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    Reflection of Society in The Grapes of Wrath Essay

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    Throughout the daily ordeals of society, people face numerous societal problems. It is inevitable that we, as civilized animals, encounter such global problems. Some express their views upon societal problems through media, while others utilize means such as literature to express their personal opinions on them. John Steinbeck is one author who enthusiastically proclaims his views upon such issues through literature. He zealously depicts such perspectives through symbolism in his writings, especially, the thought-provoking novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The final statements of The Grapes of Wrath clearly portray the usage of symbolism by John Steinbeck to produce the effect of reflecting the societal impediments of his days. This can be seen through the religious, humanitarian, and feminine aspects of the text.

    The final statements of The Grapes of Wrath convey information beyond the one chapter that it is bound by in the novel. This refers to the terminating chapter, which contains the juices of the novel. After three days of raining, the Joads fear that the creek will flood. However, Rose of Sharon goes into labor, and the Joads cannot leave. Pa Joad and the rest of the men at the camp attempts to stop the flooding of the river by building an embankment in the river. Pa, Al, and Uncle John reach the boxcar and find that Rose of Sharon delivered a stillborn baby. Uncle John places the stillborn in an apple box and floats it downstream. The family finds a barn for refuge until the rain stops. In the corner of the barn there are a starving man and a boy. Ma and Rose of Sharon realize what they must do. Rose of Sharon gives the dying man her breast milk. As we can see, the themes of religion, humanitarian, and feminism are all visible in this brief chapter.

    To begin with, the final statements of the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck clearly exemplify the religious themes that the part symbolizes. This part brings the light of Jesus into the book. According to Steinbeck, “Ma’s eyes passed Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast…She squirmed closer and pulled his head close…She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously” (Steinbeck 619). The image of Rose of Sharon nursing the half-starved man with her breast milk is perhaps one of the most startling and moving images in all of literature. Rose of Sharon is breast-feeding an ailing man with her own breast milk, which is a courageous action. “The actions of Rose of Sharon breastfeeding an ailing man compares significantly with the actions by Jesus in the Bible to save the people on earth. Jesus, as it is widely known, helped those in need. He provided food for those hungry, provided cure for those ill, and provided guidance to those persecuted” (Ditsky). This example from Ditsky strongly reinforces that the actions by Rose of Sharon is similar to those by Jesus.

    In this ending scene, Rose of Sharon helps the man by nourishing him through breastfeeding him. Feeding the 5000, Matthew 14:15-21, is a very famous story of Jesus in which he feeds a group of men by multiplying the amount of a basket of bread, fish, and wine to an unlimited amount for all. Like Jesus, Rose of Sharon nourishes the ailing man by providing nutrients that she has advantage in, but the man lacks in. Also, Mother Mary sacrifices herself by allowing God to take possession of her body and fertilize her with baby Jesus. Without such offering by Mary, Jesus may not have been able to be born into this world and save those in despair. Steinbeck reflects the societal issues of his days through this ending that symbolizes the actions of Jesus. He reflects upon the lack of warmth in people’s hearts and the lack of devotion towards religion during his days, the Great Depression. According to Kennedy, during the Great Depression, people’s donations decreased by 45 percent. People simply did not have the luxury and the willingness to help those in need (Kennedy 816). Furthermore, people felt contracted as they were undergoing financial difficulties. Such was a social impediment that Steinbeck wanted to address in his novel and eventually urge the readers to start going to church.

    Additionally, religion is clearly portrayed in the ending of The Grapes of Wrath via the usage of Casy. The simple characterization of Casy already portrays Steinbeck’s will to express religion in this novel. Jim Casy is an ex-preacher of the hometown of Tom Joad. According to Ditsky, “Casy represents how the many situations in life impact the ever-changing souls of human beings and the search within to discover one’s true identity and beliefs. Casy, however, was much more complex than the average individual. His unprejudiced, unified, Christ-like existence twists and turns with every mental and extraneous disaccord.” As we can clearly tell from this source, Casy shows religion by representing the impacts of the hardships during the 1930s upon the common man’s pursuit for religious enlightenment. According to Steinbeck:

    Pa said, “Where at’s the preacher? We oughta have a prayer.”

    “Don’t like to pray?”

