How the relationship Steinbeck creates between readers and outsiders reinforces the meaning of the novel as a whole.
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Man’s Inhumanity to Man
Steinbeck consistently and woefully points to the fact that the migrants’ great suffering is caused not by bad weather or mere misfortune but by their fellow human beings. Historical, social, and economic circumstances separate people into rich and poor, landowner and tenant, and the people in the dominant roles struggle viciously to preserve their positions. In his brief history of California in Chapter 19, Steinbeck portrays the state as the product of land-hungry squatters who took the land from Mexicans and, by working it and making it produce, rendered it their own. Now, generations later, the California landowners see this historical example as a threat, since they believe that the influx of migrant farmers might cause history to repeat itself. In order to protect themselves from such danger, the landowners create a system in which the migrants are treated like animals, shuffled from one filthy roadside camp to the next, denied livable wages, and forced to turn against their brethren simply to survive. The novel draws a simple line through the population—one that divides the privileged from the poor—and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.
We learn much about racism in 1930s America throughout the novel, and we are reminded that we are exposed to one perspective on life during this time: that of a poor, white family of Oklahoman farmers. While the novel spends the majority of its time studying the Joads, we know that thousands of other families have been affected by the Dust Bowl, and we know that the Joad experience cannot be completely representative of all other families' experiences.
Racial epithets are rampant in the world of this novel, and we hear stories about how ancestors of tenant farmers violently stole land from Native Americans. In trying to defend his land from being taken by the landowners, one tenant farmer argues, "Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away" (5.19), hoping to convince the landowners to let him keep his land. When the landowners do not listen to him, the tenant farmer grows more and more enraged, and says, "Maybe we can kill banks – they're worse than Indians and snakes" (5. 25). Not only does this remind us of another group of people who were kicked off the same land, but in this language, we hear the hot coals of hate and of violence.
We also know that Grampa Joad has been no stranger to racist acts. Tom Joad describes the "time Grampa an' another fella whanged into a bunch a Navajo in the night. They was havin' the time a their life, an' same time you wouldn' give a gopher for their chance" (18.87). Through this novel, we're reminded indirectly of the bloody way in which Native Americans were killed and driven from their lands. Now in this story we watch the Joads and other farming families fight over and eventually lose the same land.
There are moments when we also recall the hate-filled racism that afflicted America following the Civil War. The guards who patrol the fields in California, looking for migrant workers trespassing on the land (trying to grow food), comment, "Why, Jesus, they're as dangerous as ******* in the South! If they ever get together there ain't nothin' that'll stop 'em" (19.43). In this horrific language, we hear and see a cross-section of America's struggle with racism, hate, and intolerance. Check out Shmoop History's "Jim Crow in America" for a detailed exploration of this dark chapter in American history.
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