Capitalism in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Criticism

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we will understand how John Steinbeck depicts capitalism in ''The Grapes of Wrath.'' We will also learn why he was critical of capitalism and ways in which his characters fight against it.

What's Going on in The Grapes of Wrath?

John Steinbeck works with a lot of different themes in this novel, but the issue of poverty and how capitalism contributes to it, is by far one of the most important aspects of book. The Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939, wreaked havoc on the country. Poverty was boundless, and like many people, farmers in the dust bowl lost their land, homes, and ways of earning money. Steinbeck's novel depicts the experiences of just such farmers, from the loss of their land and bulldozed houses, to a move across country in search of a better way of living and providing for themselves and their families.

In the The Grapes of Wrath, we follow the farming families as they move across Oklahoma to California, and observe them living in various squatter's camps in California, always on the lookout for work and ways to improve their lives because that is what people living under the rules of capitalism must do to survive.

Capitalism: A Trap Against Humanity

Capitalism is dependent upon a free market, wage labor, and privately owned businesses, as opposed to state-owned ones. In The Grapes of Wrath, we see how capitalism costs the Joads their farm when they are unable to produce crops due to the drought. They cannot pay the bank what they owe for their land nor the landlords what they owe for the house and land they lease. Steinbeck is criticizing the economic system that drove farmers to homelessness and extreme poverty. He is also critical of this capitalist economic system because, in addition to destroying farmers, it perpetuates a vicious cycle that neither landowner or tenant can escape:

The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields...The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust… 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. (31)

As we can see here, capitalism functions as a trap against humanity. Both the owners and the tenants are trapped: if farmers do not earn payment for their crops, then they cannot pay their leases, and if leases are not paid, owners are unable to pay what they owe the banks or sustain their own economic situations.

Tenants Were Not the Only Victims

It's worth noting that many land owners did, eventually, also lose their land. A cycle of loss continued, perpetrated by the banks, because it simply became impossible to grow crops during the drought in the dust bowl. Steinbeck was critical of this vicious cycle of capitalism, as we see not only through the narrator's depiction of scenes such as the one above, but also in his characters who deliver speeches that reveal the failings of a capitalist market gone unchecked. For example, in chapter 22, a land owner in California, Mr. Thomas, mocks one of his workers, Timothy, who brings Tom Joad to him to ask for work:

Thomas scowled at at Tom. And then he laughed shortly, and his brows still scowled. ''Oh, sure! I'll put him on. I'll put everybody on. Maybe I'll get a hundred men on.'' ''We jus thought-- '' Timothy began apologetically. Thomas interrupted him, ''Yes, I've been thinkin' too.'' He swung around and faced them. ''I've got some things to tell you. I been paying you thirty cents an hour... And I've been getting thirty cents worth of work... Well, goddamn it, this morning you're getting twenty-five cents an hour, and you can take it or leave it.'' The redness of his face deepened with anger. (294)

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