Thematic Analysis- The Grapes of Wrath and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Thematic Analysis- The Grapes of Wrath and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

A Story by LunalitSol
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Thematic Analysis- Bigotry and Loss of Humanity in The Grapes of Wrath and The                                                                                                                                    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass- An American Slave
Oppression lurks within every world. It is the pressure of the wind against one’s back, the burning of a book, the acrid scent of death and decay as it fills one’s nostrils, even when not tangibly there. It festers clearly between the covers of novels, in the midst of ink-and-paper worlds, like those of John Steinbeck and Frederick Douglass’ creation. Fredrick Douglass’ account of slavery, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, and John Steinbeck’s unflinching portrayal of class difference, prejudice, and brutal, underhanded tyranny during the great depression (I.e. The Grapes of Wrath) both illustrate many of Oppression’s worst manifestations. Among these are perpetuated bigotry and dehumanization. 
The propagation of harmful prejudices is a damaging form of oppression, both to the person against whom the idea rests and the person bearing the prejudice itself. In The Grapes of Wrath the prevalence of this is particularly prominent in the  relationship between the native Californians and the Dust Bowl migrants, those “damn Okies”. The Californians hate the Okies with the “fire of a thousand suns” and, together, they manage to jeopardize everything necessary for the survival of the other. The mentality behind this rivalry of sorts (“When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it-fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five. If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty. No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food…Me. I’ll work for a little piece of meat”) is one classic within the bounds of poverty. Speaking of which, poverty is yet another factor, for as the lack of wealth brought down the educational system and the people became increasingly, for lack of a better word, stupid, prejudice became an even more common venue, as none could afford to be educated to the contrary. Prejudice can even be traced back as a means of control for those wealthy-higher ups, the avarice-driven tycoons of the Great Depression. Their logic would be clear: if the poor are in contest with one another, if they believe that their condition is purely due to the presence of the other, if they feed into the thought that the disappearance of their supposed foes would bring about the end of their destitution, then they will have neither anger nor energy enough to fight the rich authority, nor will they even consciously blame them, as their prejudice is just growing and everything seems to be the fault of either “Oakie” or “Californian” or some other foreigner. “And the defending people said, they bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers.”
Meanwhile, this sort of drive to instill a virtue of prejudice is no stranger to the institution of slavery, either, in Frederick Douglass’ narrative. It seems to be that the thinking of the time was that if one was to allow any belief other than that the blacks were property, were filth, were, for all intents and purposes, savages that knew nothing of etiquette or, to be frank, anything else, to penetrate society, all would, if you’ll forgive the expression, go to Hell. This prejudice was used to keep a firm structure to things. As slavery was the main source of their prosperity, it was believed that without it we would fail and that, should anyone, either slave or master, begin to believe that the other was anything but the devil, the world would in its entirety collapse around them. In this way, no master could long remain innocent, nor slave benevolent. A prime example of this is Douglass’ mistress, one Mrs. Auld. In his own words, “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” Prejudice lends power, which in turn can only corrupt, and it is in this way that prejudice takes its place as one of the most damaging and effective means of oppression. 
There is only one other facet of oppression against which even prejudice quails and that is dehumanization. This, as exemplified in Douglass’ writing, is the very basis of slavery. They tell the slaves “You are not human. You are our property. You are a thing, not a person.”. One of the best shows of this to which we are privy occurs when Frederick’s old master, Captain Anthony, dies. Frederick speaks of himself offhandedly enough in that moment, saying: “I was immediately sent for, to be valued with the other property”. It is in this that one sees oppression at its very worst, as people are pressed into less, put into thinking as mere animals, without conscious thought or genuine feeling. “There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination.” Another aspect of this dehumanization was the absence of a sense of justice in their concern. When a slave, Demby, is shot and killed by an overseer who gives only the excuse that he had been becoming unmanageable, the defense was deemed satisfactory and the man continued on. “His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation. It was committed in the presence of slaves, and they of course could not institute a suit, nor testify against him; and thus the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured of the community in which he lives.” This lack of justice only further reinforces the prejudice within the wretched human community, as it is made to seem okay to view these slaves as not human, as purely property and nothing but. 
As surely as tangible slavery dehumanizes, so, too, does intangible slavery, and that was just the employ of the Judd family, and many others, within The Grapes of Wrath. As they were losing money and as they were robbed of their right to property, they were also deprived of the value of being a human in the United States. According to the pyramid of needs in psychology, one must first have their most basic needs met before they can worry about either the emotional wellbeing of themselves or of their global community. This is exemplified as the Judds are brought down this pyramid, in the same way they are made to be less than human. Their group splits apart and the reader is confronted with the beginning of human lives being seen, first by those in authority and then by the impoverished themselves as well, as worthless. Tom Joad, himself, is forced to confront this oppression as it turns him into a feral being. He loses much of the progress he had made towards valuing others and cultivating his self-control and thereby his progress towards becoming a better human being, instead dropping to less than he had been before, as he is confronted with the idea of himself as not a real person of any actual worth. The incident (“‘-they came for him…Same guys that turned us back on the road that night. Had pick handles…They killed ‘im. Busted his head. I was standin’ there. I went nuts. Grabbed the pick handle…I-I clubbed a guy.’”) can easily be seen as one of the most brutal outcomes of dehumanization and, by extension, oppression. The people, as they are thrown around, not like people but like tools, become less human and more creature, more carnal, furious, instinctive, animal. “And in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Oppression rids them of the line separating creature and person. It abolishes it, annihilates it. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.” This dehumanization is oppression’s worst crime. 
Oppression invades these paper-worlds, cuts through their binding, sears through it like a burst of flame, and leaves a smoking carcass of something once beautiful behind. In both The Grapes of Wrath and Frederick Douglass’ narrative, oppression tears people apart, whether through its degrading quality (taking you from someone human to less even than something: you become a grain of sand in the dirt), or its conniving, willfully-produced prejudices. Oppression ruins lives, jails souls for eternity, turns translucent opaque. Books are here to show the world, oftentimes, what can happen. Certainly, what will, should the world not pay proper attention. In this way, these novels warn humanity, for if they do not read, if they do truly nothing, they, like the characters of these books, will without doubt become truly enslaved. 

© 2010 LunalitSol


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Added on October 10, 2010
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LunalitSol
LunalitSol

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