Are You Smarter Than a Joad?

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..."I like to hear some more 'bout this," Pa said.

"Me too," Tom added. "Why these folks out west hate ya?"

The man looked sharply at Tom. "You jus' goin' wes?"

"Jus' on our way."

"You ain't never been in California?"

"No, we ain't."

"Well, don' take my word. Go see for yourself."

"Yeah," Tom said, "but a fella kind a likes to know what he's getting' into."...

-The Grapes of Wrath p. 205


Although it may be rude to state, throughout my reading of The Grapes of Wrath, I have always held the idea in the back of my mind that they Joads were an unintelligent bunch. I understand that Steinbeck created his characters to speak in a dialect that would be characteristic of how farmers and laborers from Oklahoma during this time period would speak, but I have to say, it has left me with feelings towards the Joads that may very well be undeserving.

Having learned in past history classes about the conditions and realities of California in the 1930's, I had some idea of what was waiting for the Joads once they completed their journey. I found myself thinking back to this knowledge while reading and wondering why the Joads were still making this journey - when they may only face more hardship and heartbreak when they made it to their destination.

At the time, there was a rush of people to California. Rumors were circulating about the incredible life that could be found there, but in reality - very few people reached success in California. Life in Oklahoma may have been hard, but had the Joads not done any real research before leaving on their journey?

The men they met at the river, who were coming back from being unsuccessful in California, brought up a very important point. Once the men explain that they are returning home, Pa asks if they can make a living in Panhandle, near Pampa. One of the men replies...

"Nope. But at leas' we can starve to death with folks we know. Won't have a bunch of fellas that hate us to starve with."

I feel that this should have been a wake up call to the Joads. If it wasn't, the negative description of the conditions of California should have been...

"She's a nice country. But she was stole a long time ago."..."But you can't have none of that lan'."..."You go in there an' plant you a little con, an' you'll go to jail!"

Later in the chapter 18, it is revealed to Tom that he won't be able to get work in California. He will have to fight for food everyday. But, the Joads disregard these warnings, and continue to California. The stories the family hears from these men serve as an incredible amount of foreshadowing of the things to come. Now while I can not be sure of the life they will really meet in California, to this point, I can only say that their future there looks dim.

If I had been in this situation, I can say I would have taken the advice of the men as advice to adhere to. This situation and the previous conversations only add to my feelings of the low intelligence of the Joads. While life at home may have been hard, facing a challenge completely unprepared is also not very wise at all. Maybe I am just overly cautious, and again I have not finished The Grapes of Wrath yet, so I can not be sure, but I think if the Joads had taken the time to intelligently think about their actions, and the words of their peers, they may have made a different decision regarding California living.


Thoughts From Other Students on The Grapes of Wrath


I understand what you're saying about why wouldn't they listen to these people telling them all the bad things about California (because not one person said anything good about the place and trying to find work). But maybe they wanted to experience it for themselves. See if they could make a new life and have a different outcome than everyone they met along the way. I think they have confidence in themselves that they will get better than everyone else that has said they can't find work.

I see what you're saying as well, because why woudld they want to waste all their food, money, life to go out there just to be turned around ? but really if you think about it they have nothing to lose. Unlike the guys heading home that they meet, they don't have 'homes' to go back to, he even says that, the monsters took them away.
I think it's part that they had nothing to lose, and part that they just wanted to prove everyone wrong by pushing by and make everyone envy them for being the people to make it and actually become successful there.

You make a good point, Rosalind. I hope when you do finish the novel you'll come back and add your thoughts.

If the characters in the story had made different decisions along the way, we wouldn't have this story. Steinbeck is telling a story about people who are so desperate they head to California despite all the warnings.

It's an open question as to whether the Joads are believable as psychologically fleshed-out characters, but do they work as archetypes? Do we doubt that the migrants, in general, are intelligent (from what we see in the chapters that have a social, general focus)? Or is it just when we follow the specific story of the Joads that the doubts start to affect our response to the story?

Christopher Dufalla said:

I see what you're saying Rosalind, but I also see Angela's points. The Joads, while they may not be the brightest bulbs in the box, they have nothing to lose, but they don't have anything to go back to if/when they lose. It's a sort of Catch 22: stay and die on the lands that they were run off of or try and work and perhaps die in the process out in California.

Another thing that I think that Steinbeck could be getting at is that idea of difference. How many times do we hear about something and think about how that something will be different for us? Whether it's a test that's not as hard, or a personal tragedy, or perhaps a car accident, people will say "oh, it will be different for me". The test will be easy or 'I won't ever wreck like that'. We tend to think "it will be different for me". Perhaps this is an idea that Steinbeck is getting at and pushing.

Rosalind Blair said:

It is true that if Steinbeck had not created the journey of the Joads, there would not be anything here to discuss. I really had not even considered this, Dr. Jerz. I was just focussing on the story itself and not what Steinbeck wanted us to learn and experience through his writing. And Angela, I agree that they did not have anything to lose by going to California, I guess it is just my cautious nature to view it as a huge risk. I guess because I have never been put in a situation where I was left with nothing, I was quick to judge their actions. Chris, good point about Steinbeck introducing the concept of difference. It could be that the Joads thought life in California could be different for them. Maybe they thought they were more prepared, or harder workers. It could be they felt the possessed the character traits to make them more successful in their journey.

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