45 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Exploitation and Business in The Grapes of Wrath

When describing the archetypal businessman, Steinbeck says that such men gather in clubs to “reassure themselves that business is noble and not the curious ritualized thievery they know it is” (161). Businessmen deceive themselves about the true nature of their work. Yet for the Joads and other migrants in The Grapes of Wrath, the reality is all too clear. They are robbed time and again by a stream of salespeople and other businesspeople, all eager to make money from their plight. First, there are the used car salesmen ripping off migrants and selling them “lemons.” Then there are the predatory merchants buying up whole families’ belongings at fire-sale prices. And on the journey, there are gas station owners selling faulty tires and men demanding money for the right to camp by the side of the road. This continues through to a company store selling basic food for inflated prices and the cotton farm where they must buy the bags they need to pick with.

On one level the problem is that small numbers of individuals can own exclusive access to the things that people need. A society that fetishizes business and markets allows food, water, and even the patch of land under a tree to become someone’s property—and then they can charge for this.