Grapes of Wrath Essay: Naturalism in The Grapes of
Wrath Grapes Wrath essaysNaturalism in The Grapes of Wrath
In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family and the changing world in which they live is portrayed from a naturalistic point of view. Steinbeck characterizes the Joads and their fellow migrants as simple, instinct-bound creatures who are on an endless search for paradise (Owens 129). The migrants and the powers which force them to make their journey–nature and society–are frequently represented by animals. The Joads, when they initially leave home, are a group of simplistic, animal-like people who barely understand or even realize their plight, but as the story progresses, they begin to grow and adapt to their new circumstances. They evolve from a small, insignificant group of creatures with no societal consciousness into a single member of a much larger family–society.
Steinbeck strongly portrays the Joads and other displaced “Okies” as being animalistic. They often talk about their predicament in simplistic terms that suggest that they are initially not conscious of the circumstances that force them to leave Oklahoma. Muley Graves, for instance, tells Tom Joad and Jim Casy that the rest of the Joads, whose house has been destroyed by a tractor, are “piled in John’s house like gophers in a winter burrow (Steinbeck 47).” This presents the image of a family of animals that have clustered together, hoping to fend off a predator with their greater numbers. They see the societal problems around them in terms of a predator as well; on one occasion, Casy asks a man at a service station, “You ever seen one a them Gila monsters take hold, mister? (Chop him in two) an’ his head hangs on. An’ while he’s layin’ there, poison is drippin’ into the hole he’s made (Steinbeck 132).” This refers to the devastating, unbreakable grip of the socioeconomic forces at work above them (Lisca 96). A particularly important element that represents the migrants on a naturalistic level is the turtle (Lisca 97). Introduced in the first interchapter, the turtle trudges along wearily but steadily on a relentless search for a better place to life. In a similar way, the Joads are constantly on the move. They do not really comprehend why they have to travel, yet they accept it (Owens 131), and are determined to reach the promising paradise of California. Neither the turtle nor its human counterparts will be stopped by any obstacle. When the turtle narrowly avoids being run over by an oncoming truck, it promptly rights itself and continues on its endless journey (Steinbeck 15); likewise, the indomitable Ma Joad (Bloom 117) simply refuses to be intimidated when an angry sheriff interrupts their rest in the middle of the night to warn them that they had better move on. Although the Joads and the migrant people they represent are similar to animals in that they lack a higher awareness of their situation, the simple instinct that they also share with animals gives them a quiet but relentless will to survive.
The societal forces that necessitate and oppose the Joads’ westward migration are also portrayed from a naturalistic viewpoint. Although the Joads have a powerful drive to keep on traveling, they are constantly opposed by two powerful predators–nature and society. The forces of nature are predators, endangering the migrants’ journey at every turn and threatening their will to survive. At the very beginning of the novel, Steinbeck introduces an image that, although seemingly insignificant, sets the naturalistic theme of the entire novel (Owens 131): an ant lion. An ant lion sets off a “small avalanche” of sand or dust from which the ant cannot escape, no matter how hard it tries (131). The relationship between society and the Joads is the same; the widespread economic ruin brought about by the Great Depression forces them to abandon their once-peaceful lives and embark on an endless struggle that seems ultimately futile. The hardship created by nature also makes society the Joads’ natural enemy. Initially, the migrants’ biggest societal enemy is the Bank. Steinbeck portrays the Bank as an inhuman monster (Bloom 22) which coldly devours the Joads’ and other families’ land with its mechanical