The Grapes of Wrath Great Depression Quotes

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, we learn about why Steinbeck set ''The Grapes of Wrath'' during the Great Depression, the struggle of the tenant farmers, the kindness of the poor, and the inhumanity of the corporate land owners.

The Great Depression Setting for The Grapes of Wrath

The Great Depression was a decade-long period of economic downturn when markets crashed, banks went out of business, and land owners evicted tenant farmers. Had the Dust Bowl drought of 1934-1937 not haunted Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and parts of New Mexico and Colorado, farmers might have been able to prevent the land owners and banks from evicting them. But when their crops failed, banks pushed for industrial farming, eliminating the need for most farmers.

Steinbeck lived through the Great Depression and interviewed many evicted tenant farmers before writing The Grapes of Wrath. Horrified by their impoverished living conditions, Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to bring awareness to the plight of the tenant farmer, which meant also depicting the Great Depression.

Tenant Farmers Driven from the Land

One thing we learn about the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath is when one bank fails, another is born, and the way they survive is by insisting on higher crop profit margins. In Chapter 5, we see how the banks insist that land owners drive people from their farms and replace them with machines and tractors to do their work, thus increasing their profits:

''And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won't work any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop . . .

The tenant men looked up alarmed. But what will happen to us? How'll we eat?

You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard.''

Here we learn that banks and land owners, in an effort to thrive during the Great Depression, discard families who have worked the land in favor of using one man, paid a wage, to plow and plant cotton crops with the use of a tractor. Although planting these crops eventually ruins the land, it increases the banks' profit margins because the tenant farmers are no longer there to take a cut of the crop profits. By eliminating the tenant farmers, banks and land owners drive them into further destitution.

Money and Humanity

In Chapter 15, we discover what kind of businesses are on the route to California. We know the farmers have sold many of their possessions so they can afford to make the journey west, but money is tight and they must live on a budget. When they stop at gas stations or restaurants, they buy only the necessities and take water from hoses. In the following quote, we see a tenant farmer bartering with restaurant owners for a loaf of bread:

''Mae opened a drawer and took out a long waxpaper-wrapped loaf. 'This here is a fifteen-cent loaf.'

The man put his hat back on his head. He answered with inflexible humility, 'Won't you--can't you see your way to cut off ten cents' worth?'

Al said snarlingly, 'Goddamn it, Mae. Give 'em the loaf.'

The man turned toward Al. 'No, we want to buy ten cents' worth of it. We got it figgered awful close, mister, to get to California.'

Mae said resignedly, 'You can have this for ten cents.'

'That'd be robbin you, ma'am.'

'Go ahead--Al says to take it.' . . .

'May soun' funny to be so tight,' he apologized. 'We got a thousan' miles to go, an' we don' know if we'll make it.'''

Given that the Great Depression affects the entire country, not just the tenant farmers, we understand from this passage that money is tight for the restaurant owners as well. However, it's clear that their situation is not as dire as the farmers'. While Mae is initially reluctant to sell the loaf of bread for ten cents, ultimately she does. Furthermore, the rest of the chapter reveals Mae giving the children candy for a fraction of the cost, which in turn motivates two customers to pay extra for their meals. One act of kindness leads to another, revealing the humanity of the working class during the Great Depression.

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