I read in a literary journal that in writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck was not interested in presenting a cure to the plight of the Okies. This I disagree with. Although it is clear the author has no political or tangible answer, he does provide one. The purpose of this narrative of social commentary is meant to evoke compassion in the reader. That it most certainly achieves. Compassion is a motivator of action. The novel itself pulses with action, inviting the reader to invest in the pages and thus invest in the life of the Joad family, who represents a whole generation of displaced Oklahomans. The Grapes of Wrath is full of tangible disappoints – the arrival of the Joads to California, only to discover the work they were promised is rare and hardly sustainable; the disappointed of several family members; the death of both the old and the young due to dehydration and malnutrition; and the contempt that the landowners held for the newcomers.
All this is told in both a focused and vast scope. Steinbeck switches from the Joad family narrative to vignettes of California scenery and highway people. This is effective in evoking the era, however, it often makes the novel feel somewhat too vast. Unlike in East of Eden where Steinbeck follows Adam Trask from birth to death, we as readers are dropped into the lives of the Joads with little explanation. This, at times, makes the Joads seem like a symbol of an era rather than individuals. As Ana Siljak highlights in her article “D.B. Hart’s Inquisitor” – one cannot take truly love if they do not know relate on a personal and individual level. Loving humanity collectively is not loving a human. In East of Eden, we grow to love Adam Trask, in The Grapes of Wrath Tom Joad, Ma, Pa, Al, and Rose of Sharon, remain distant to us. We recoil at their suffering and are horrified but we never truly know them.
This is perhaps the greatest flaw of the novel and perhaps the point. While it does evoke compassion, it is hard to truly care about a cause when the characters remain distant to us. However, Steinbeck, in their lack of characterization, may be emphasizing that it does not matter who they are, that they are suffering terribly still matters. This, however, seems unlikely. The Joads are an allegory, a reminder surely, that such a nationwide catastrophe and lack of human sensitivity should never happen again. This is evidenced in Rose of Sharon’s last act in the novel. After giving birth to a still born child, she nurses a boy dying of malnutrition from her still full breasts. Steinbeck, if one had not caught the drift earlier in the novel, is clearly displaying the thirst for the milk of human kindness all the wretched have. Thus, inviting the reader to do the same.