John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

An Observation of and Commentary on Migrant Labor

cover of The Grapes of Wrath

Penguin Books

The Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest epic novels in American literature, but what purpose did John Steinbeck have in writing the novel? What meaning did he infuse into the pages of this great American novel? And, does his stated reason for publishing the book still resonate in our contemporary society, with all the ongoing issues of migrant labor?

Steinbeck peeled back the layers to show what human beings were doing to one another through migrant labor was inhumane, and he depicted in graphic detail what an individual can accomplish if and when he sets his mind to it all in the interest of the collective good, in harmony with nature

In short, John Steinbeck explained his purpose in writing The Grapes of Wrath, when he wrote to Herbert Sturtz, in 1953:

You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changers and they were that too but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks.

"Below the belt" usually refers to an unfair tactic, something that is underhanded and/or against the rules. So, what is Steinbeck saying?

Core Messages of The Grapes of Wrath

The message of The Grapes of Wrath is similar in some ways to the message in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. About that book, Sinclair famously wrote, "I aimed for the public's heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach," and like Sinclair, Steinbeck was aiming to improve the plight of the workers—but the end result, for Sinclair, was to bring about wide-reaching change in the food industry while Steinbeck was geared more toward a change that was already happening beforehand.

Perhaps as a result of the popularity of Sinclair's work, the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act was passed four months after the novel was published, but the Fair Labor Standards Act had already been passed in 1938 with Steinbeck's novel following close on the heels of that legislation, when he first published his book in 1939.

While we can't say there was a definite causal effect, Steinbeck was still capturing the injustice of the people during a transitional time in American history. He was also writing about an issue that was a hotly discussed and debated topic at the time of publication as the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act did not put the matter to rest.

The Ongoing Debate on Migrant Labor

In fact, it should also be noted that Steinbeck's social commentary is still valid in today's society, with the ongoing debate on immigration and migrant labor. We can, no doubt, see changes in the way migrant labor is treated (compared to the late 1930s and Depression-era society), but there are still injustices, hardships, and human tragedies.

In a PBS documentary, a Southern farmer said: "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them," though apparently we now provide them with basic human rights like health through The Migrant Health Act of 1962.

But, I say once again that the novel is still very relevant in contemporary society because while the focus of the migrant labor debate has changed and evolved, the controversy around whether they should be allowed to work in new countries and how much they deserve to be paid and how they should be treated continues to this day.