Make it New- How do writers of the period represent the lives of the poor and the working classes?- John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Both John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? are set in America during the 1930’s and the plight of the poor and the working classes is represented as a response to the socio-economic problems of the time. Following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, America found itself amidst the Great Depression; a time of mass poverty, displacement and suffering. The Dust Bowl was so named after apocalyptic dust storms in the Mid-West states, which brought severe poverty and drought to the families trying to make a living working the land. Both texts draw upon the migration to the West to seek a better way of life, but this determinism is thwarted by nature and capitalism and by establishing a more naturalistic stance, captures the lives of the working classes and poor in their own environment. James Gregory believes that, ‘…the Dust Bowl Migration left a lasting legacy helping to bring to public attention…the unique vulnerabilities of a sector of the labor force that most Americans had previously ignored’ (Gregory, 2004, p2). In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck endeavoured to highlight the problems faced by the poor to bring their plight to rest of America. During the Great Depression, Hollywood fuelled the American Dream with all its glitz and glamour and thousands flocked to the west coast in search of work in the movies. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the central characters face exploitation and corruption in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. Richard Gray states that writers of the time, ‘…turned their attention to the lives of apparently average people caught up in a cycle of deprivation- turning to sex or violence…in a desperate attempt to break that cycle’ (Gray, 2012, p508) and McCoy uses this cycle to highlight difficulties faced by the poor and working classes.

In The Grapes of Wrath, nature takes a firm hold of the Joad’s destiny. With the Dust Bowl earning its name, the land they work becomes infertile. As tenant farmers they face an uncertain future when the owner of the land they work on decides to evict them. Using the inter-chapters as social commentary, Steinbeck is able to give a wider overview of the economic and social problems than just the Joad family; ‘The tenant system won’t work anymore. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p35). The unfairness is stifling and Steinbeck takes full advantage to portray the ecological disaster that has devastated the Mid-West. Thousands of families were displaced with little or no money or food, then lured out to the West with the dream of fruit picking and owning their own piece of land. The anonymous nature of the inter-chapters allows Steinbeck to portray these issues as a universal humanitarian crisis. As a result of this crisis, Steinbeck lays out a solution to the problem in his inter-chapter regarding man’s place in the world:

fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the                  foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe                                      (Steinbeck,1996, p151).

Steinbeck is showing that if man becomes less of an individual and stands together with his fellow man as a collective, they are more powerful and more likely to force a change. ‘For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I” and cuts you off forever from the “we”’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p152). As an “I”, Steinbeck represents the bank and the landowners and everything that is wrong with the country, representing capitalism at its best.

Railton argues that American capitalism is, ‘the roots of which had always been the promises of individual opportunity and of private property as a reward for taking risks and working hard’ (Railton, 1990, p28). Ownership becomes individual yet the “we” that is needed requires action, which is Steinbeck’s revolutionary call for social change. Carpenter argues that, ‘If need and failure produce only fear, disintegration follows. But if they produce anger, then reconstruction may follow’ (Carpenter,1988, p14). This is more distinct with Steinbeck’s final nod towards his solution in the last inter-chapter, ‘where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces and anger took its place…the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath’ (Steinbeck,1996, p434-435). It is evident that Steinbeck believed that if all men stood together, they would become more powerful and could effect the change that was so desperately needed.

Similarly, McCoy also demonstrates man’s desire to control nature and the exploitation of the poor. With the dance marathon taking place at the end of the pier in Hollywood, McCoy illustrates how far west Robert and Gloria needed to go in order to achieve the American Dream, ‘…it was built out over the ocean on pilings, and beneath our feet, beneath the floor, the ocean pounded night and day’ (McCoy, 2010, p 15). The ocean is symbolic of nature and shows how it is an unstoppable force that cannot be controlled. Lehan states that nature is, ‘…capable of the greatest endurance, despite the shiny city as a monument to man’s belief that he controls nature’ (Lehan, 1995, p34).  Whilst they are only able to hear the ocean and not see or smell it, McCoy illustrates an artificial world being swallowed up by exploitation and capitalism. Fine believes that, ‘Where the continent comes to an abrupt end against the cliffs, bordering the Pacific, the road, and with it the dream, comes to an end as well’ (Fine, 1995, p44). This is illustrated when Robert meets Gloria in the park, ‘It was very small, only one block square…Once you entered the park you had the illusion of security’ (McCoy, 2010, p9). The security Robert feels, is created by nature and in which, man cannot takeaway. Nature cannot be controlled unlike the working classes and McCoy uses nature to encapsulate the oppression imposed on the poor.

