Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Grapes of Wrath" Precis by Andrea Bella

Andrea couldn't log onto the Blog, so in true Grapes of Wrath fashion I am lending a helping hand an posting it on her behalf.

"The Grapes of Wrath" Precis by Andrea Bella
(film adaptation by John Ford)

The film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," tells the story of the Joads, a close-knit family from Oklahoma who are forced to leave their farm and move to California in order to survive in the midst of the Great Depression. Steinbeck uses the fictional Joad family to illustrate the real plight of thousands of farmers who were cast out of their own land during the Dust Bowl, declining national economy, and the beginning of industrialized farming. The Joads encounter hardship and death (of Grandma and Grandpa Joad) as they make the long haul to the supposed promise land. Upon arrival, they discover that there is a surplus of farmers, desperate for work, and not enough food and work to support the new flight of immigrants.

The film mostly focuses on Tom Joad, an archetype of the downtrodden working man, whose oppression takes him out of his atomized self into a collective body that fights for the ideals of a labor union: livable wages, workplace safety and security. The film garnered positive reviews during its release in 1940, as it bespoke the struggles of the working class of the Great Depression. In contrast to the screening of "The Fountainhead," whose moral values move towards individualism, this film argues for collective identity and solidarity. Tom Joad makes a remarkable transformation from the former to the latter. At the beginning of the film, when tries to hitch a ride with a hesitant trucker, he says, "A good guy don't pay no attention to what some heel makes him stick on his truck." This nugget of moral value was still based on self interest. Fresh out of prison, his ethos of self-preservation is illustrated when he says to the trucker, "I'm just trying to get along without shoving anybody, that's all." As he witnesses his family and other workers manipulated, beaten, starved and killed by an economic system that persecutes them, Tom changes his atomized perspective and decides to fight for the collective benefit. Individualism is also thwarted with Ma Joad, who acts as the foundation and pillar of the Joad family throughout the entire film. She, like Tom, also reaches towards collective identity, beyond her biological family, when she extends her scarce pot of breakfast to feed all the starving children in Keene Camp.

Tensions and paradoxes are seen with the concept of the authorial figure. "The Man," remains abstract as nobody takes direct responsibility for the thousands of farmers' destitute conditions. When Muley asks a suit who is responsible for (aka who he "oughta shoot" for) kicking him and his family off their land, the well-dressed tool in the posh car says he is only delivering the message from the company and the bank, who also have orders to follow. In contrast, the man in charge of the utopian Wheat Farm, with his FDR sympathy, takes care of the exploited farmers and symbolizes the government.

The highly romanticized film, with close up shots of dirty faces, shoddy housing and downtrodden workers garners the sympathy of the audience to the extreme and unbearable living conditions of the (barely) working class of the Great Depression. As "The Grapes of Wrath" focuses on the strife of the Joad family, the film speaks to grander political, social, and historical conditions of 1930s America.

-Andrea Bella

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