Conflict of the Working Class in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”

Since the creation of humankind, man has faced the war of conquering the land, to attain its ownership. Be it during the times of the Homo sapiens, when man fought against the wildest animals, creating its own pastures of growth and living, or the times when lands were being shaken by monstrous machines brought by the Industrial Revolution. Thus, it is the nature of Man, to conquer and live in dominance, with a group left to suffer. However, the amount of misery is what defines the difference between man of the Stone Age, and the man of the IT world, the modern technology.

Such topic of conflict between the working class and that on the ruling side is the theme in most of the novels written by John Steinbeck, renowned for this elaboration and profound creativity shown in his novels, “Of Mice and Men,” (1937), and “the Grapes of Wrath,” (1939).

Steinbeck is famous for his stories, showing the war of the good versus the evil, and thus chooses to write the tales of the hardships faced by the people of his own soil, in the struggle to create a stronger society. And due to his strong works and words of wisdom he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

The novel, “Of Mice and Men,” has its setting situated at the time when the world was most profoundly hit by the manifestation of the Great Depression, leaving it in a state of chaos, economic down turn as well as social degradation at every level. A time when problems were seen in every household, and when nobody could survive without tasting its bitterness, Steinbeck gave life to the protagonist of his story, George Melton, who is accompanied by his mentally handicapped friend Lennie, which he picked directly from the convulsions of the real world.

It is believed that before Steinbeck started writing the book “Of Mice and Men,” he traveled deep into the masses, researching personally as to the life that these wanderers and the labor class actually lived. During the 1930s when the story is set, and the period earning bread was like war each day, and when labor management conflicts were on their peak, the author tried his best to define the cross section boundaries of the society and the problems of stress and mental unhappiness that it shared.

The plot of the movie defines how George out of friendship tries to carry on with Lennie, in search of a piece of land in California, when Lenie is mentally handicapped and has the obsession of holding onto soft living things, be they be mice, rabbits or any other creature.

George acts as a father head onto Lennie, and thus the two move along as immigrants in search of a ranch. When they were at the brink of almost owning their own piece of land, Lennie, who was strong, but mentally incapable, accidentally kills the ranch owner’s daughter-in-law. George no matter is taken back by another incident which will miss him the opportunity of mere survival, shoots Lennie in the back of his head, in order to prevent him from the vengeance of the victim’s husband.

The novel comes from Steinbeck’s own experience and travels that he made after dropping out from university, in the quest of finding the greater truth to the world. Milton and Small as the surnames of the two men describe that all the labor was treated, as being microscopic in his book, is a symbol of the weak and poor working class who appear nothing in front of their bosses and owners. It shows how the working classes own powerlessness and marginalized position leads them to social instability, such was the case of the accidental death of Curley’s wife, from Lennie’s hands. It mars the world where all forms of human interactions are controlled and monitored by misunderstandings, jealousy, and revenge.

While reading the text of this novel, a person is forced to embed in his mind the scenario in which the two men are clinging onto each other. It is the idea of commitment, amiability, hope, and loneliness, which keeps them encapsulated in a shell of combined dream and friendship.

Another novel, which describes the horrors of a similar aristocratic society, ruled by the riches and condemned to live in for the poor in Steinbeck’s novel, “Grapes of Wrath.” The novel is a cruel depiction of various tragedies which befall a similar migration as that of George and Lennie, (Of Mice and Men), except the fact that here the entire family of the protagonist, Tom Joad, makes the incessant journey of misery.

Both of the books show how unemployment and hunger, make the leading roles desperate for committing crime, making them murderers through the pressures of the society. As Steinbeck describing the journey of poverty, to hunger and then to crime states at one point in “Grapes of Wrath,” that, “On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.” (Steinbeck, pg 363)

Before writing this book, John Steinbeck, made a three year long research into the lives of the working class, trying to have an in depth analysis of their lives. Thus, the critics who claim that his books are too harsh, and very pessimistic towards the era of Great Depression, it just shows that what had been written earlier by the rest of the writers actually had lacked sustenance and research into the truth, which is way more grave than what had been portrayed by the others.