Robert is told to ‘”[k]eep that door closed!”’ (McCoy, 2010, p40) when he is caught watching the sun setting over the ocean and dances over the shadows of the sun to enjoy its warmth before it disappears, portraying Robert’s affinity with nature and as Richards states, ‘all qualify in his imagination as symbols of peace and harmony’ (Richmond,1971, p96). Yet it is the shutting out of nature that is part of the exploitation of the working classes. Richmond argues to view the novel as a ‘satire on the exploitation by racketeers of a desperate, debilitated society…or as a severe reproof of the social system that produced bread lines and relief agencies’ (Richmond, 1971, p92). Whilst Steinbeck sought to sound a revolutionary bell with Wrath and a call for social change, McCoy sought to expose the exploitation of Hollywood and shatter the American Dream. Nyman suggests that, ‘The fact that participants are mere commodities is revealed in that they are actually owned by the organisers who have the right to decide on their fate’ (Nyman, 1997, p261). Utilising Marxist theory, McCoy creates the dance marathon as an allegory of American capitalism; the dance hall becomes a factory, the performers become producers, and the audience become the consumers. McCoy uses this allegorical style to show the alienation of the individual and the capitalist nature of Hollywood, thus exposing the plight of the working class and the poor.

The most important thing to Ma Joad is to keep the family unit together. Steinbeck’s construction of the family unit staying together through any amount of hardship, portrays a hierarchy that was once patriarchal but has been subverted by the mother. Donald Pizer believes that the Joads are honest and primitive and at the same time, ‘there emerges the life-sustaining values of industry and pride as well as an instinctive generosity and compassion’ (Pizer, 1988, p86). This can be seen in Ma’s insistence that Casy travel with them on the road and her forcefulness to Pa saying, ‘”They’s been mean Joads, but never that mean”’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p102). Steinbeck is showing the family as a caring unit regardless of their class or status, giving them a humanity that the American public could relate to. However, Ma threatens violence when Tom suggests that he and Casy separate from the family unit. Threatening the group with a jack handle, Ma refuses to leave saying, ‘”What we got lef’ in the worl’? Nothin’ but us.  Nothin but the folks”’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p169).  There is nothing more important to Ma than to keep the family together and Steinbeck allows her to step forward and be heard, demonstrating the consequences of a separation of the family unit.

The social determinism in Ma and the active role she now has in the family shows the naturalistic theme of the text. The jack handle represents masculinity, and Ma now takes control from Pa in an attempt to take over the very little she has in her power.  McKay argues that, ‘without the unshakeable strength and wisdom of the mother, who must at times assent her will to fill the vacuum of her husband’s incapability, nothing of the family…would survive’ (McKay, 2010, p52). Her normal passive role as wife and mother is being transformed into an active role as Pa stands back and loses his position. Railton believes that, ‘The sufferings inflicted on the family bear witness not only to their strength of character but also to the evils of the social and economic status quo’ (Railton, 1990, p32). Steinbeck shows the family in crisis and the normal strand of hierarchy being lost, just as their land and home has been. The construction of the family unit seemingly breaking down as the effects of the economic and social crisis reaches fever pitch. At the Weedpatch camp however, Ma realises the effects on her are temporary when she receives kindness from the camp manager saying, ‘These folks is our folks…Why, I feel like people again’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p307). Steinbeck’s belief in the family unit, regardless of the adversity thrown at them, is a symbol of hope and this is all the Joads can cling onto.

Where the Joad’s belief in the family unit was their only hope, in sharp contrast McCoy illustrates the alienation of the individual. The dance marathon shows an arena-like world in which the poor were tempted to compete against each other for money. Nyman argues that, ‘the novel’s portrayal of contemporary popular culture…further emphasizes the loss of individuality and the end of humanity’ (Nyman, 1997, p270). Unlike Wrath, there is no family ideal here, only a Darwinian vision of survival of the fittest.  McCoy demonstrates that the exploitation of the individual is having such a profound effect on the working classes, that the family ideal is disintegrating. Richmond argues that, ‘Her denial of Ruby Bate’s desire to have a baby is a veiled wish for her own extinction’ (Richmond, 1971, p94) illustrating Gloria’s horror to bring a baby into the world and as James tells Robert, ‘Gloria wants her to have an abortion’ (McCoy, 2010, p17), portraying the family unit as an inconvenience. Although James and Ruby are married, the idea of another mouth to feed is incomprehensible to Gloria’s negative view of life. McCoy further emphasises this when the Mothers’ League for Good Morals try to close the competition based on their moral high ground. Richmond believes that they, ‘elicit from Gloria a most vociferous rejection of conventional morality as sham ritual’ (Richmond, 1971, p95) prompting Gloria to attack the very ideals that the American Dream is built on, ‘You drive em’ away from home with your goddamn lectures on purity and decency, and you’re too busy meddling around to teach em’ the facts of life-‘ (McCoy, 2010, p86). Not only does McCoy illustrate that the facts of life aren’t just reproductive, but true ‘facts of life’ are lost within the alienation of the individual demonstrating a lack of family ideal in a seedy underworld.

