Jason's Reviews > The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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bookshelves: for-kindle, 2012, reviewed

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

This book really gets my goat. Those poor, dirty Joads. So poor and so, so dirty. After being displaced from their Oklahoma farm following the Dust Bowl storms that wreck their crops and cause them to default on their loans, the Joads find themselves a family of migrants in search of work and food. They join a stream of hundreds of thousands of other migrant families across the United States to what they believe to be the prosperous valleys of California. Only once they arrive, they discover that there is nothing prosperous about it—not only is there a serious shortage of work (mostly caused by an overabundance of labor that came with the influx of so many other migrant families), but they also have to contend with growing anti-migrant sentiment among the local population and wealthy landowners who think nothing of taking advantage of them in their state of vulnerability. Without proper labor laws protecting worker’s rights and no trade unions to represent their interests, the Joads are severely underpaid for whatever work they do manage to find, and they simply fall deeper and deeper into despondency.

The reason this gets my goat is ‘cause it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, the Joads are uneducated and wouldn’t qualify for anything more than basic manual labor. Yes, it is the Great Depression and this is not an easy time to find a job even for skilled workers. And yes, they are a family of 47 and they probably look pretty ridiculous all crammed up in the back of their makeshift pickup truck. But gosh darn it, if only they had unions! If only they had fair labor standards to guarantee them a minimum wage! If only they had the protection of government legislation to prohibit wealthy landowners from colluding to keep prices high and wages low!

Which leads me to wonder… what would Ayn Rand think of all this? After all, aren’t labor unions and economic regulation precisely what she argues against? By that account, if Atlas Shrugged is the supposed Bible of right-wing thinkers, then I’d have to say that The Grapes of Wrath might just be its antithesis. But the real difference, as far as I can tell, is that while Atlas Shrugged represents a crazy woman’s vision of a whack job world that could never actually exist, John Steinbeck tells it like it is, and how it was, for so many hard working Americans who were taken advantage of under a system that did nothing to protect them. And what’s even more remarkable is that Steinbeck’s characters (whom, by the way, Rand would refer to as “moochers”—just thought we should be clear on that) make Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon look like a couple of pussies. What is it Ma Joad says? That if you’re in trouble or hurt or need, to “go to poor people—for they’re the only ones that’ll help.”

This is a novel about the working poor, and it should serve to remind us what can go horribly wrong in an unregulated economy.
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Reading Progress

February 6, 2011 – Shelved
February 14, 2012 –
40.0% "And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe."
February 21, 2012 –
60.0% "And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away."
Started Reading
February 25, 2012 – Finished Reading
April 7, 2012 – Shelved as: for-kindle
September 2, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012
September 2, 2012 – Shelved as: reviewed

Comments Showing 1-37 of 37 (37 new)

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Carissa I just finished this and I have Atlas Shrugged in my to read pile in my room. I think I will start it tomorrow.

message 2: by Jason (last edited May 16, 2012 06:36AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason I applaud you for your ambition, Carissa. Godspeed. When you're done, here's what I thought of Atlas Shrugged.

Jason I was going to comment along the same line that you commented, but I couldn't improve upon it, so I'll just agree. What strikes me most is how people could misconstrue the message by saying the Joad's shunned government help and were anti-union. I guess its just a testament to Steinbeck's writing how it touches us deeply in our own individual way.

Lisa Wain I have just finished The Grapes of Wrath and loved it. I have also read Atlas Shrugged, and also thought about the comparison of the flip side. I loved Atlas Shrugged as well and my interpretation is a little different to yours. I think Dagny Taggert and Henry Reardon would have given the Joad's a good job for a fair days pay and I would never have called the Joad's Moochers.....quiet the opposite in fact...way too proud to take money without first working for it.

message 5: by Jason (last edited Jun 03, 2012 07:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason I might have been a little overreaching there. I agree the Joads are not moochers at all. It's just that in their world, they suffer in a direct way from a lack of labor laws and inadequate regulation. I think if the Joads had their way, they'd be the first in line to vote for regulation to limit the power of the employer (which was clearly being abused), and it's in this way that I mean they'd be considered moochers by Rand's definition.

