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The Grapes of Wrath is a protest against the ill-treatment of the migrants in California. It has often been considered as a political novel; it is not, however, proletarian in the ordinary sense of the term. Steinbeck makes no claims that the laborers are always good and always right. Even while he is condemning the exploitation of the laborers, he is also concerned with their moral improvement. He does not approve of any form of extreme radicalism that violates the dignity of human beings. Steinbeck's main point is that the workers must also reform their views if there is to be any real change.
Steinbeck makes a serious inquiry into the eternal problems of humankind--the nature of the divine, the individual's relationship with that divinity, and the results that follow from them. He examines various concepts of God and finds them all wanting, in one respect or another, and finally decides that the most valid concept of the divine is one that closely approximates the Emersonian ideal of the Oversoul. This concept is not stated explicitly, because Steinbeck is writing a novel and not a metaphysical tract. Steinbeck finds religious institutions harmful, an anthropomorphic god unsatisfactory, evangelism evil, and pantheism leaving something to be desired.
Steinbeck stresses the evolutionary idea that humanity must adapt to the changing conditions, no matter what those conditions are. Those who cannot adapt, such as Grampa and Granma, cannot survive. Pa, who lives in the past, relinquishes his titular position in the family to Ma, who has the strength to adapt herself to the new circumstances.
Steinbeck asks the meaning of ownership in the novel. The owners and the tenants reveal two conflicting views about the land. The tenants adopt the ideas of Jeffersonian agrarianism, which involves the belief that landed property held in freehold must be available to everyone. The Jeffersonians believed that a man could claim ownership of the land he occupied and cultivated by virtue of a natural right. The absentee landlords do not occupy the land and only have legal ownership of the land. For the tenants, land is a vital part of their existence. For the landlords, it is only an investment, which yields profits. In the later section of the novel, Steinbeck contrasts the Hoovervilles established on the outskirts of each town with the vast tracts of land that lie unused in the West. The owners of these estates are fearful that the migrants may encroach on their property. The theme of people's relationship to land is a crucial one. Tied to the theme of land ownership, Steinbeck depicts that the individual is increasingly at the mercy of the vast anonymous forces of capitalism and a market economy, which cannot be identified because they are faceless, mindless, and heartless. They are the faceless tractor drivers who do not "feel" the land. They are the banks that direct businesses because they possess the money. They are the large landowners who sometimes never see their farms.
THE MEANING OF THE TITLE
Steinbeck uses the grapes as symbols of plenty. The grapes correspond to the cluster of grapes which Joshua and Oshea bring back from their first trip into the rich land of Canaan. Grampa alludes to this meaning of the grapes when he says that he is going to sit in a tub full of grapes in California. Steinbeck's title also corresponds to Julia Ward Howe's song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862) from which Steinbeck took his title. In his novel, however, the grapes symbolize both plenty and renewal, and bitterness and wrath. The latter meaning alludes to Revelation XIV which states that those who "worship the beast and his image" will "drink of the wine of the wrath of God." It further says that "the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God." In the novel, the migrants grow angry at the deplorable conditions in California, and Steinbeck uses Biblical parallels to depict this. The Biblical parallels also suggest that the migrants are acting as the agents of God's wrath and judgment and that their triumph is inevitable.