
reveal two conflicting views about the land. The tenants adopt the ideas
of Jeffersonian agrarianism, which involves the belief that landed property
held in freehold must be available to everyone. The Jeffersonians believed
that a man could claim ownership of the land he occupied and cultivated
by virtue of a natural right. The absentee landlords do not occupy the
land and only have legal ownership of the land. For the tenants, land
is a vital part of their existence. For the landlords, it is only an investment,
which yields profits. In the later section of the novel, Steinbeck contrasts
the Hoovervilles established on the outskirts of each town with the vast
tracts of land that lie unused in the West. The owners of these estates
are fearful that the migrants may encroach on their property. The theme
of people's relationship to land is a crucial one. Tied to the theme of
land ownership, Steinbeck depicts that the individual is increasingly
at the mercy of the vast anonymous forces of capitalism and a market economy,
which cannot be identified because they are faceless, mindless, and heartless.
They are the faceless tractor drivers who do not “feel” the land. They
are the banks that direct businesses because they possess the money. They
are the large landowners who sometimes never see their farms.
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