Lisa Wain I agree Jason. I am sure the Joads would have voted for labor laws that benefit both the employee and the employer. Note the problems the smaller farmers were having trying to get their crops picked and still make a profit (which equals the farmers wages)with the still bigger guys dictating commodity prices. This problem is still alive today! The world needs business/land owners (capitalists as they are commonly known) and workers....there is no right or wrong.....greed is the problem, and not all capitalists are greedy, but how do you regulate greed? Fortunately life is not as black and white as it sometimes seems. :-)

message 7: by Jason (last edited Jun 04, 2012 04:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jason Lisa wrote: "...but how do you regulate greed?"

Exactly. I think this is the key point. I see what you're saying about how the small landowners would also benefit from anti-collusion and anti-trust laws, but Rand's bottom line is that there should be no regulation whatsoever (as any form of it is a figurative gun to the head). So you can see that in this case, obviously, some form of regulation is the only way to counter the greed.

I know the world isn't back and white. But this is how Rand depicts her world in order to make her point (which is actually kind of extremist), and so I'm just using this novel as a counterargument. I think it works well because it shows the other side of the coin: the honest laborers who can never make it in this world because they can't ever get a fair shake. Because I think that's really what the outcome of Rand's world would be.

message 8: by Lisa (last edited Jun 04, 2012 06:43AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Wain "Rand's bottom line is that there should be no regulation whatsoever"

I would love to think that the world could function without regulation. The regulators didn't help the Joad's out too much, in fact they were the largest part of the problem. Increasingly it is being proven that the governments of the world cannot be trusted to make intelligent decisions and I believe we should all be striving as individuals to regulate our own lives and be rid of any sort of dependency on government.

I also don't believe that all honest laborers have the ability (or the want) to "make it" in the business world. Horses for courses so to speak. I know a lot of people who are very happy to go to work each day, collect their pay at the end of the week, enjoy paid holiday and sick leave and have every weekend off. Employers/Business owners don't always get such luxuries, and when they do it is usually after many years of blood, sweat and tears not to mention lower pay then their employees so they can pay mortgages and the added stress of a number of people depending on them to feed their families.

Business owners are a minority group, considering the number of employees, so it is easy for the "regulators" to swing the benefits toward the employees in a lot of cases. We all have rights, and that includes business owners, who are generally at work well before anyone else turns up and are still there when everyone else has long gone home. They generally pay a lot more taxes and (in Australia) act as collection agencies for the government as well.

I think if the honest laborers in this (western) world had the courage to take the risk and give it a go, they would soon find out that being the owner of the business is not all as glamorous as it looks from the other side of the coin, and they just might find out that they too can make it in this world if they were willing to put in the 10,15,20 years it takes to build a successful business that everyone else can be jealous of.

Again, as you highlighted, it is when success turns into greed that becomes the problem, but I believe that social responsibility is a growing trend with the big corporations, as it certainly has always been at the small to medium end of the scale.

Thanks for the discussion. As you can probably tell, I am a bit of an Ayn Rand fan. There are not too many people out there willing to argue for the other side.

P.S The real solution would be if we all owned a few acres and grew our own meat and vegetables to feed our families, the only work you needed to do would be on your own property and whatever was needed to stay alive and healthy, back to the way the Joad's lived before being pushed off their farm. Alas, I think you would still find that some landowners would thrive while others failed and starved.

