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Witnessess of the Great Depression based on Grapes of Wrath

Witnesses of the Great Depression
Olga Kołodziejczyk
First Essay
Movies and American Society
Dr. William Glass
The 1930s were hard times for a large part of the American nation. After the unexpected
crash on New York’s stock market, the USA’s economy started to crumble. The Great
Depression came and 13 million of workers suddenly became unemployment or homeless. The
poor were getting poorer and the rich, richer. Moreover, massive migration to the coasts in
search of work has started. The famine, poverty and social upheaval are hard to understand
from the twenty-first-century perspectives, but through the films and other texts of culture, it is
easier to understand the crisis’ values of the family, bond with the land, along with feelings of
embarrassment, fears, and hopes.
The most influential and comprehensive diary about the feelings of the Great Depression
is presented by the journey of the Joads family in the movie The Grapes of Wrath, based on a
novel by John Steinbeck. The story, through contrast, emotionally appealing scenes, and
sadness tells about feelings of people, from whom the Great Depression has taken everything.
A family of land workers is forced to move out and abandon their home, in order to look for a
job and new life in California. The first overwhelming and omnipresent feeling during the
whole movie is the impression, that there is no one in control of the situation, in which most of
the agrarian people have found themselves in. Muley’s, Joads neighbor, story describes the
powerless of an individual in the face of capitalism’s system, about which they knew nothing.
For farmers from Oklahoma the man, which ordered them to move out, the worker on caterpillar
which ruined theirs’s houses, and the man, who distributed the leaflets, were just inconceivable
economic “products of sinister conspiracy beyond human control.”1 The dialogue between
Muley’s and the agent of a land’s owner is the best example, how the sense of faceless power
is portrayed in the movie. The agent, after being asked by Muley, whom to shoot in revenge,
answers: “Brother, I don't know. If I did I'd tell you. But I just don't know who's to blame!”2
Pauly, “Depression Allegories,” 94.
Ford, The Grapes of Wrath.
The second strong feeling, which played a very important role during the years of the
Great Depression, was people’s deep, emotional bond with the land. For Muley and Grampa
Joad the attachment to land was comparable to a sacred tie, and both of them finally have never
left Oklahoma’s grounds. In the eyes of a farmer, even though the land was in a lease, it
belonged to him, because the circle of his family’s life took place there. His children were born
on it, some of his relatives were killed on it, and some died of old age on it. Muley has never
left it. Neither did Pa Joad. His reluctance to leaving his motherland was so intense, that he died
no sooner than the whole family got in the way to California. Both peasants could not stand the
life without their own piece of land, which was a factor of connecting the family, a place to
bear a child, and a source of their money and food.
Furthermore, the loss of grounds contributed somehow to the family breakdown. Blood
and relatives were another value, important for every American citizen in the Depression’s
times, and up to this day. The binder, that by all means, was attempting to keep the whole family
together, was Ma Joad. She was presenting the belief, that the family is the only way to survive
the crisis and that the individual, without any support, would be defeated in those hard times.
At every step of their hard journey, she was emphasizing, that whatever will happen, the unity
of family is the source of strength and only remaining sign of humanity: “All we got lef' in the
worl' is the family an' right down at bottom that's all we got to have!” 3 pokazac ze sa pumped
However, not only depressive feelings prevailed among the unfortunate events of the
Joads. The light of hope was sparkling at all stages of their journey. Firstly, it was the job
promise on a yellow leaflet, because of which they decided to go to California. Then they draw
optimism from just keeping up with each other. They lived from one spark of hope to another.
Even a bit of luck or small achievement was a huge success and a reason to be happy in the
Ford, The Grapes of Wrath.
1930s. This type of childish happiness is presented in the scene after the family has settled down
in the government camp, and Ruthie and Winfield could not hide their excitement about real
sinks, showers, and toilets. Moreover, the simple dance of Ma and her son Tommy, on Saturday
night, caused a great smile on mother’s face. Those times were not abundant in happy moments,
and for this reason, each of them was so celebrated. At the end of the movie, the source of hope
was very simple – Ma Joad was convinced about salvation by just being with the people.4
The most striking sentiment visible in The Grapes of Wrath is the feeling of poverty,
famine, and ubiquitous feeling of shame and loss of dignity. The Great Depression was
bereaving people from their humanity, family, and lives. The horrifying conditions, which
workers were forced to live in, and greedy exploitation of people are repeatedly pictured in the
movie. The script was written in a way to evoke extremely sorrowful emotions. When Pa Joad
enter the restaurant next to the gas station and ask for a piece of bread for 10 cents, he is very
ashamed, that he could not afford the full prize bread. Compassionate chief allows him to take
the bread for free, but still, Pa wants to pay the counted dime for the bread, he wants no charity.
