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The Grapes of Wrath: Dehumanization & Inhumanity

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

The migrant workers in ''The Grapes of Wrath,', including the Joad family, experience inhumanity and dehumanizing behavior from farmers and townspeople on a nearly constant basis. This dehumanization occurs through both language and living conditions.

Dehumanizing Low-Wage Workers

Low-wage workers who have moved to California to work on the farms are frequently the targets of dehumanizing treatment. This is immediately evident in the way townspeople, business owners, and farmers discuss them. For example, when the Joads are about to attempt to cross the desert in their old car (because they have no other options available to them), one of the workers at the service station makes this comment: 'Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas.' Although Tom has just had a friendly conversation with the service workers, and has explained that he and his family are doing the only thing that they are able to do, the service workers still view them merely as dirty and ignorant. This way of viewing migrant workers is unfortunately all too typical.

Foreign Workers

Migrants from other states are not the only people who are working the fields in California -- there are also people who have been brought in from other countries who are filling these roles, and they are treated and talked about with the same contempt: 'They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don't need much. They wouldn't know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny -- deport them.' The businessmen have this kind of attitude about the workers because it helps them make peace with the low wages and the dreadful living conditions they force upon them. Admitting that they are human beings might make it difficult and uncomfortable to treat them like animals.

Language of Dehumanization: Okies

Another way that the farmers and townspeople dehumanize the migrants is through the language they use to discuss them. The most frequent example of this is the term Okies. 'Okies' originally referred to people who had come from Oklahoma, but over time it began being used to refer to all migrant workers who had traveled to California, and it took on a much more pejorative tone. Tom meets a man on their journey who explains the term to him: 'Well, Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum. Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it.' Generally, when the term is used in the text, it is clear that the user is intending to dehumanize the person he's talking to, such as when a deputy calls Ma an Okie as he is telling the Joads that they are not welcome to stay on the campsite they've chosen. He says, 'Well, you ain't in your country now. You're in California, an' we don't want you goddamn Okies settlin' down.' This is the first time Ma hears the word, but it is immediately clear to her that she is being insulted and threatened.

Dehumanizing through Poor Conditions

It is not just through words that migrant workers are dehumanized: Forcing them to live in the squalid conditions of the camps is also a means of stripping them of their humanity. This is why the Farmers Association is eager to break up the government camp, where the conditions are actually rather nice: They are worried that access to warmth and clean water will allow the migrant workers time to organize. The farmers and deputies are aware that when migrants are able to live with a little dignity, they become more empowered, and more likely to fight for their rights.

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