Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Week 10 - Essay 9 - Final Essay - The Darwinian Grapes of Wrath

The Darwinian Grapes of Wrath:

Of all John Steinbeck’s works, his American realist novel, Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, is the most well known and most revered by his fans. Steinbeck, himself, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and some critics believe the extremely popular novel, Grapes of Wrath, was the determining factor as it was a centerpiece of reference during the award.[1] The book is, without a doubt, an iconic American masterpiece. However, there is more to the novel than a heart wrenching story about the Joad family and their flight from their drought stricken farm in Oklahoma to California in search of a better life, of which almost anything would be better. They left their near hopeless conditions in the Dust Bowl looking not just for work and a future, but looking also for dignity. Grapes of Wrath details all of that in dramatic and forceful renderings, while going into descriptive detail of the personal lives of each of the Joad family. Surely these are the things that caused the book to receive the Pulitzer Prize. But maybe there is more.

There have been several attempts to overlay parallel stories and characters onto and into the narrative in an effort to give it additional meaning beyond the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. Some fit rather well and others seem to be forced and out of place. Steinbeck, himself, inserts religious overtones of pending apocalypse into his story while others attempt to force a likeness of Jesus on one or more of the Joad men. None of these fit well. It is not likely that Steinbeck intended such spiritual interpretation. Though not formally denying God’s existence, he considered religion to be a form of delusion. “Now finally, I am not religious so that I have no apprehension of a hereafter, either a hope or reward or a fear of punishment. It is not a matter of belief. It is what I feel to be true from my experience, observation, and simple tissue feeling.”[2]   

Many novels are not just novels; they portray political satire or some other underlying analogy that adds meaning and piques interest giving more punch to the story line. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one such story. Hugh Rockoff of the Journal of Political Economy has detailed the underlying political meaning of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.[3] For some people, there is little doubt that The Grapes of Wrath also has additional meaning as other novels do. Short of reading the mind of Steinbeck, that meaning is predominantly interpretive guesswork.  
Steinbeck himself was highly critical of the “greedy bastards” that were, in his eyes, responsible for not only the tragedy of the Dust Bowl farmers losing their farms due to foreclosure, but for the Great Depression itself.[4] Therefore, economic meaning would not be out of the question. Some of these strong feelings can be seen in the text of his novel. Because of his stand with the downtrodden, the American worker identified with him and praised him. Though his stand with the victims of the “greedy bastards” endeared him to the common, everyday working man, it did nothing to ingratiate him to the elite and it is the elite that hold the destiny of any novelist, because it is the elite that hand out such things as National Book Awards.

Maybe there is more to the story than all that. There is something unique about the novel that goes beyond the story itself. Brian Railsback, author of Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck, believes The Grapes of Wrath is a template for Darwinian evolutionary theory right down to the struggle for existence and the process of natural selection.

The migrant workers move across the land as a species, uprooted from one niche and forced to gain a foothold in another. Their struggle is intensified by capitalism’s perversion of natural competition, but this only makes the survivors that much tougher. Because of their inability to see the whole picture, the bankers and members of the Farmers Association diminish themselves by their oppressive tactics while the surviving migrant workers become increasingly tougher, more resourceful, and more sympathetic.[5]


Railsback suggests that by seeing Darwin’s ideas in The Grapes of Wrath it enables us “to perceive some hope for the Joads and others like them.”[6] He claims the popular novel is Steinbeck’s “manifesto of progress, based on biological laws rather than political ideology.”[7] Railsback overlays Darwin’s ideas concerning survival of the fittest and natural selection onto the Joad family and other migrants and portrays them as species that are forced to leave their unhospitable environment in the Dust Bowl because of “natural forces” and head toward more fertile and favorable living conditions. As in Darwinian theory, many of them die in route and only the fittest survive to pass their genes to subsequent generations.[8]

Railsback’s overlay does seem to work very well with a few exceptions. Analogies always break down, however, at some point. It is only right to note that the Joads left Oklahoma not only because of natural catastrophe, but because of unnatural forces as well. It was not just the hostile weather that forced the farmers out of their unhospitable environment; it was the “greedy bastards” in the form of foreclosures that hastened the process. In addition, the natural selection analogy has a couple of faults, more specifically the survival of the fittest. We must note that those that died in route had already passed their undesirable, less fit, genes to the next generation before they died; therefore, the next generation would have the same unfit genes as the last generation did. And lastly, for better or worse, when all is said and done, both the survivors and the next generation they produce are human. They did not evolve into super humans.