Jason Oh, yes, I can tell you are a fan. :) And I appreciate the discussion as well. It's just that I don't think we will ever see eye-to-eye on this particular point:
"Increasingly it is being proven that the governments of the world cannot be trusted to make intelligent decisions and I believe we should all be striving as individuals to regulate our own lives and be rid of any sort of dependency on government."
I always fail to understand how having no regulation is inherently better than fixing broken regulation or some form thereof. To me, the response to "this solution isn't working" should never be "so let's get rid of the solution altogether." That first sentence of yours is the scariest because I feel it's too idealistic. I'd love to think a lot of things would/should/could happen, but it doesn't mean that they will just by wanting it to. And I think the point of TGOW is that there were no regulators, so I don't know what you mean about their being a part of the problem. To me it was the lack of regulation that led to collusion and lower wages, unemployment, loss of business, etc. Not the other way around.

Also, I think the idea that corporations can and should govern themselves (you allude to social responsibility being a growing trend) is frightening, too. I think it puts too much power and freedom at the fingertips of those most susceptible to the allure of greed. It's like dangling a cupcake in front of a fat kid and trusting him not to grab it when you aren't looking.

message 10: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Wain I just had a great rebuttal typed out...with so many good points....but there was an error when I went to post it....DARN IT! I should have copied it before posting :(

Jason Ack! I hate when that happens. GR can be so frustrating.

message 12: by Julio (new)

Julio Thanks for your review of the book and your comments on Ayn Rand's main novel, I definitely agree with your view point, it takes work to reach such conclusions though; she had a great intellect and her philosophy, Objectivism, is highly persuasive for many.

message 13: by Jenn (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jenn I really liked Grapes of Wrath and enjoyed reading your review. It makes me want to read Atlas Shrugged--I've been avoiding it because I know it will probably piss me off.

Jason I think I read it because I knew it would piss me off. It was interesting to read the opinions of a woman who some claim to be their moral/philosophical hero, and it was cathartic to hate it as much as I did.

Thanks for the like!

Jonathan Terrington My question has always been what if I don't buy into left or right wing thinking...

By the way love the review of this.

Jason Jonathan wrote: "My question has always been what if I don't buy into left or right wing thinking...

By the way love the review of this."

Thank you, Jonathan!

And for the record, I think one could equally enjoy this book even without being a left-thinking liberal. The book itself is well written with strong characters. Can't go wrong.

Lorinda I refuse to think politically about this book and just enjoy it for the lovely story it is.

message 18: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex You know who else would call the Joads moochers? Mitt Romney. These are the 47%!

Jason Bingo!

message 20: by Sean Michael (last edited Nov 15, 2013 10:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sean Michael I read Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead 10 or 15 years ago, and absolutely loved both of them. At the same time, I disagreed fundamentally with some of Rand's ideas, and the flaws in her thinking seemed very apparent to me. I do think both of those novels are perfect companions to The Grapes of Wrath, in their ability to stimulate intelligent thought and conversation on these two very different ideas of the role of government in our lives.

Personally, I find it hard to understand how some can read The Grapes of Wrath, and not recognize the importance of unions and government regulation in our society. Of course, unions can get out of control, and they need to be tempered, and government regulation should be wise and not over-arching. But it seems evident that they've played an essential role, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Jason But it seems evident that they've played an essential role, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

It might not be true for all job types but certainly you're right—people should be able to see the importance of unions and gov't regulation for keeping corporate greed and corruption in check.

Thanks for your comment, Sean!

message 22: by LeAnne (new)

LeAnne I think that both books - Grapes & Atlas - describe both ends of the human spectrum. Atlas points out the failure of those at the top to be fair, taking advantage of their lofty positions. Grapes points out the importance of having some regulations to protect the workers at the bottom. In both situations, people were taken advantage of. However, it's important not to allow any advantage to go too far. During the Depression they badly needed some unions to help workers. Over the years, things should have leveled off but human nature being what it is, things were carried too far, causing damage in other ways. Both books make valid points, I think.

message 23: by Peter (new) - added it

Peter You just convinced that I should reread both books. "Classics" by definition never date! Thanks for this review Jason.

