In The Grapes of Wrath, the most brutal adversity the Joads face doesn’t come from the unforgiving natural conditions of the dustbowl. Rather, the Joads and the Okie community receive the cruelest treatment from those most capable of helping them: more fortunate individuals, typically ones who wield institutional power. Throughout the book, establishments and technological advances are shown to corrupt the humans behind them. Steinbeck’s depiction of the state police shows that they’ve been perverted by their authority: in the first Hooverville the Joads occupy, an exploitative contractor comes to recruit Okies for dirt-cheap labor, and the deputies that accompany him level blatantly false accusations of theft against Floyd Knowles, Tom, and anyone else who dares to protest.
Similarly, the banks are beyond the control of the men that work for them, and like the industrial farms, they expand unchecked, without regard for human life. As the banks and farms grow and grow, their owners stoop lower and lower in order to increase their profits. Some California farms even go so far as destroying perfectly good food in order to keep prices high, all while starving migrants clamor for food and jobs. Steinbeck describes the modern men of industry as mechanized, unnatural beings who live detached from the land and in so doing have become dehumanized, unlike the farming families they displace. This hostility is contagious—even small business owners fear and resent the Okies, and local Californians form militias to intimidate the desperate migrants.
At the same time, Steinbeck occasionally shows glimpses of humanity, especially in the most wretched characters. These acts often come when a character breaks the rules of an oppressive system, which further reinforces Steinbeck’s point that institutions tend to be dehumanizing and morally toxic. After she is extorted at a farm company store, Ma Joad observes that “if you're in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help—the only ones.” The poorest characters are often the most generous, and the richest the most selfish. Because most Okies can barely support themselves, let alone help others, every instance of altruism becomes a powerful moment in the text. Rosasharn’s breastfeeding of the starving man in the book’s final scene serves as the definitive example of the selfless altruism of the poor.
Humanity, Inhumanity, and Dehumanization ThemeTracker
Humanity, Inhumanity, and Dehumanization Quotes in The Grapes of Wrath
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.
“I says, ‘Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin’ the hell out of ourselves for nothin’.’…Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.’”
“maybe it's all men an’ all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.
“I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus…But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff…Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’ figure what I was prayin’ to or for. There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.”
To California or any place—every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day—the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they'll all walk together, and there'll be a dead terror from it.
“It ain't kin we? It's will we?” …As far as ‘kin,’ we can’t do nothin’, not go to California or nothin’; but as far as ‘will,’ why, we’ll do what we will. An’ as far as ‘will’—it’s a long time our folks been here and east before, an' I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They’s been mean Joads, but never that mean.”
That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself.
The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.
Fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.
Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other…the danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.
“It don't make no sense. This fella wants eight hundred men. So he prints up five thousand of them things an' maybe twenty thousan' people sees 'em. An' maybe two-three thousan' folks gets movin' account a this here han'bill. Folks that's crazy with worry.”
At first the families were timid in the building and tumbling worlds, but gradually the technique of building worlds became their technique. Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being. And as the worlds moved westward they were more complete and better furnished, for their builders were more experienced in building them.
“They's a time of change, an' when that comes, dyin' is a piece of all dyin', and bearin' is a piece of all bearin', an bearin' an' dyin' is two pieces of the same thing. An' then things ain't lonely any more. An' then a hurt don't hurt so bad, cause it ain't a lonely hurt no more, Rosasharn. I wisht I could tell you so you'd know, but I can't.”
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line.
“Well, sir, Hines says, 'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!' Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a- bitch, but if that's what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'”
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
“But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn' think I was even listenin'. But I know now a fella ain't no good alone.”
“Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk. Don' even know if you was a boy or a girl. Ain't gonna find out. Go on down now, an' lay in the street. Maybe they'll know then.”