Though the Darwinian interpretation of the famous novel does fit well, in spite of the analogues breakdown, there is, nevertheless, an irony to the overlay just as there is an irony in Darwin’s theory. While the oppressors, weather natural or unnatural, relentlessly batter the farmers (species), the farmers, though some must die, survive only to become stronger in their resolve because of their struggles. There is no intent without intentionality and nature has no intentionality. The bankers, however, are a different story. Though the bankers do not fit the Darwinian interpretation all that well, they must be factored in. Nature did not intend to force the farmers out, but forced out they were and the ones that survived, though they paid a large price, became better for it. This is the Darwin interpretation that Railsback points to. It fits, for the most part, well. And it does seem that John Steinbeck may have been influenced by Darwin in writing The Grapes of Wrath.        

[1] History, John Steinbeck wins a Pulitzer for the Grapes of Wrath, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-steinbeck-wins-a-pulitzer-for-the-grapes-of-wrath
[2]  Freedom from Religon Foundation, News, https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14233-john-steinbeck
[3] Hugh Rockoff, “The Wizard of Oz,” Journal of Political Economy 98, no. 4 (Aug, 1990): 739-60.
[4] Jay Parini, Greenleft Weekly, (biography of Steinbeck 1994), https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/long-retreat-john-steinbeck
[5] Brian E. Railsback, Parallel Expeditions: Charles Darwin and the Art of John Steinbeck (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1995), 129.
[6] Ibid, 131
[7] Ibid, 129
[8] Ibid, 132


  1. Interesting. But I'm uneasy about the potential confusion of Darwinism and Social Darwinism. Darwin was NOT a Social Darwinist, and did not endorse "nature red in tooth and claw" as a template for society, culture, and politics. And yet it's not quite right to say that "nature has no intentionality," insofar as human beings are themselves a product of nature. If pleas for justice of the sort embodied in "Grapes of Wrath" are to be given a Darwinian twist, it must be a twist in the direction of greater social cooperation and compassion, not more heartless competitive struggle.

    "the next generation would have the same unfit genes as the last generation did" - yes, but over the countless generations we may presume that "unfit genes" will be de-selected. The fact of humans and their cultural arrangements (including ethical and moral frameworks of value) being natural as well, though, introduces an extra-genetic selective factor into the mix. "Nature did not intend to force the farmers out" - but what will be the future of human nature? May we hope and dream of a day when nature intends the happy flourishing of all humankind?

  2. Please clarify your statement, "Nature has no intentionality."

  3. I enjoyed the way that you incorporated the work and theory of Brian Railsback and then you set forth to challenge it. The analogy between GofW and Darwinian evolutionary theory is interesting and something I had never thought of before. I had heard the religious comparisons but not this one. It is intriguing and gives me something to play with mentally as I rehash the story in my mind.

  4. George,
    One of my favorite Henry Fonda movies is Grapes of Wrath. There were some outstanding acting performances by several actors and some memorable dialogue and scenes. The book was controversial for several reasons beyond the hardship that "Okies" experienced in real life. It was a challenge to authority that exercised police state tactics to suppress the lower class and mirrors what we see in many countries where a dictator gains control and seeks to enrich himself or herself at the expense of poor person struggling to survive. I plan to read Railsback's book, thanks for sharing that. One thing I will not is that Natural Selection as envisioned by Darwin didn't take place in one generation and affect one individual. It affected a population and took place over many generations over a great span of time. That is the hardest part to grasp. I have to admit that I have difficulty imagining a couple hundred years let alone twenty thousand or as Darwin believed millions of years. It is just beyond most people's comprehension. If you are up to a challenge try to read The Origin of Species, but at the least you can start with Chapter XV Recapitulation and Conclusion. I found it interesting that while most people associate Darwin with the term evolution, he actually preferred descent with modification.

    Thanks again and have a nice rest of the summer.