May 16, 2005
Blue Collars and Bitter Grapes
I am going to look at Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. While these two stories are vastly different in their “saga” told, voice and in many other regards, they do share many common themes and beliefs. There are four that are most important, especially in relation to life at the time (the 1930s) in the United States. These are: the romanticizing of the common man as hero, the faceless antagonist who oppresses him, the “national identity myth” of capitalism as an ideal to be pursued / a solution to everyone’s problems, and the “national identity reality” that the common man is suffering—and that capitalism is hurting him, not helping him.
The theme of the working man as hero is prominent in both stories, although Odets is more optimistic about his (the working man’s) fate. Odets seems to argue that the common man can challenge and overcome his oppressors—e.g., by fighting corruption, getting better pay, equalizing the power imbalance—whereas Steinbeck appears to argue that the enemy is a juggernaut, a force so huge that man cannot defeat it. He can only escape from it and refuse to be defeated by it.
In Lefty, the story opens with union workers afraid to take a stand, especially without a left-wing radical like Lefty Costello to back them. By the end of the play, Lefty is dead, and those same men are prepared to go on strike, even though doing so will mean making sacrifices on their part. The characters have since united for a greater cause.
The theme that is really important to Lefty is that of unity. Joe, one of the workers, says (near the beginning of the play) that his wife, Edna, said he’s “workin’ for the company” as opposed to for “me or the family.” Edna’s words have two meanings. First, she is reminding Joe that he is working for (out of) pride and to sustain, not out of greed. Secondly, Edna suggests that the notion of family has to extend beyond the biological; the union men have to work together. “One man can’t make a strike,” Joe tells her. Maybe not, but the hundreds of union men together can. There is strength in numbers. And Edna’s threat of a domestic strike persuades Joe to want to strike.
The real problem, Odets feels, is capitalism, and in the Lab Assistant Episode, Fayette embodies it. Ironically, he delivers Odets’ strongest criticism: “If big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn’t be big business of any sort!” The company that owns the union is so distrusting and corrupt that it has to spy on its own employees. But Miller, even at the prospect of a huge raise, won’t be party to espionage, and he won’t make poison gas, either. I’d rather lose my job first, he says, and dig ditches! “That’s a big job for foreigners,” Fayette replies. “But sneaking—and making poison gas—that’s for Americans?” Miller shoots back. The exchange isn’t showing the difference between Americans and foreigners, but rather between the workers and the owners, the oppressed and the powerful. Miller takes a stand and sacrifices part of himself for the cause, joining the family of union workers. And in the Labor Spy Episode, yet another man sides with the others and not his turncoat brother, whom he points out as a labor spy.
So by the end of the play, we know the truth. Fayette is the undefined face of industrialists and big business. His character is left undeveloped so the audience can’t develop any emotional attachment or pity, and also to represent big business on a large scale. Fatt and the gunman are capitalism’s espionage, false patriotism and violent qualities. Capitalism is heartless and unfeeling and exploits workers for profit. But now the men are unified, rallying. Characters have acquired a class-consciousness and will no longer stand for unfairness and inequality.
In Grapes, Steinbeck’s Chapter One and Chapter Five are his “non-narrative” chapters, among many others. Chapter One shows a regressive life cycle—green to brown, alive to dead. It gives a historical portrait of the Dust Bowl, focusing on the dust storm and foreshadowing the hardships that await. But the chapter serves to put the book in a wider context—the Joads will represent thousands of affected families. The chapter sweepingly describes the social, economic and historical events that shaped the Dust Bowl. But the chapter has some glimmer of hope; the men keep their unity and dignity (for example, “men and women huddled in their homes”), and also, they are strong-willed. Steinbeck at one point says, “There was no break,” and he later says that “no misfortune was too great if their [the families’] men were whole.”
Chapter Five criticizes banks and corporate America for enacting policies meant to get profit without caring that people will lose homes and money. Tenant farming isn’t turning a profit for banks and landowners, so farmers get evicted. And they can’t fight back. Even if you killed bank executives, the evictions would go on; there exists a higher, faceless power. Banks have absolutely no redeeming qualities, Steinbeck says; they are insatiable “monsters” that “breathe profits.” Bottom-line, myopic practices drain the land of resources for short-term profits.
So strong is the influence of this evil, Steinbeck says, that it is causing both the bank employees and tractor drivers to become “caught in something greater than themselves.” For example, when the tractor driver began, he became linked to the bank’s personal goal of “profit at any cost.” The man only cares about his own family and won’t sacrifice to help the others: “Can’t think of that. Got to find my own kids,” he says. He contributes to the growing subculture of poverty and turmoil. The economic system at work is hurting everyone; it is dividing neighbors against themselves, the rich from the poor, and so on. The “monster” is to blame.
Steinbeck says that there exists a personal connection to the land, and that connection determines ownership. Man is enslaved by his land if he does not live on it, walk on it. Men also have dignity, pride and self-respect—because of their close ties to the earth. “If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him.” Ergo, to lose land is to lose part of one’s identity.
As both authors reveal, we have two very different images of national identity in the ‘30s. There is the imagined, wishful-thinking version and the harsh-reality version. The first one, Odets and Steinbeck say, touts capitalism as an ideal, a “saving grace for all,” a solution to the Great Depression. But the real national identity, as the authors point out, is that many people have been ruined, impoverished, uprooted and embittered by the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Capitalism, big business—call it what you want, it’s the enemy. The suffering of the common man is worsened by capitalism, which takes short-term profits for big business—at everyone else’s expense. It hurts and divides people. Odets says that it can be challenged by working together and sacrifice. Steinbeck says that you can’t fight what you can’t see; you can only escape from it and refuse to succumb to it. Both authors believe in the common man as a hero, and they both believe in dignity, unity and the family. To some extent, both employ hyperbole in describing both the evil of the enemy and the suffering of the victims. To do so is to help expose the flaws and weaknesses of capitalism—and to heighten the tragedy of the ordinary people.