The Choice of a Lifetime - Literally

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Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath embodies the hardship and suffering that epitomized life in the American Dust Bowl through broad descriptions of what many Americans faced as well as the specific hardships of the Joads. Steinbeck uses alternating chapters of general depictions of poverty and homelessness, "In the little houses the tenant people sifted their belongings and the belongings of their fathers and of their grandfathers. Picked over their possessions for the journey to the west," (Steinbeck 86) with chapters that focus entirely on the Joads' struggle to survive in this period of change and migration, "'Well, they been choppin' cotton, all of 'em, even the kids an' your grampa. Gettin' money together so they can shove on west" (Steinbeck 46). His descriptions offer both details of the harsh weather and heat as well as the emotional stress that results from deserting land that has been a part of each family for generations. It is through these poignant moments that the reader is able to connect on a personal level with the adversity facing Steinbeck's characters. Tommy Joad's mother burns her box of memories containing "letters, clippings, photographs, a pair of earrings, a little gold signet ring, and a watch chain braided with hair and tipped with gold swivels" (Steinbeck 108) while Tommy Joad's grandfather refuses to abandon his past and must be drugged in order to get him in the truck.

As tenant farmers are kicked off their land and replaced by "easy and efficient" (Steinbeck 115) tractors, they must forsake not only their own memories and past experiences, but a legacy of generations of farmers who have "touched the seed, or lusted for the growth" (Steinbeck 36). Muley, Steinbeck's character who refuses to move west, is reduced to sleeping in caves and living like a savage. Tommy remarks that Muley "wasn't never no run-an'-hide fella" (Steinbeck 57), but now Muley refuses to confront the man and car sent to investigate the cooking fire. In many ways, Muley is Steinbeck's "black sheep" who refuses to abide by the social and economic expectations in which tenant farmers in the mid-west find themselves. His family moves to California, he either refuses to or fails to find work in a town, and he wanders the country-side alone and forgotten. Muley's most pathetic trait is that he realizes he is "'jus' wanderin' aroun' like a damn ol' graveyard ghos'" (Steinbeck 51). He has nothing to live for but his memories, and even those have left him hollow. Steinbeck, therefore, leaves his audience with the harsh reality that during the 1930's families could either remain on their land becoming helpless and lifeless or leave behind generations of memories and hopes for a chance, however slim, at creating a new life for themselves.


Justin Iellimo said:

I find it interesting what few options the characters are given in this situation. You can pack up and try to establish new roots in California, although that road is filled with uncertainty. Or, you can sell out, like Davis the tractor driver and Willy the new sheriff, and work for the corporation. This option does have some repercussions in that your old neighbors may lose all respect for you and want to injure you. The final option is to be a sort of renegade, like Muley. However, it is interesting how Steinbeck portraits Muley as almost neurotic. It is easy to see how trying to stand up to the mass has effected Muley in a very negative way.

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