Grapes of Wrath: Capitalism and Exploitation

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Within “The Grapes of Wrath”, the struggles that the characters faced, along with the socioeconomic conditions described, accurately portrayed the theory of human nature that Karl Marx emphasized in his teachings. Karl Marx’s view of society emphasized factors that were more oriented towards the general human condition because of broader social forces, not just the individual experience. For example, human behavior is largely related to the conditions that people are placed in. Leslie Stevenson remarked that “not everything about human beings can be explained in terms of facts about individuals; the kind of society they live in must be considered too” (173). Within this context, “Grapes of Wrath” epitomized a very desolate time period during the great depression where people were struggling for survival against a capitalist society that was based on ownership of production versus the laborers, or proletariats.

One major aspect of this was the notion that companies exploited workers for small pay without regard for their general and overall well-being. Indeed, the family traveled from Oklahoma to California in hopes of finding resources and a living. As the family arrived to California, they were clearly “like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land” (Steinbeck 233). However, because they did not control the means of production, their destinies were not set and finding work was difficult. Moreover, this characterization fit in with the teachings of Marx. As the proletariats struggled for survival, “the capitalist aims to maximize his profits and tends to exploit his employees by paying them only the minimum wage necessary for their physical survival” (165). If the workers could even find jobs at all, this was surely the case. They knew that families like the ones depicted were desperate and had no other options. Indeed, the companies rarely cared as many of the owners did not even attend their own farms themselves (Steinbeck 233).

As Marx predicted, this resulted in an unstable society. Because the proletariat was faced with less and less control and an oppressive environment, they would eventually join forces to protest. This was the case within “Grapes of Wrath”, albeit in a slightly different context. As new workers came in looking for jobs, people came together to protect their own status: “And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them-hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel and invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people” (Steinbeck 282). While this did not completely represent the paradigm according to Marx of workers against the owners, it still resulted in an unstable society. Moreover, the ruthless profit driven nature of capitalists was also epitomized. For example, in having larger companies with canneries drop prices temporarily, “the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries” (Steinbeck 284). Surely, this is capitalistic behavior driven by profit- based motives.

As shown, the nature of human interaction according to Marx was played out in The Grapes of Wrath because the desperate workers had no control over their destiny. The characters were seemingly controlled by the circumstances of their environment. They struggled for work and faced the ruthless demands of capitalist and profit driven orders. Even people within a given society were colluding against each other in order to secure their own well-being.

Works Cited

Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Stevenson, Leslie, and David Haberman. The Theories of Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.