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Conflict in The Grapes of Wrath: Internal, Class & Man vs. Man

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the various types of conflict that drive the plot of 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck. It is a novel about overcoming obstacles during the Great Depression.

Conflict in The Grapes of Wrath

Whether it's Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader or Scrat versus an acorn, conflict is an important part of any good story. Conflict is the struggle between two opposing ideas, feelings, or people, which drives the plot of a novel or movie. Conflict can be internal, with another person, or with society as a whole. In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the characters face a variety of conflicts as they are forced from their homes and travel across the country to California in hopes of finding success as migrant farmers during the Great Depression. Let's look at some of the examples of conflict from this novel.

Man Versus Self

When we are first introduced to Jim Casy, the former preacher, we learn that he has been facing an internal struggle. He enjoyed being a preacher and was pretty good at it, but he felt like a hypocrite. Casy said, '. . .I'd baptize to bring 'em to. An' then - you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time.' After spending some time on his own, Casy realizes that he is sure the Holy Spirit exists, but is less sure that it is tied to Jesus. He argues with himself about his beliefs, then decides it is best to leave the church.

Tom Joad is another character that struggles internally. He has just gotten out of prison on parole for killing a man in self-defense. As part of his parole, he is not allowed to leave the state. When he realizes that his whole family is leaving and that there is nothing left for him in Oklahoma, he decides to break his parole even if it could mean more time in prison. Tom ends up deciding that the right thing to do is to stay with his family and try to stay out of trouble.

Tom finds that hard to do when Jim Casy is killed. Tom realizes that Casy's ideas about unifying the workers are right. However, the police and the landowners will not like it. Tom explains to Ma, 'I been thinkin' a hell of a lot, thinkin' about our people livin' like pigs, an' the good rich lan' layin' fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd thousan' good farmers is starvin'. An' I been wonderin' if all our folks got together an' yelled, like them fellas yelled, only a few of 'em. . .' Even though it could mean trouble, Tom decides it is worth it.

Man Versus Society

Another big struggle from this novel is tied to social class. During the Great Depression, the wealthy thrived off of the backs of the desperate working man. This struggle is first seen when the bank uses tractors to move sharecroppers off the land. The people realize, 'We can't depend on it. The bank - the monster has to have profits all the time. . . When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size.' The bank displaces thousands of sharecroppers because there is a higher profit using tractors.

The same struggle with class occurs with the wealthy landowners in California. The narrator explains how removed the owners are from the plight of the working class. They blamed the economy on labor unions and higher taxes rather that realizing that a million hungry people were the reason that unions and taxes were needed. The narrator concludes that 'the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.' '

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