I am finishing up Grapes of Wraith, and the back half has me convinced that Tom Joad is one of the greatest characters in fiction, and that Steinbeck’s humanist, agrarian solution to the problem of inequity is elegant and timeless.
The novel, to me, is also half-treatise. He lays out the problem clearly. People are hungry and need work. And instead, they are met with cruelty and neglect. Centralization, the logical extreme of capitalism, results in inefficiency and inhumaneness.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Chapter 25—a chapter that ends with the title of the book—where Steinbeck lays his message out, rejecting subtlety in favor of clarity. And the message hits home. America, and its people, are withering. Needlessly. Endlessly.
The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce…
…There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
And the solution is simple and plain. Return to the Earth and cultivate it. Help your neighbors. Build a community. Use the government to fill the gaps of equity. And if all else fails, resist.
Tom Joad resists. He is drawn to, and he can’t escape it.
Tom leaves us with a powerful declaration conveyed to his story, but really told to us, the reader. It’s not a threat, but it sort of reads like one. Tom, in the wind, aims to help folks wherever he can.
I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.
Tom will be there. He still is.