At the checkout, he notices the yearning look of his children at the candies. The moved waitress
makes up the prize, in the way he could afford sweets. Another sorrowful scene took place
during meal time, at the emigrant camp. Starving children gathered up around Ma Joad’s pot,
to beg for some food. Confused and terrified Ma gave away somewhat of the meal, but she was
filled with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness – she could not fully feed her own family,
not mentioning other children.
The overflowing feeling of embarrassment presented in The Grapes of Wrath is also
perceptible in other Great Depression’s texts of culture. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt
become a President, he immediately started realizing his New Deal policy fighting with the
Pauly, “Depression Allegories,” 96.
Depression. One of the elements of his program was his radio talk, known as the Fireside Chats.
Because of it, he appeared to be closer to the citizens, to be a man, whom they can rely on, and
ask for help. As a result of this feeling, thousands of desperate letters, addressed to Mr. and
Mrs. President, were sent to the White House. A great groan of the nation, begging for help and
money, manifested in these letters is a true witness of the Depression. Poor people, suddenly
deprived of jobs, houses, and dignity were feeling ashamed and humiliated when they had to
ask for help. One of the women wrote a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, in the hope that the First Lady
would send her some old clothes. “Please do not think me unworthy,” she begged. 5 In another
one, a mother of three children asked for some baby clothes and in exchange, she sent to Mrs.
Roosevelt her most precious possessions – the wedding rings. The hopeless of citizens and their
distress are saved in every line of these letters, as a factual source of the feelings of the Great
Not only is the Depression written in words and visible in scenes of the movies, but also
caught in photography. Pictures could be a storage of the nation’s collective memory and help
to understand the past. A collection of photographs, made by Dorothea Lange, was ought to
raise awareness of Americans and provide help to impoverished farmers. However, her work is
still having similar resonance, it informs people of the twenty-first century about the sentiments
and events of the past. Her most famous photograph is a portrait titled Migrant Mother. It
presents a worried mother of two kids, who has no opportunities, no money, and no job. Her
kids are hiding behind her back and holding her tight.6 This photograph, taken in California,
became a symbol of migrant farm workers, during the Great Depression.
Depression’s topic is also taken up in today’s culture. Many works, articles, research
papers, and documentary movies on this topic are incessantly showing up. One of the most
McElvaine, Letters from the Forgotten Man.
Lange, Migrant Mother.
famous contemporary references to the Great Depression and The Grapes of Wrath is Bruce
Springsteen’s folk song The Ghost of Tom Joad. It is a tribute to the character of a movie and
every drifter in 1930s. Springsteen sings about the Joad’s struggle of the one-way journey to
the non-existent promise land. “No home, no job, no peace, no rest.”7 The lyrics, monotonously
calm beat, and the sound of harmonica bring one into a melancholy mood, full of sorrow and
grief. That was Springsteen’s idea of how a Great Depression would sound, written down in the
form of notes and lyrics.
Taking everything into consideration, feeling the Great Depression is possible through
a variety of text of culture, from the 1930s and modern. The most extensive moods of the crisis
are inserted into a long journey of the Joads’ family in The Grapes of Wrath. Through the story
and audiovisual presentation of the movie, one can imagine and feel, how the depression
resonated on the USA’s citizens. The movie creates a personal and emotional bond with the
viewer, presents the most important values, and reflects the spirit of the Great Depression.
Family, land, hopes, fears, and the feeling of abashment are directly transferred to the mind and
soul of the viewer. The Depression is witnessed also in other texts of culture. Through the letters
to the Presidential couple, it is possible to imagine the sorrow of the people, thanks to Dorothea
Lange, it is doable to visualize it, and because of Bruce Springsteen, one can hear it. All these
Great Depression’s expressions help to understand the collective consciousness of Americans
and allow to understand better the spirit of those sad times. They could be perceived as
allegories of the Great Depression. 8
Springsteen, The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Pauly, “Depression Allegories,” 91.
Primary Sources
Lange, Dorothea. Migrant Mother. California, 1936. Gelatin silver print. 11 1/8 x 8 9/16".
McElvaine, Robert S. Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten
Man. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by John Ford. New York: 20th Century Fox, January 24,
Secondary Sources
Pauly, Thomas H. ”Depression Allegories. Gone With the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath as
Hollywood Histories of the Great Depression.” In Hollywood’s America: TwentiethCentury America Through Film, edited by Steven Mintz and Randy W. Roberts, 9199. New York: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
Springsteen, Bruce. The Ghost of Tom Joad. Los Angeles: Thrill Hill Recording, 1995.