Jason Cool. Thanks, Peter!

message 25: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa How can you come from this book still so one-sided? Steinbeck showed the fears of ALL the people on BOTH sides of issues. I was torn, seeing no solution. As a small-business owner, I can relate to the problems of hiring and the strangling regulations, but as a human I feel something must be done for hurting people. My own conclusion: I realize that good intentions drive each philosophy, whether free market (my long-standing preference) or socialistic, but each is only a theory with inherent ill consequences. As long as we're dealing with a bent human nature, people will screw up any good strategy. So there, I'm officially done with government, you people do what you want. I loved the book.

Jason I'm glad you got something out of it.

Sharon Lorinda wrote: "I refuse to think politically about this book and just enjoy it for the lovely story it is."

I agree. I feel the same way. I just finished reading it, my first time reading it in fact. There are so many metaphors and symbolism, that's what I like to think about.

Sharon One of the main themes I took from this book is the way the Joad's never thought to ask for help or assistance from Uncle Sam. And in this era of entitlements, and this "me first" generation, this was striking. This book should be read by every American, and by everyone who wants to come to America. Then I would ask, you think you have it bad.

message 29: by LeAnne (new)

LeAnne Sharon wrote: "One of the main themes I took from this book is the way the Joad's never thought to ask for help or assistance from Uncle Sam. And in this era of entitlements, and this "me first" generation, this ..."

That was a brilliant deduction on your part. I'm surprised no one else noticed it. I wonder if "Grapes of Wrath" is still read and taught in schools now. There is so much to learn from the book and those times. Recent generations are being shortchanged if they don't learn what has come before and how easily it can be again.

message 30: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Millennial here who read "Grapes of Wrath" in high school. The attempt to alienate my generation for thematic purposes contradicts a huge theme in this book, which is demonstrated in the final image - humans, even with nothing left, will provide for their own.

Please don't drag us through the dirt to make a point about entitlements. The most prominent "entitlement" in this country is social security, which I have paid into and will continue to do so even though the funds will be completely sucked dry by baby boomers. Social security was created because of the Great Depression. See the irony there?

I don't think Steinbeck wanted us to look at the Joads and think "man, they are SO GOOD at being poor!" I found it disturbing that they didn't think they deserved any more than to survive, and even that was not guaranteed. How did it get to that point? I also don't think he wrote the book to show readers this is as bad as it will ever get, so they can't complain. If you want to use "Grapes of Wrath" as a litmus test for human suffering, you're missing the point.

message 31: by Lis (new)

Lis Aubertin I am even more disturbed about the future for the American as well as other countries labor force - with even less jobs and most of those requiring advanced educations (in the US at a higb price) - will the few carry the many?? As far as exploitation it is still going strong although thereare fortunate exceptions even among the filthy rich...

message 32: by Deltron (new)

Deltron 303o "If only they had the protection of government legislation to prohibit wealthy landowners from colluding to keep prices high and wages low!" sounds really familiar right now as Trump raises the tax rate on middle class families and net neutrality is coming to an end... 12.6.17

message 33: by Lis (new)

Lis Aubertin The whole book is so relevant to today’s labor issues. No easy answers with a corrosion of low tech jobs, cheap competion etc.
The engaged, sensitive writing is illuminating - you are right there!

Michael Carlson Dude...you'll probably never read this but I applaud your structure of this particular review. At first I wondered if you were writing a book summary or a personal review. The language you use, the comparisons you make and the truths that you recognize in this colossal work is encouraging, I have never read Atlas Shrugged so I have no comment on that. For someone who creates their own fiction, I can always appreciate a man that uses direct statements and a confidence in 'fighting the good fight'. respect brother.

Jason I'm reading it now, and thanks!!

message 36: by Vincent (new) - added it

Vincent Ménard Great review

Ravneet Kaur I just finished reading the book and your review just captured all of my feelings. Thanks for writing the review!

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