The Grapes of Wrath Quotes: Migrant Workers, Okies & Migration

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

Central to ''The Grapes of Wrath'' is the issue of the mass migration of workers into California during the Great Depression. This lesson looks at quotes that describe how this migration was experienced by both the migrants and by the people in the communities that absorbed them.

Migration: The Phenomenon

Although The Grapes of Wrath predominantly follows one family, the Joads, Steinbeck also makes a point to convey just how massive a phenomenon the migration to California was. As circumstances changed in Oklahoma and elsewhere, sending hundreds of thousands of people to find work in other parts of the country, this also caused massive changes in California, where people were hoping to re-start their lives. Chapter 19 includes this description of migration into California:

'And the dispossessed, the migrants, flowed into California, two hundred and fifty thousand, and three hundred thousand. Behind them new tractors were going on the land and the tenants were being forced off. And new waves were on the way, new waves of the dispossessed and the homeless, hardened, intent, and dangerous.'

In this quote, Steinbeck represents the migration as a force of nature: massive waves rolling on over California. And like waves, these migration patterns could be destructive and frightening for the people being hit by them, and were ultimately unavoidable and unstoppable. Put in these terms, it is easy to see how those already in California might feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of economic changes that are having an impact on them as well.

Migrants: The People

Most of The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the human experience of the mass migration: the lives of the migrants themselves. We get to know the Joads in particular, but through their experiences we also get a sense of the hundreds of thousands like them. Chapter 21 includes a passage that describes the impact of mass migration, and its attendant struggles, on the migrants:

'The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them - hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader...'

As in the passage above, Steinbeck describes these circumstances (hunger, highways, etc.) as forces that have a significant impact on the people and bring about substantial changes in them. We get the sense that all the people involved, both the migrants and the townspeople, are at the mercy of a changing country that they don't understand. This is often how the migrants are portrayed in the book: as objects that are formed and altered by forces out of their control.

From the Other Perspective

In the same way, the people in the small towns in California and along the migration route are also affected by these changes, and similarly have little they can do about them. In Chapter 29, we get this description of these communities:

'The sheriffs swore in new deputies and ordered new rifles; and the comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.'

In this case, we can see that the townspeople's feelings about the migrants have shifted from the 'hostility' described above in Chapter 21 to 'hatred' in Chapter 29. Granted, the circumstances have changed as well - in this part of the book, the rains have come and have left the migrants out of work, starving, and desperate - but all of this has had the knock-on effect of making the migrants a hated community.

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