How The Relationship Between The Personal and The Political Treated in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

How The Relationship Between The Personal and The Political Treated in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Identifying a single, stable relationship between the personal and political in the text is difficult as the forms of the political that the Joads encounter in the text are various and occasionally opposed to each other.

Instead, the relationship is a more fluid thing, changing as the Joads move from an apolitical existence encountering various incarnations of the capitalist framework that dominates labour in the text, before finally encountering a kind of socialist, communal form of politics.
Importantly, the relationship between the personal and the political is presented in the text as a new phenomenon. Michael Barry identifies a personal, agrarian, even apolitical existence before the Joads are forced to leave their land. An important part of this agrarianism is a deep-seated connection between the farmer and his land, and a distrust of incomprehensible institutions removed from that land. Because of this, the intrusion of cities, science, technology, administration and politics into the personal sphere of agrarian life is considered antithetical to the natural state of humanity that agrarianism holds to be desireable. Barry argues that the agrarian sensibility is highly attractive to Steinbeck (Barry, 109). Certainly, the distrust of administration is voiced early in the text through repeated references to Old Tom Joad’s aversion to writing: ‘He don’t even like word writin’. Kinda scares ’im, I guess. Ever’ time Pa seen writin’, somebody took somepin away from ’im’(Steinbeck, 57).

The agrarian claim to property also seems to be presented as more authentic than the pieces of paper the men from the bank bring with them, Muley Graves says ‘place where folks live is them folks’ after he has been lying in his land on the bloodstained earth where his father was gored by a bull (Steinbeck, 49). This seems to be a greater claim than that of any bank. Are we then to assume that Steinbeck sees the apolitical agrarian existence as the ideal, with any relationship between political and personal being anathema to this greater state of human existence? Not necessarily.

Reservations are present in the text pertaining to the land, even at this early stage. It is mentioned that Grampa took the land from the Indians, making the entire Joad family complicit in robbing the land from those with special ties to it. However, in balance this apolitical existence is presented in a largely favourable light, and it would not be such a leap to assume that any intrusion of abstract politics and administration would be undesirable and harmful to the personal existence in Steinbeck’s view.

As soon as the Joads are forced from their land by the dustbowl upheaval a relationship is forged between personal and political, for better or for worst. The Joads are no longer in complete control of their own lives, and are forced under the influence of the unfettered capitalism of the market system. This is most obviously manifested in one of the cornerstones of the market system, competition. The abundance of labour means employers can sit and watch as workers undercut each other for wages until they become no more than a pittance. The Joads and others like them become slaves to this labour market, and the relationship between political and personal becomes one of total subordination. Even the manner in which the novel is structured, with its interplay between long, focussed chapters and shorter ‘wide angle’ shots emphasises the apparent insignificance and helplessness of the Joad family.

This new relationship with the political causes a great deal of transformation to the personal spheres of the family. The severing of the agrarian sensibility mentioned earlier is evidently too much trauma for the older members of the family, the grandparents do not last long after they are wrenched from their land. Pa is another character who finds the new relationship difficult to manage. The patriarchy in evidence at the start of the novel is most in evidence at the family parliament called before the family pack up and move West. Grampa is the ‘titular head’, but those with real decision making power, the men, squat on the ground close to their land (again showing the agrarian sensibility), and the women who have only limited deliberation rights stand. However, the deprivation of Pa’s land by abstract political forces deprives him of his traditional labour and role in the family, and his authority is left deeply damaged (Motley, 402). From the moment Ma Joad stands up to him with the crank handle, the strong patriarchal structure of the family begins to dissolve and Pa himself becomes less and less assertive.

However, other transformations in the family are not quite so negative. While Pa’s position in the family is eroded, Ma Joad’s work in the family is left unchanged when the land is taken away. Pa’s tools are sold or left behind, Ma’s travel with the family – she remains a ‘citadel’, one that unlike the farm ‘cannot be taken’ (Steinbeck, 77), and increasingly Ma becomes a decision maker as well as remaining the centre of the family.

Al also undergoes change in his character of a more positive nature. By being forced into a relationship with the political the Joad family has need of Al’s mechanical skills with the Hudson, and by being released from the family land Al is given a chance to mature in the text. By the end of the novel Al has a chance to begin his own family, something he might not have been able to do had the Joads not been driven off their land.

However, it is significant that much of the change caused by their relationship with the political means the Joads are buying into the system that has ruined them. Al’s aptitude for mechanical work means he has in essence become part of the process of mechanisation that drove the family from their land in the first place. Tom also recognises the necessity of the writing that he distrusted at the start of the novel when he buries Grampa Joad with a note explaining his death.

The personal is left to struggle to adapt to the political in the text, the relationship is very much a one-way deal. The market system exerts pressure on everyone who falls under its influence, there is little chance for the individual to play outside its rules, and while some like Al may bend and adapt to the new way of living, inevitably others like Grampa may be broken by it.

This raises the question of whether the individual can ever determine his own fate given the overarching nature of the capitalist pressures in California, and the stakes involved, namely the survival of the family. One possible answer comes through the new brand of political activism advocated by the preacher Casy.

Before ‘socialist’ politics in the text are discussed, one thing that should be addressed is that the word ‘socialism’ never actually appears in the text. Steinbeck remains true to the dialect of his characters, and so ideas that might be identified as socialist are discussed in more earthy, human terms. By using the Okie dialect the socialist political stance that permeates the text is expressed by reference to communal values and organised labour.

