The Grapes of Wrath a product and a testament of America’s greatest economic disaster in the 1930s. Widespread, unethical, reckless investing in the stock market, banking irregularities, and concentration on the production of what were then luxury items led to the collapse of financial institutions and the economic bedrock of the United States. Stocks plummeted, banks failed (leaving investors deprived of their savings), businesses folded, banks foreclosed on property and land, and millions were thrown out of work.


Interspersed throughout the narrative of the Joads’ journey are chapters serving as commentaries on the issues facing the agricultural laborers ofthe 1930s:

Chapter 1: The dust storms ravage the plains farms.

Chapter 5: The depleted land and the introduction of the tractor

forces foreclosures and displacements.

Chapter 7: The desperate farmers, displaced and needing to move to

find work, are cheated by merchants, including car salesmen.

Chapter 9: They are also cheated by merchants to whom they must

sell the possessions they are to leave behind

Chapter 11: One man on a tractor takes the place of 12–17 families,

and he plows through houses, barns, hills, and gullies.

Chapter 12: On Highway 66, the road of flight, families fear taking

their rickety car over high mountains and deserts without adequate supplies. They fear

border patrols and are cheated by gas station owners.

Chapter 14: The damage done by banks and tractors leads to anger

and unrest.

Chapter 17: A code of honor develops in camps along the way

among people lured to California and hoping to find work.

Chapter 19: California’s vast lands are in the hands of too few

people, who join together to exploit migrant workers.

Chapter 21: Big landowners buy canneries, sell their produce at

rock-bottom prices to their own canneries, and thereby drive

small farmers out of business and maintain low wages and infl ated


Chapter 23: Workers escape their misery by sharing stories, singing,

dancing, drinking, and immersing themselves in religion.

Chapter 25: To drive up the price of farm produce, oranges are

dumped and soaked in kerosene, guards keep starving people

from fishing potatoes out of the river where they have been

dumped, livestock is slaughtered and buried, and milk is poured

into streams.

Chapter 27: Men pick cotton, one of the major stoop crops, for $.80

per hundred pounds, and their bags are weighed by the growers

on crooked scales.

Chapter 29: When the torrential rains begin in California, water rises

in fi elds, tents, and cabins, and there is no social relief for people

who are starving and sick, and have been out of work for months.

The most distressing labor issue raised by The Grapes of Wrath, from which other problems derive, is society’s refusal of work to the worker. Looking at the Oklahoma part of the story, one sees that numerous conditions have come together to deny small farmers and farm laborers the work necessary for them to support their families. A truck driver first alerts Tom to the situation he will fi nd when he reaches home. The men, thrown out of work because they have been thrown off the land, ponder the philosophical question of who owns the land. Is it the legal owner or the bank with a piece of paper? Or is it the person who has actually, daily, year after year, labored on the soil, who has mixed his labor with the land,whose family is buried on the land, and whose children have been reared on it? In short, what constitutes ownership? Capital or labor?

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and

broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it.

Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being

born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a

paper with numbers on it. (Steinbeck 45)

The Joads have been wrenched away from something that is a vital part of them. No wonder Casy says that Grampa died the moment he was forced off the home place. Moreover, a person’s labor is an essential part of who he or she is. In taking away their opportunity to labor and refusing to provide them with other labor, society has unmanned them. On more than one occasion, the farmworkers in The Grapes of Wrath observe that when a horse on a ranch has no work (in the rainy season, for example), it is still fed and cared for. But when a human worker has no work, he is thrown out to starve.

Because of the seasonal nature of the work, the agricultural workers are forced to become migrants. Because they can never live in one place long enough to establish residency, they are unable to obtain the meager social services that were available in the 1930s, before the development of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.