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When the founding fathers of the United States were shaping the nation's future, they opted for capitalism as the prevailing economic system. Capitalism, defined by the ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of labor for profit, was deemed the ideal choice. However, the Marxist theory of criticism challenges this capitalist framework, highlighting its inherent flaws and inequalities. In John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath," the author undertakes a critical examination of capitalism and reveals his own beliefs about its shortcomings.
This essay will explore how Steinbeck employs Marxist critique to dissect the economic and societal system prevalent in the novel, ultimately arguing that capitalism is fundamentally flawed.
Steinbeck initiates his critique of capitalism by portraying a society divided into distinct classes with a middle class caught in between. The novel opens with Tom Joad attempting to hitch a ride with a truck driver who displays a "No Riders" sign. Tom engages the driver in a moral quandary, stating, "sometimes a guy'll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.
..the driver considered the parts of this answer. If he refused now, not only was he not a good guy, but he was forced to carry a sticker, was not allowed to have company" (7). This interaction highlights the conflict faced by individuals compelled to uphold the interests of the wealthy elite. Tom endeavors to convince the driver that being a "good guy" should not require compromising one's principles for the benefit of a "rich bastard.
" Steinbeck underscores the corrupting influence of power, illustrating how those with authority tend to exploit others for their selfish gain.
This theme is further exemplified in the novel when a character from the intercalary chapters remarks on the dominance of greed in the upper class, remarking, "You go steal a tire and you're a thief, but he tried to steal your four dollars for a busted tire. They call it business" (81). Steinbeck exposes the unethical practices of the upper class, portraying them as opportunists who prey on individuals striving to make ends meet. The term "business" is used to camouflage their exploitation, reflecting the moral decay caused by unchecked capitalism. Steinbeck underscores how greed permeates society, creating stark class divisions that perpetuate inequality.
Steinbeck holds the upper class accountable for the dire circumstances in which the lower class finds itself. In one instance, Uncle John and Pa search for employment and engage in a conversation with other workers. The workers express their frustration, lamenting, "You can't feed your fam'ly on just twenty cents an hour, but you'll take anything. They jes' auction off a job...pretty soon they're gonna make us pay to work" (352). The upper class manipulates the basic needs of the lower class—food, shelter, and employment—to exert control and dominance. This manipulation forces the lower class into submission, effectively dictating their every action. Steinbeck underscores the upper class's exploitation of the lower class's fundamental needs, highlighting the power imbalance that prevails in society.
Steinbeck's narrative assigns blame for the extreme suffering of the lower class to the upper class. He portrays the upper class as manipulative and ruthless, willing to sacrifice the well-being of the less fortunate for personal gain. Steinbeck's portrayal of banks and companies as insatiable monsters reinforces this view. He writes, "The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster...they were men and slaves, while the banks and machines were masters all the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to suck cold and powerful masters" (32). The metaphor of banks and companies as monsters that consume profits and interest on money underscores their insatiable appetite for wealth. These entities demand sustenance from the weaker members of society, reflecting the imbalance of power inherent in capitalism. Steinbeck contends that the upper class exploits and subjugates the lower class to serve their own interests.
Steinbeck introduces the concept of an alternative societal structure in Weedpatch, offering a glimpse of what he believes a fairer system might resemble. In Weedpatch, the Joads and other families unite in a camp where they observe a notable change in the atmosphere. Steinbeck writes, "There grew up a government in the worlds a Man who was wise found that his wisdom was needed in every camp; a man who was a fool could not change his folly with this world" (197). The establishment of a self-governing community within the camp suggests a departure from the rigid class divisions perpetuated by capitalism. This shift reflects a more socialist perspective, challenging the capitalist norms of labeling individuals and their families based on their circumstances.
Steinbeck's portrayal of the families uniting in Weedpatch signifies a move toward socialism, countering the capitalist system that thrives on individualism and the pursuit of personal wealth. The families working together suggest that more can be accomplished when people shed pettiness and greed. Steinbeck emphasizes the benefits of a society where individuals collaborate and make decisions collectively, rather than relying on a higher authority. This shift toward socialism in Weedpatch represents an alternative to the capitalist system.
John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" serves as a critical exploration of capitalism, revealing its inherent flaws and inequities. Through the lens of Marxist theory, Steinbeck dissects the economic and societal systems depicted in the novel, ultimately concluding that capitalism is fundamentally flawed. He illustrates how capitalism perpetuates class divisions, encourages exploitation, and allows the upper class to wield unchecked power over the lower class. Steinbeck envisions an alternative in Weedpatch—a self-governing community that reflects more socialist values, challenging the capitalist norms that breed inequality and greed.
Steinbeck's critique of capitalism reverberates through the pages of "The Grapes of Wrath," inviting readers to consider the consequences of an economic system that prioritizes profit over humanity. While the novel is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, its message remains relevant in the context of contemporary society. While capitalism has evolved since the era depicted in the novel, it is essential to recognize that the core issues raised by Steinbeck—such as income inequality, exploitation of labor, and the unchecked power of corporations—still persist in various forms.
As we navigate the complexities of our modern economic landscape, Steinbeck's Marxist critique of capitalism encourages us to remain vigilant and question the prevailing economic systems. It prompts us to reflect on whether the pursuit of profit should always take precedence over the well-being and dignity of individuals. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, "The Grapes of Wrath" challenges us to strive for a more equitable and just society that values the collective welfare of its members over the relentless pursuit of wealth. As we move forward, we must continue to engage in meaningful discussions about the role of capitalism in our lives, keeping in mind the lessons learned from Steinbeck's timeless exploration of these issues.
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