References to a kind of socialist philosophy occur early in the text, at first haltingly: “‘I got to thinkin’ an’ dreamin’ an’ wonderin’. They say there’s a hun’erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy—they wouldn’t hunt nobody down—” She stopped’ (Steinbeck, 79) and later, more explicitly: ‘Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody’ (Steinbeck, 443). These vague ideas of community standing together crystallise into activism with the re-emergence of Casy, who leads the pickers’ strike. The preacher argues that they will never advance themselves being focussed on just the present, even though it might mean they can eat meat for a day or so. The only way they can ‘depen’ on their meat’ is through collective action, and that is the only way things can be changed for the better rather than struggling to survive with what the market system dictates they should have (Steinbeck 403).

This relationship with a new kind of political system is not without its problems. Unlike the relationship with capitalism which smothers and controls its subjects without choice, socialism must be adopted willingly and involves sacrifice, and it soon becomes clear the Joads are not ideal socialist material.

At several points it is clear that the individualistic nature of the Joads blinds them to the power of collective action. Their initial eviction from their land can be taken as an example. Grampa Joad faces down the tractor defiantly with his rifle, but when their house is smashed the family move on to find themselves more land, seemingly unaware of the similar situation of thousands of other families. The tension is heightened for the reader as the chapters focussing on one individual family, the Joads, are alternated with chapters that show identical situations that confront families across the dustbowl (Motley 409).

While initially not perfect subjects for this communal philosophy, the ordeals and changes the Joads suffer at the hands of the capitalist framework of California mean that they become more open to Casy’s views. Pa Joad, whose traditional labour has been disrupted and his authority dissolved, undergoes a kind of reinvigoration as he is building the dike, arguing that without cooperation they will all suffer. Ma Joad’s assertion that once it was the family was ‘fust’ eventually changes as well as she sacrifices the unity of the family for a greater unity that encompasses ‘anybody’ in the same situation. It is consistent in the text that competition (read unfettered capitalism) is the source of most of the ills of the Joad family, and community is what saves them

Once the relationship is established, it is not unproblematic. The paradox of the situation is that although Steinbeck’s socialism is an altogether more personal form of politics, for the personal to articulate itself against the political force of capitalism individuality must be sacrificed in the greater community. Given this fact, together with the assumption that the agrarian distrust of institutions removed from the soil must also extend to trade unions and organised labour, are we to believe the relationship with socialism is any better than the relationship with capitalism?

Steinbeck’s heavy use of saviour imagery with regard to Casy certainly seems to lend credibility to his rhetoric. For example, his incarceration was the result of sacrificing himself for another’s actions, and his death scene draws strong parallels with the crucifixion. The repeated ‘You don’ know what you’re a-doin’ (Steinbeck, 404) is almost a direct lift from the biblical ‘forgive them Lord, they know not what they do’, and even after his death Tom says (after his ‘conversion’ to socialism) ‘seems like I can see him sometimes’ (Steinbeck 439). This strong Christ-like imagery seems to legitimise Casy’s message, particularly since some of his socialist rhetoric is lifted from religious texts, that one man alone is no good, two are better than one as they can support each other, and that ‘a three-fold cord is not easily broken’(Steinbeck 438).

However, the positive nature of socialism should not be overstated. The market system enveloped the Joads’ life and gave them no choice in their participation in a relationship with it, they had to buy into the system or perish. Unfortunately, socialism seems not too different. The impetus behind Steinbeck’s socialism is not one of high-minded left wing intellectualism, it is the impetus of need, and without banding together the personal will not survive the unprotected relationship with the capitalism, and is instead forced to forge a relationship with socialism to get enough food to live (Barry 111).

This leads to a most important point in the discussion of the personal’s relationship with the political. It seems that Steinbeck’s ideal mode of existence is an apolitical one, and that any relationship with the political will only harm the personal. At best socialism offers a glimmer of hope against the tyrannical market system, but the damage has already been done, the farmers have been torn from their land never to return. I believe this conclusion is supported by the ending of the novel. Chametzsky believes the ending provides some sort of insight into Steinbeck’s own politics, and I agree (Chametzsky, 39). The book could have ended in the government camp, affirming the New Deal, or could have ended with either Pa Joad building the dike or Tom Joad vowing to join the workers movement, both of which would have affirmed a proletarian, socialist theme. Instead it ends in a barn, seemingly with no political slant whatsoever. Chametzsky calls the ending an ‘evasion’ of stance, but an honest evasion (43). I do not believe it to be so much of an evasion, instead it seems to fit with Steinbeck’s strong sense of agrarian sensibility and his rejection of the intrusion of any form of politics to the personal. In an ideal world no relationship with the political would exist, and with regard to socialism, the best it can be is a necessary evil.


Barry, Michael G. ‘Degrees of Mediation and Their Political Value in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”.’ The Steinbeck Question: New Essays in Criticism. Ed. Noble, Donald R. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, (1993): 108-24

Benson, Jackson J. ‘Through a Political Glass, Darkly: The Example of John
Steinbeck.’ Studies in American Fiction. 12.1 (1984): 45-59

Chametzsky, Jules. ‘The Ambivalent Ending of The Grapes of Wrath.’ Modern Fiction Studies. 11.1 (1965): 34-44

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993

Motley, Warren. ‘From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: Ma Joad’s Role in The Grapes of Wrath.’ American Literature. 54.3 (1982): 397-413

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2000