The world is now going through a severe crisis caused by the corona virus disease. Different people and nations deal with the crisis in their own ways. The way you deal with a crisis reflects your character.
America went through a severe national crisis in 1930s. There was the Dust Bowl tragedy which damaged the ecology and agriculture of the great prairies. Then there was the severe economic depression. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is set in the background of the dust bowl tragedy and the great depression.
The Joad family is one of the many that moves out from Oklahoma to California in search of livelihood following the dust bowl tragedy that rendered their lands useless for cultivation. Highway 66 is overcrowded with migrants moving to a place where there will be 20,000 people waiting to secure the 800 available jobs in one Californian orchard alone. There are thousands more like them looking for livelihoods. Many of these migrants die on the way. Many leave their families and choose some other destinations.
The migrants’ camps in California are overcrowded. They are no more American citizens but “Okies”, the nickname given by the people of California who are better off. If you are weak, the world will weaken you further and then exploit you as much as they can. That is the general human nature. The Californians are no different. They exploit the Okies inhumanly. As a result tension mounts in the migrant camps.
Tom Joad and Jim Casy are two young men from the migrant camps who struggle to assert their human rights against the greedy and selfish Californian landlords. Tom was released from an Oklahoma prison just before the migration began. His crime: murder. The prison taught him some good lessons, however. Jim was a preacher before joining the migrants. He gave up preaching upon the realisation that divinity was not sitting up somewhere in the heavens but was to be discovered among human beings. Tom and Jim become the champions of justice for migrants. Both get into trouble eventually. If you espouse noble causes, you cannot escape troubles.
Tom and Jim organise the migrants into a trade union. The police are after them. Jim knocks down a sheriff and is soon arrested. He is killed by the police. Tom kills a police officer and has to go into hiding. The Joad family sneaks away from the camp into a cotton farm. When the cotton season is over, they have no work and don’t know what to do. They move into a dry barn for safety from the floods. Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, gives birth to a stillborn child. Her husband had already abandoned her.
There is abundance on one side, the side of the landlords. There is starvation on the other, the side of the migrants. Ma Joad sees a young boy weeping because his father is dying of starvation. Whatever food the man managed to get, he was giving it to the son. Ma Joad gives a signal to Rose of Sharon and asks everyone else to move out. Rose opens her blouse and puts the dying man’s mouth to her lactating breast.
The novel is about the human capacity for compassion against the inhuman greed of capitalists. The corporate sector is alluded to in the novel as “ritualised thievery”. California had an abundance of wealth and yet thousands of people starved there.
The novel infuriated the Californian landlords who demanded a ban on it. They burnt a copy of the book symbolically. But the truth remained that the Californian landlords were originally squatters who displaced the Mexicans and grabbed their lands.
You can be a grabber or you can be compassionate. “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.” The novel says. Who decides what is sin and what is virtue? Those in power think that exploiting the poor is a virtue. The poor think that sharing whatever little they have is a virtue. What is sin? What is virtue? Steinbeck leaves you with the final image of Rose of Sharon and the dying man in her lap.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle