What Can We Learn from the Grapes of Wrath?

 So the past couple of weeks I have been leisurely reading about a family struggling with sever drought and the woes of an economic depression… No, I am not reading the current edition of Mother Jones.  I am referring to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I know for most people this title appeared on their high school summer reading lists. However, I was never forced to read this novel as an apathetic high school student. Instead, I found an e-copy of Steinbeck’s work and began reading about the Joad’s, a family from rural Oklahoma in the 1930’s.

This post is not meant to provide a comprehensive summary of the novel. I am not interested in detailing the deaths of four characters (Grandpa, Grandma, Casey, and Rose of Sharon’s baby); I don’t want to belabor the moral or ethical reasoning that could justify someone leaving his family in the pursuit happiness, love or peace of mind like Al, Connie, and Muley Graves; I also don’t want to focus on how this book has some scary similarities to the current environmental, political and economic climate of our country over 70 years after it was written.

Instead, I want to focus on the Joad family’s generosity throughout a seemingly impossible migration. This family and all those individuals they picked up while trekking steadily toward California managed to give anything they could offer, even as their conditions worsened. To be clear, many of these families lost their homes to foreclosures and were kicked off their property by banks; struggled to find a stable job to feed their families; and worked tirelessly to get to a place where they could find basic needs. Sound familiar to today’s news?

One of the most memorable depictions of this generosity occurs at the end of the novel. As the deluge engulfs the land surrounding the Joad’s camp and waters rise within their boxcar, the family abandoned their settlement to seek a dry shelter. Carrying the sick and weak Rose of Sharon hours after her stillbirth delivery, the family spots a seemingly abandoned barn to wade out the storm. Protected from the cold and rain, the family inspects the hay filled barn. They are not alone: A young boy, with his dying grandfather sought shelter in this barn as well. The young boy explains that he has tried to feed his grandfather, but he was too sick to eat. The boy begs the family for money to purchase milk. Instead of money, Rose of Sharon nursed the dying stranger with her own breast milk.

This scene strikes me as important because it illustrates a fundamental theme found throughout Steinbeck’s novel: a society must be willing to help each other in order to survive economic and environmental instability. A restoration of this kind of civility and altruism, while it might not raise the DOW’s points or end unemployment, could provide the adequate support each of us need to bear the hardships that we are faced during this difficult time.

My fellow interns and I got in to a conversation about the importance of generosity, simply for the sake of generosity – not expecting anything in return. One of co-interns brought up the example of giving money to homeless people. I was worried that if I gave money to homeless person and they bought drugs or alcohol, aren’t I actually just supporting that person’s destructive habit. However, the conversation concluded that it is not the responsibility of the person giving the money to worry about where it goes. Instead, we should give without judgment and expectation. We must train ourselves to be generous and help out our neighbors in need. Our generosity promotes a culture of altruism and compassion that ultimately fosters the more perfect union that our founding fathers were willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve.  What are we sacrificing in support of this movement toward our more perfect nation?

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