The book, “Grapes of Wrath,” instills the tragedies befallen by the Joad family. After the return of Tom Joad from the prison, in the case of a homicide, he learns that the crops back home have been destroyed and that his family is being forced out of their own land due to the non-payment of loans. In the chaos, Tom learns of the new land of California, where the government is distributing land to the unemployed, thus taking it as the beacon of light he invests all the family’s possession into the idea of migration from Oklahoma to California.

While they are still in the way, he with his six children, parents, wife, and son-in-law that they learn that their land of dreams was a fake alternative presented by the government, and most of the families were returning home. However, Tom decides to continue with the journey, as they had nothing left to return to.

In addition, tragedies start to pave even further into the family, when two elder sons and son-in-law abandon the journey, his daughter gives birth to a still child, and his parents die. When they reach California, a strike breaks out; and they are forced to participate in them, Tom murders yet another man, and flees to sacrifice his life for the revolution to come. The story ends with a hope of misery when Tom’s daughter acts as a wet nurse for a man dying of starvation; depicting how the sufferers were willing to even give a part of themselves in order to save each others lives.

Steinbeck elaborates various themes of human suffering and competence throughout his book, making it less of a piece of fiction but rather an important social document. The book talks about the inherent bond of man with his own land, which exists with him throughout his life. For example, when Grand Pa of the Joad family, was forced to go through the migration, he remained intrinsic about it, and to let go of the relationship, he passed away even before they could reach the soils of the new land, as he sates, “This here is my country. I b’long here. An’ I don’t give a goddamn if they’s oranges an’ grapes crowdin’ a fella outa bed even. I ain’t a-goin.” (Steinbeck, pg 142)

Both the books raise the fundamental questions of justice, ownership, stewardship of land, the role of the government, power, aristocracy, and the very foundations of the capitalist society. Steinbeck a master story teller, thus through the presentation and lay out of his characters is immediately able to gain his audience’s sympathy, not only for the story presented but also for the entire era of repression and disillusionment of the labor force around the world.

They discuss the physical features of America in the 1930’s when no matter stuck in the era of Great Depression, even the crop lands of the country were drying up, leaving the shear holders and the farmers out of job. Thus, the lands were becoming profit less and the tenants could not even grow enough to fulfill their own family’s needs. The government in order to relieve people of their disastrous situation makes them dream of the Promised Land of California, with its lush green farms and lands which could support any kind of crop. However, what it had shown as fruitful turned out to be nothing but a lie, which Steinbeck states as “The Lost Paradise.”

There was defined distance and difference between the working class and the labor, and it is quite evidently shown in the novel, “Of the Mice and Men,” when George begs Lennie to be careful in front of the boss’s son who had pride accompanied to his power. As the author states,

“Lennie’s eyes were frightened. ‘I don’t want no trouble,’ he said plaintively.’Don’t let him sock me George.’ George got up and went over to Lenie’s bunk and sat down on it. ‘I hate that kinda bastard, I seen plenty of ’em. Like the old guy says, Curley don’t take no chances. He always wins. If he tangles with you Lenie we’re gonna get the can. Don’t make no mistake to that. He’s the boss’s son.’” (Steinbeck, pg 29).

A similar idea of hierarchy is also established in “Grapes of Wrath,” whereby Steinbeck establishes the fact that the greatest suffering brought to the migrants was not through bad weather conditions or the problems faced during traveling, but rather their fellow human beings brought it. The tragedy, which encapsulates the working of every society, is the difference endowed by historical, social and economical difference, which divide people into categorize of rich and poor, landowner and tenant, with the dominant bosses struggling to preserve their positions by all means.