    “I’ll say ‘em,” said the preacher (196)

    During the time of hardship of Grandpa’s death on the road, while heading towards California, Casy provides the necessary guidance by giving a prayer for Grandpa. This prayer eases the grievances the Joads holds towards the shabby death of Grandpa. Furthermore, Casy, although he is an ex-priest, he does not practice the sermons and carry out the duties of a priest, he simply refuses to. This explicitly suggests the strayed actions by the characters. In the end, Casy is a fabulous and clear reflection of the general population. Casy represents something graver than a simple faith-lost priest. He represents the guidance back into religion from the hardships of the world. With the poverty in reality, followed the poverty in belief and in their hearts. Loss of faith was prevalent. As seen through the aforementioned statistic, people’s regular attendance to church decreased significantly. The common man’s loss in faith is depicted by Casy’s disposition in the local society that he belongs in, by being one of the last few people left in the abandoned town of the Joads’.

    One major issue expressed by the final statements of The Grapes of Wrath is the moral obligation that people carry, to help the others in need. The distinctive line that can be drawn between humans and animals is the fact that we, as humans, possess the moral power to help those in need. According to Cederstrom, “…during the Great Depression, people became selfish and egotistic. In The Grapes of Wrath, the action by Rose of Sharon to nourish the ill man exemplifies such social phenomenon. It also conveys Steinbeck’s hopes to encourage the spread of love and care in society.” Such points by Cederstrom strongly reaffirms the point of view that The Grapes of Wrath attempts at spreading awareness of the egotistic actions in society and Steinbeck’s hopes to encourage the help in the general population towards each other. Rose of Sharon did not have to go through the embarrassing actions of breastfeeding a full-grown man and resultantly donate nutrition and energy that she needs in the times of hardships. She has risked her own life, stability, and health by giving those nutritious breast-milks. She did not have to take such actions. No one forced her to. However, she committed such actions because she had felt the strong moral obligation to help those in need.

    Steinbeck urges the general population to turn to humanitarian and moralistic obligations not only in the final statements of The Grapes of Wrath, but also throughout the general course of the story. Steinbeck’s hidden meaning is visible through the action by the Joads of helping the Wilsons. According to Cederstrom, “…the depiction of the Joads helping the Wilsons, despite the fact that the Joads themselves are in dire poverty and conditions explicitly go against the social paradigm of Steinbeck’s days of egotism and selfishness.” Indeed, during the Great Depression, people’s selfishness and egotism rose significantly. This phenomenon can be understood as everyone was scrambling for money and to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. For example according to The Grapes of Wrath:

    “Al said finally, “We got an overload, but Mr. an’ Mis’ Wilson ain’t. If some of us folks could ride with them an’ take some a their light stuff in the truck, we wouldn’t break no springs an’ we could git up hills”…

    Wilson settled back uneasily, “Well, I dunno..Well, ya see-I on’y got ‘bout thirty dollars lef’, an’ I won’t be no burden.”

    Ma said, “You won’t be no burden. Each’ll help each an’ we’ll all git to California” (202).

    The Joads and the Wilsons both are in dire situations. They both are poor people who are fleeing to California, away from the persecuting grips of bank mortgages. However, they both are willing to sacrifices bits, in areas that they have an advantage in, and taking from other areas that they lack in. They enhance each other’s chances on successfully surviving their way towards California. Steinbeck conveys the idea of the moral and humanitarian obligation to help others through this relationship that the Joads and the Wilsons build. According to Kennedy, as the egotism and individualism rose during the Great Depression, with more than 38% of the population in the US relying on government relief programs, Steinbeck was trying to urge the general people to be warm-hearted and endorse the pain of the others and cooperate and improve as a nation (Kennedy 816). As such selfishness lead to speculation in the stock market, which eventually resulted in the bank mortgage failures and the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s calls for cooperation was out of pity towards the ignorant ones who did not escape out of such mindsets.

    One major feministic aspect that Steinbeck addresses through The Grapes of Wrath is the theme of women’s role in society as pregnancy. According to Ditsky, “…Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy was an unnecessary aspect to the flow of The Grapes of Wrath… However, Steinbeck included this little piece to characterization in order to reflect the social issue of pregnancy rates during the Great Depression.” Rose of Sharon made a major impact to the ending of the novel. If she had not been pregnant, it might have been impossible for her to have the experience of having to give birth to a stillborn and eventually breastfeed a fully-grown man with milk that had lost its purpose. According to Steinbeck:

    “The pains were coming close now…And Rose of Sharon had lost her restraint. She screamed fiercely under the fierce pains…For a long time the screams continued from the car,and at last they were still… On a newspaper lay a blue shriveled little mummy.

