Marxist Literary Criticism of The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn about Marxism and where it originates, Marxist literary criticism, and how we can read John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' through this critical lens.

What is Marxist Criticism?

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath can be read through many critical lenses, but Marxist criticism is by far one of the most common lenses through which to read the novel. This is because Steinbeck's narrative represents the problems a capitalist society creates for working class people. Marxists theory, named for the German philosopher, Karl Marx, who argued that society should live for the good of all, not the individual, examines social economic systems. That is, Marxist theorists ask who possess the power and wealth in a society, and how does this effect the poor and powerless. They argue that there is a lack of balance between the rich and the poor. Literary Marxist critics read text, such as novels and short stories to name a few, to see how authors make a Marxist argument in their work. In this lesson, we will ask how Steinbeck makes a Marxist argument in The Grapes of Wrath.

Material in The Grapes of Wrath

The Have-Nots
Have

One thing we know about Capitalism--an economic system in which the market is controlled by private institutions instead of the government, is that it often places value on a person based on what they own. In the Grapes of Wrath the tenant farmers, though they have worked the land they have inhabited for decades, don't own the property. As such, their value is deemed less than those who do own the property. In fact, a lack of ownership plagues the tenant farmers, like the Joads, throughout the novel. Not only do they have to leave their farms, they have no means of purchasing a home, and though they go to California with the hopes of earning money so they can secure a home, by the end of the novel they are still living in workers' camps. This is especially important to a Marxist critic, as the Joads live in a camp, are homeless, while working for wealthy land owners, such as Hooper ranch owners, who have secured wealth by paying their workers unlivable wages. This relationship between the Joads and the owners is what a Marxist critic would call the socioeconomic relationship between the bourgeoisie--the haves, and the proletariat--the have-nots. So in the Grapes of Wrath the banks and land owners represent the bourgeoisie, and the Joads represent proletariats. For Steinbeck, the bourgeoisie are guilty of inhumanity due to their treatment of the proletariats.

Man v Machine

Tenantless Farm Taken Over by Tractor Farming
Tenantless Farm Taken Over by Tractor Farming

Karl Marx also believed that the machines, such as those in factories, made it impossible for people to feel connected or care for the jobs they worked. For example, if a factory worker oversaw a machine that built one car part instead of the entire car, she was distanced from the final product she was helping to create. In other words, she becomes a cog in the machine. Were she allowed to rotate jobs in such a way that she eventually built all the parts for the car, she would have more invested in her job. Additionally, if she co-owned the factory with all the part builders, she and all the builders, would feel more connected to the work and would share profits equally. In this communist scenario there would be no haves and have-nots, but each person would work for the good of all. On the other hand, the bourgeoisie are driven by personal gain, and not by the good of all, and as such they have no issue with turning proletariat people into cogs, so to speak, of their factory machines.

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