Steinbeck relates the threats brought by the migrants to the landowners of California, by relating history of their existence in “Grapes of Wrath,” stating how the present owners had initially come themselves as migrants, had snatched the fields from Mexican inhabitants, thus the new coming migrants were a fear of history repeating itself. As he quotes, “Men who had never waver wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants.” (Steinbeck, pg 362)

Therefore in order to protect themselves, the landowners tried to create such a system that it treated the migrants worse than animals, when they are moved from one road side camp to the other, are offered wages less than the minimal wage law, and are forced to live with hatred against their own kind. Moreover, the main conflict, which existed between the two classes that is the elite and the labor class, was the lack of education and awareness, which left them meager and weak. As George in “Of Mice and Men,” once states that,

“If I was bright, if I was even a little bit smart, I’d have my own little place, and I’d be bringin’ my own crops, instead of doin’ all the work and not getting what comes outta the ground.” (Steinbeck, pg 39).

Thus, Steinbeck through both his novels identifies the line, which separates the migrants from the privileged class, living their lives in peace and luxury while the others are even denied the right to live.

More than the conflict of human classes there is also the presence of man capabilities being taken over by the coming era of machine life, whereby human labor is left without work by more efficient and less time-consuming machines taking over his working abilities.

The writer identifies this also as a time when America was moving steadily towards a structural change, which left people more unemployed an effect of the Industrial Revolution. People were unskilled, illiterate, and poor or they were the bosses running the ranches, which was leading to the formation of agricultural co-operations, leaving the poor farmers jobless. As Steinbeck states in “Grapes of Wrath,”

“And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and the pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the price of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit.”

(Steinbeck, 363).

The part when “Of Mice and Men,” talks about loneliness and the greed of every individual to attain more amiable relations, “Grapes of Wrath,” show how saving a family and its tradition keeps the individuals alive bequeathing them with hope and the power to struggle. Tired from traveling with little hope, and taking abuses from various bosses, George at many points marks out to Lennie that, “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place.” (Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, pg 15) While in the other book it is seen that Joad finds himself automatically attached to all the other families migrating on the road with him, and a sense of commitment to one another, which affirms a bondage stronger than that of blood. Even at work, the two groups combine sharing each others hardships as well as fighting for survival as a community, as it states, “twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” (Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, 194)

The main theme, which tries to struggle through in the novel, is that of human-to-human misunderstanding. Steinbeck believes that most of the conflicts, which enthrall our lives today, could be resolved if men start to listen to each other, gather patience within themselves, and remove the stereotypes preconceived for each type. This could help celebrate humanism in the society, dismiss the social injustice and would elevate injustice prevalent especially amongst the labor class.

His greatness as a writer can be determined by the empathy of the working class that he carries within his novels. Themes of joy, justice, loneliness, anger, and frustration, are commonly sewn in his writing as they were in the lives of the individuals during the Great Depression. The misery and the oppression between the working class in anguish and the dominant class in success, is portrayed by him as he states,

“How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him–he has known a fear beyond every other.” (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, pg 300).

Both the novels, narrate the chaotic labor situation prevalent upon the Californian farms, in the 1936, the year when Steinbeck himself traveled across the region, obtaining a more realistic picture of their situation.  This was the time of major conflict between the farm labor and the agricultural government, who was leaving the farmers unpaid, oppressed, and hungry. Strikes were a common feature, while communist leaders were on their way to start a revolution for the labor.

From the year 1935 to 1940 thousands of these farmers exiled from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, to California, however, the land was still not enough to provide work or pieces of lands to these refugees. Therefore, there was a large influx of people, moving up and down the land looking for jobs, for the sake of survival. As Steinbeck explains in the Grapes of Wrath when Joad explains in a frustrated manner that,

“It ain’t that big. The whole United States ain’t that big. It ain’t that big. It ain’t big enough. There ain’t room enough for you an’ me, for your kind an’ my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat.” (Steinbeck, pg153)

The two books are not written in order to provide the historical events and the controversies of that era; however, they present an impartial picture of the strike. They display the daily agony of the disposed workers, in the unknown lands of California, where they are met with inhumane conditions made to live lives of animals.

Living for a better future and surviving through the present seems to be the struggle portrayed by Steinbeck in his works. For George and Lennie, a perfect life would be when they could have their own piece of land and didn’t had to deal with a boss, as it states,

“’Well,’ said George, ‘we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll just say the hell with goin’ to work, and we’ll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the raincomin’ down on the roof.” (Steinbeck, pg 14-15).

