Tuesday, December 03, 2002

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Since then I've been thinking a lot about the American Dream.

Not so much the standardized vision of the Dream, with the nice suburban house on an immaculate lot bound by a white picket fence and all the trappings that go with it, but the more abstract idea of the American Dream: the idea, central to our society and essential to its functioning, that anyone willing to work hard and show dogged persistence can achieve his or her dreams. The Grapes of Wrath shows just such a family, the Joads of Oklahoma, and it follows them as they engage in a quest for work that is almost Quixote-like, in that at the end when they have worked and worked and worked some more, and in between working have searched for work, they have achieved mere survival. For the Joads, work is not a means to a dream, but a means just to stay alive. The funny thing is, it doesn't start out that way.

At the beginning of the novel, Tom Joad -- the eldest son in the family -- is paroled from prison in Oklahoma (this is the Dust Bowl era), and he returns home to find his family already evicted from the family farm (whose fields are now dry, dessicated acres of dust) and preparing to head for California. The occasion for this departure from their ancestral home is the dozens of handbills that have been plastered all over Oklahoma, promising work in the bountiful fields of the Pacific Coastal Plain -- work in such abundance that they will be able to save money and follow their respective dreams. As the Joads set out on their journey westward, it is with a sense of optimism, even in the face of the great difficulties they have already faced.

The optimism begins to shift about halfway through their trek to California, when they encounter fellow Oklahomans -- but who are heading east, back to Oklahoma. The work, the Joads are told, is not as easily found as they believe, nor does it pay well at all. Nevertheless, the Joads maintain their determination, although it becomes a grim determination. They are going to find good work, if it kills them.

And when they finally arrive in California, they discover that the situation is indeed as dire as they have been told. Competition for jobs is incredibly fierce; the migrant Oklahomans are looked upon with disdain by the Californians (they are derisively called "Okies" and invariably treated as subhumans); they are forced to work for wages that are barely enough to pay for food; they are in turn charged prices for food that are almost extortionary; and whenever the subject is brought up of the workers banding together to demand better treatment, such talk is discouraged because the locals won't hold with "Reds". The upshot is that they have no choice at all in what they do, and are instead herded about almost like sheep. Throughout the course of the book, the initial optimism gives way to pessimism and ultimately to a dreary fatalism as the Joads pretty much lose whatever status they once had as individuals and are instead pushed into a kind of indentured servitude and forced to join a subclass of humans who are always present, always necessary, but never taken seriously or allowed any more than what they need to keep from dying on the doorstep.

The Grapes of Wrath ilustrates a problem with the American Dream: that it is possible for people to work as hard as they can, indeed as hard as anyone can, and still not achieve any kind of success beyond base subsistence. How we respond to this problem -- if, in fact, we even admit that it is a problem ("That's not a bug, it's a feature!") -- lies at the heart of much of our country's political debate over much of the last century and beyond. And yet, it is not a political novel so much as a depiction of the trials faced by one family and the choices made by its members. The novel's final scene -- in which a character who has been so self-centered as to be insufferable through most of the book performs an act of generosity that is at once shocking and stirring -- will linger with me for a long, long time.

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