Secondly, how humourous was that? Well, whether you chuckled or cringed, the idea of that video remains the same: that the biblical story of Exodus is about journey and wandering, about leaving one’s home for a new one, about powers beyond one’s control leading to this removal, but also about the possibility of regained authority in a new land. Facing slavery in Egypt, the Israelites fled from the cruel grasp of the Pharaoh to the hypothetical land of milk
duds and honey dew. The promise of freedom and dream-worthy potentials was enough for the Israelites to move away from their homestead and its restrictions. And though the farmers of the 1920s and 1930s were not, technically, enslaved by a Pharaoh, they were under the iron fist of the banking system. When that banking system became unruly and unscrupulous with the Great Depression, the farmers, and their literary counterparts in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are forced to wander.
The exodus of the Joad family, and others in the novel, does not initially have a land of milk and honey, no promised land where they could survive and thrive. Initially, the farmers’ children were left asking “What we going to do, Ma? Where we going to go? The women said, We don’t know yet” (Steinbeck 36). These tenant farmers, who worked the land owned by the banks of America (please don’t sue me, Bank of America), become disillusioned and out of work when the Depression-struck banks replace them with more financially efficient forms of farming. This sudden loss of land, work and home for the farmers forces them into a twentieth-century exodus away from the fields their families worked on for generations. Like the Egyptian Pharaoh, the banks’ unwavering cruelty and disregard for humanity leads to their workers’ forced wandering in search of a new home and a new beginning.
George Henderson argues that this wandering, and this exploration of geography through the narrative by the Joads, is the central part of Steinbeck’s work. The Joads find themselves displaced from their/the bank’s land in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, to Uncle John’s crowded home (Steinbeck 72) to, eventually, the sunshine state of California. Henderson argues: “The Grapes of Wrath cannot be understood fully unless the characters are seen to fully develop in relationship to the places through which they moved…you cannot understand California unless you know what is occuring outside” (213).
How the characters perceive the land is crucial to the novel, as it is to the biblical Exodus and the Israelites. The journey from birthplace to the transitional road to a place of optimism (Egypt/Oklahoma, the desert/Route 66, Milk and Honey/California) thematically connects biblical times to the Great Depression. The perception of surroundings by the Israelities or the Joads, how they connect or disconnect to it is crucial in how these feelings evolve and change over time and with further travels. Though Egypt and Oklahoma were viewed as homesteads, albeit plagued by slavery or tenant farming, new places of security, comfort and above all freedoms would be sought by foot or by car.
This need to wander, to exodus-es, however, is not restricted to biblical times or the Great Depression. The Recession of 2008, though seemingly far removed from pyramid-building slavery or tireless tenant farming, would echo many of the issues faced by the Israelites and the Joad family. The upheaval of families from their homes became especially daunting during this modern-day economic crisis.
William Patalon III details the stark similarities between the Depression and the Recession, including similar foreclosure rates; 13.3% in 1933 to 2.5% and growing in 2008, with one-quarter of all mortagages teetering close to the proverbial, economic edge. Away from the numbers, because this is an English academic blog afterall, the stories of those struggling through the recession of four years past mirror those written about by Steinbeck. Richard Brown, who lost his job and home in 2009, found himself living with friends and relatives while looking for work (Schoen). Like the Joads bunking with Uncle John, or Jim Casy tagging along for some comfort and support, this story of crowded and transient living draws dramatic parallels between the present and the past.
Next time: Jim Casy, Tom Joad and Moses, preaching to the choirs!