Humanism in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Bookcover of The Grapes of WrathIn The Grapes of Wrath, agnostic author John Steinbeck shows skepticism toward religion and sensitive awareness of problems that still face us more than seventy years later. Rather than arguing directly for his positions, Steinbeck shares observations and experiences of the fictional Joad family.

Early in The Grapes of Wrath, a preacher explains that he stopped preaching because he couldn’t keep appropriate distance from the young women who came to hear him. When asked to do a prayer, the former preacher hesitates then says he’s glad there’s food and love here. Ma Joad calls the humanistic prayer the ‘Curiousest grace I ever heerd.’

In Oklahoma, the Joad family’s farm suffers from environmental destruction caused by drought and a push for profits that makes taking care of the soil even more difficult. After making loans to famers, banks take over the farms leaving people homeless and poor. The Joads along with other families begin migrating to California hoping for a better life.

California is not all the Joad’s hope for. Competition makes jobs hard to find and drives wages down. Those organizing ‘for thirty cents an hour when we’re payin’ twenty-five’ are denounced as ‘reds’ and attacked violently. The children complain of not wanting to go to school where they might face bullying for being “Oakies” from Oklahoma. Troubling sentiments toward immigrants, black people, and women are also clear in the story. Concerning poverty surrounding California’s abundance, Steinbeck notes that those “who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten.”

Humanists recognize the need for both reason and compassion in creating the sort of world we want. Steinbeck shows that not everyone is religious, that we need to take care of nature in a sustainable way, and that we could direct our efforts “so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” By sharing people’s experiences in story form, Steinbeck encourages a more humanistic approach.