The Grapes of Wrath as both a film and a book do not approach the refugees as much more than victims in a broken system or suffering the plight of the land. Their struggle, according to John Steinbeck and John Ford, is one to which all kinds of people can relate. Steinbeck says the people are beaten down by the agricultural business and need to band together to take down the bitter system and reclaim the land and their livelihood, the same way their ancestors forged the West generations before. Ford says the people are forced to go the way of the system, but they have to be strong in order to preserve their lives as they were before the Dust Bowl Era by way of staunch individualism and democracy.
Steinbeck’s understanding is in the Progressive vein of thinking. He praises unions and encourages people to join together and fight for equality as though they are all one family. The book was not necessarily written for the refugees he wrote about, but instead for a higher class of people. The Progressive elements were for the sake of getting people to sympathize for the refugees. The actual refugees themselves were much more conservative and had goals of making it through the tough times until they were capable of picking up where they left off.
Ford’s understanding was probably closer to the refugees’ perspective, but with a twist. Ford is known for having main characters who were rugged individualists, forging their way through tough circumstances. He made the Joads into an ideal individualist family, with Tom wandering off to help “the people” and the rest of the family feeling connected to “the people” without actually being active in its overall climate. The refugees, in reality, were much closer to being individualist than Progressive, but most had no intention to buy into the overarching theme of many becoming one.
The refugees were often conservative and reluctant to unionize, hardly seeing themselves as victims so much as unfortunate people trying to get through their lives comfortably. Their approach to the catastrophe that put them into the occupation of migrant worker was to simply ride it out until the situation improved. And, despite both Progressive and government efforts or gradual change spurred on by “the people”, the explosion of wartime economy was the real hero that saved them. The wandering people could join factories or the army, and they earned much more than they did at the slow crawl of migrant work. They were happy to not receive government aid or try to fix the system on their own; they just moved into new jobs, closing the chapter on their involvement in the migrant workers’ story.