    “Never Breathed,” said Mrs. Wainwritght softly. “Never was alive.” (606)

    Rose of Sharon gave birth to a stillborn. Her pregnancy did not bear the colorful fruits that she anticipated. Pregnancy is a big symbolization in the novel because pregnancy universally means the beginning of new life, that it is possible for the family to continue its bloodline. Therefore, Rose of Sharon giving birth to a stillborn symbolizes that the promises of a new life and the continuation of the bloodline are jeopardized. The social issue that The Grapes of Wrath addresses of the Great Depression through Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy is the issue of the decrease in birth rates during Steinbeck’s time. According to a 1998 research done by the Harvard medical team, the birth rate during the Great Depression dropped by 45 percent, compared to the statistics a decade earlier (Kennedy 816). Newly born babies add the pinch of new producer and consumer, resulting in the flow of the economy. Therefore, as the birth rate drops, the economy is also put in a bad position in the long run.

    The role of women in society during the late 1930s is further exemplified through the usage of Ma in The Grapes of Wrath. Ma’s progression of her role is very unique in the sense that she symbolizes the expansion of women’s influence and role in society during the late 1930s. According to Cederstrom, “Ma begins with simple roles in her family as a housewife, however as the story progresses, she evolves into elapsing Pa’s authorities in the family…it is interesting to note how she contrasts with the common belief of the rights of a woman…” Indeed, as Cederstrom states, Ma greatly progresses her status in the Joads family. However, Ma is still simply a reflection of the social paradigm of women during the Great Depression. Ma, reflecting such phenomenon, took over the role as the driving force behind the Joad family. Before the transcontinental journey of the Joads, Pa was the head figure of the family, leading discussions on major family issues. However, as the story progresses, Pa shows his ineptitude as the leader of the family by not being able to fulfill his role as the breadwinner as he fails to find a sustainable job in California. Ma’s enhanced role can be seen in The Grapes of Wrath, “The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power. She had taken control…

    All we got is the family unbroken..I ain’t scared while we’re all here, all that’s alive, but I ain’t gonna see us bust up” (Steinbeck 206). Although Pa has the legal rights to flog Ma, Ma is not afraid of such floggings and makes her points heard in the family. Pa threatens to flog Ma, however Pa is not able to carry out his actions, proving Ma’s new active role in the family. With the Great Depression in its full steps and the arrival of World War II, men’s positions in the nation shriveled. In the United States, unemployment rates surged, up to 25 percent of the ‘working age’ population lacked permanent jobs. The large reason that men were not employed was due to the fact that employers had to pay higher wages to men than women because men usually were the sole breadwinners in their families. This unemployment in men required women of the individual families to fetch jobs and work to support themselves even in menial fields. Furthermore, as the World War II arrived, men were forced into participation in war by government conscription. Their occupations in workforces had to be substituted by women in order to keep the economy running smoothly as America had to send over 500,000 men into war in Europe. With enhanced economic positions, it was possible for women to make their voices heard in an invigorated manner. Also, the 19th amendment calling for national woman suffrage had just recently been passed in 1913, further strengthening woman’s status in society.

    In conclusion, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck clearly reflects the social phenomena of his days, during the Great Depression. The tears, fraud, and dreams are the major ideas. The tears of the ‘Okies’ fleeing from the financially devastated regions of the Great Plains to the fertile regions of California in dreams of reviving their families is clearly conveyed in this novel. The fraud that exists in the advertisements of job opportunities and the dreams the people still cling on to on those advertisements for jobs are shown. People in such devastating conditions can do anything. In the final statements of the novel, a hungry man is also in a desperate state and ignores his moral justifications and drink breast milk from a woman, Rose of Sharon. This scene is like a condensed version of the novel, with all aspects of religion, moralistic obligations, and feminism covered. Mr. Ditsky’s views upon the aforementioned issues were all valid, especially upon the topic of religion. Also, Mr. Cederstrom’s views on moralistic obligations were also very valid. Through such careful descriptions and thoughts behind the storyline, John Steinbeck has respectfully earned the heart of the audience and readers who will sooner or later read The Grapes of Wrath. One cannot stop himself from hoping that we will not fall into the negative traps of our human nature that were present by the general population during the Great Depression again in 21st century.

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