On the other hand, the dreams of the workers in “The Grapes of Wrath,” are encased in prospects of endurance, holiness, and humanity. For them the future and dream was change, a revolution which was yet to come. A case of anxiety and pain which was started by the author in “Of Mice and Men,” showing little dreams of poor individuals, is placed to words in “The Grapes of Wrath,” whereby the working class is given a hope, a path which is more sustainable to dream on. It emphasizes that,

“They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearin’, an’ bearin’ an’ dyin’ is two pieces of the same thing. An’ then things ain’t so lonely anymore. An’ then a hurt don’t hurt so bad.” (Steinbeck, pg 262).

Most of the critics believe that he is great depicter of realism; however, one through careful analysis only comes to realize that both “Of Mice and Men,” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” do not mention the atrocities of ethnicity, nor do the raise the cry of feminism. His texts are merely symbolic representations of truth, which he hides away in an austere, without making them books of history, rather tales of human agony and conflict.

 What Steinbeck had not thought was the negative criticism, which he gained through his books, when they were stated to have a tougher language, portraying graphic scenes, which were too offensive and rude to some of the readers. While some also believed, that Steinbeck showed a greater sympathy to the Communist view than the amount required for writing the pieces of fiction. Mostly it was the Californian agricultural community, which objected their negative characterization as farmers; shown as corrupt, unemotional, and rude land lords unwilling to help the migrants and the working class.

It is by the end of the novel, “Of Mice and Men,” that one understands the complete meaning of the title of the book, which has been taken from Robert Burn’s poem, “To a Mouse,” in which he states, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.”( Burns, R. 1776).

The poem talks in analogy of how the working class then was no better than mice in the street, powerless, scared, and hungry. Of how they search for work, in every season, roaming in the wild, while still unable to gain anything worthwhile. No matter the plans made by both the mice and the men never reach their destination, but still hey continue to struggle and plan to live the next day through hope and determination for a brighter sun to shine one day.

Moreover, the message contained by “The Grapes of Wrath,” is that of dignity and self respect, which a human should not let go of no matter how hard the circumstances are. According to Steinbeck, the family underwent the most crucial times of migration, loosing their children, the death of the grand parents, birth of a stillborn, but they never let the environment or the situation take over their only possession that is hope and their responsibilities upon to others.

While the landowners had developed such a system of selfishness and cruelty that it sank thousands of families in plain poverty. Whereas the migrants unite, sharing dreams and burdens together. This fact is clearly seen when the daughter of the Joad’s family, nurses a man dying of starvation, depicting the immense value of human life that they hold. Despite they are illiterate and live savage life unlike the elite class, but cannot see the humankind suffer, and with this very notion, the author concludes his book of suffering and hope.

The common thread, which binds these two novels together, is not the fact that it shares a common setting or was set up in the same period; but most importantly, it talks about human suffering and misery; while Steinbeck reveals these truths through the depiction of his variant characters. Whereas both the stories represented poor people with lofty goals, which ended up in their dreams being destroyed by the rich and unjust system of the governing bodies, leaving no opportunities for the poor.

The message that both his books, which end in utter tragedy and a silence for the audience to grasp the pain and helplessness of these migrants and their low working class; is that for Steinbeck dreams did not exist. Dreams as he suggests through his novels only made the working men, worthless and hopeful for a piece of nothing which could not be made their own, would only leave them in greater misery and agony. What it required was a greater change in the form of a revolution, which would not only change the status of the people, but would also disembark the conventional thinking of the elite and powerful class. As Steinbeck states,

“In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, pg 445).


Burns, R. (1776). To a Mouse. Retrieved on June 16, 2009 from

Dr. Susan Shillinglaw (2004). John Steinbeck, American Writer. The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. Retrieved on June 17, 2009 from

Steinbeck, J. (1994). Of Mice and Men. Penguin Classics

Steinbeck, J. (1997). Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books