Steinbeck’s use of Old Testament references sees the Joad family’s journey as a pilgrimage and the dust storms as an apocalypse. Just as Jesus wanted to save his sinners, Steinbeck sends the Joads on a journey looking for salvation, as though God has forsaken them. The religious allegory throughout the text demonstrates just how harrowing the plight of the poor and working classes was. Railton believes that, ‘Casy’s presence is what allows Steinbeck to dramatize his concern with consciousness’ (Railton, 1990, p38). By alluding to biblical themes, Steinbeck’s social commentary gives the reader a conscience, therefore hoping to rouse the reader into action. Steinbeck likens the character of Jim Casy to a Jesus Christ figure. He is a minster who no longer preaches anymore but needs to find his own philosophy in life. When he meets Tom for the first time, he tells him, ‘used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin full of repented sinners half of ’em like to drownded’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p20) and then in explanation tells Tom, ‘The sperit ain’t in the people much no more; and worse’n that, the sperit ain’t in me no more’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p20).  The Joad’s hope is what keeps them going, yet Casy does not diminish this with his lack of faith. Instead, he is their guide to the path of righteousness, rightly or wrongly.  Even at the time of his death, Casy is seen to be sacrificed saying, “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’” (Steinbeck, 1996, p386) mirroring the words of Jesus at the time of His crucifixion.

The biblical theme continues when Rosaharn goes into labour, whilst the flood waters are rising around her. Steinbeck endeavours to expose the family to the most horrendous of hardships in a bid to evoke sympathy to their situation. Railton states that, ‘It is the moment of Rose of Sharon’s conversion. Out of the violent loss of her baby… comes a new, self-less sense of self’ (Railton, 1990, p43). The effect of the loss of the baby is hard to bear for the reader, yet Rosaharn, having found a new strength from within, breastfeeds the starving man, ‘She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously’ (Steinbeck, 1996, p455) seemingly taking over the role of Jesus from Casy. Steinbeck’s final scene is perhaps his most controversial as he makes a final appeal to the conscience of the reader. To show humanity in the face of such adversity, portrays the poor and working classes in such a way that it would be impossible not to be sympathetic to their plight.

In stark contrast, McCoy opts for a more philosophical approach. The two central characters are at opposite ends of a philosophical spectrum. Whilst, the nihilistic Gloria believes her release from the horrors of life can only come through death, Robert’s existential belief is that he can do anything. Richmond believes that ‘her participation in the dance is consistent with her view that nothing makes sense, that as a fugitive from life the contest is the last, most absurd posture of Angst’ (Richmond, 1971, p93). McCoy shows through Gloria’s insistence that the American Dream should come to her, her alienation in a society that promises much but delivers very little. When a celebrity arrives at the dance hall, Gloria refuses to clap and says, ‘You’re goddamn right I’m jealous. As long as I am a failure I’m jealous of anybody who’s a success’ (McCoy, 2010, p28). Though the epitome of the American Dream is those who work hard are rewarded, McCoy illustrates that this is not the case, thus showing how unobtainable it is.

For Gloria, entry into the dance contest is her belief that she will be seen by a Hollywood producer and put in the movies. Yet she is one of thousands whose belief is the same, saying ‘This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started’ (McCoy, 2010, p65), thus encapsulating McCoy’s view of life in Hollywood. However, Robert’s fantastical belief that he will become a director brings little relief to the nihilistic views of Gloria. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Robert moves towards an acceptance of Gloria’s philosophical position. On his reflection of the shooting of his favourite horse, he is told, ‘It was the only way to get her out of her misery…’ (McCoy, 2010, p120) mirroring the same words Gloria uses when she tells him to shoot her. Fine argues that by obliging Gloria, ‘he is indicating that if he has not quite come round to her nihilistic vision, he has come a long way toward it’ (Fine, 1995, p58). McCoy’s portrayal of Robert and Gloria’s philosophical view points illustrate the horrors of life for those in poverty during the Great Depression who are exploited and promised the ultimate American Dream.

Both texts demonstrate a betrayal that the West has not become the Promised Land and capture the plight of people in poverty during the Great Depression. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows the sheer adversity faced by poor families at a time of an ecological disaster. The realisation of the effects of the Dust Bowl, make the lives of these families virtually impossible. Evicted from their home as tenant farmers, the Joads cling onto their belief that as a family unit they should stay together and head west and with Steinbeck alluding to biblical themes throughout, is designed to evoke sympathy. Using the inter-chapters as social commentary, Steinbeck was able to point out the flaws in American society and to show the effect this had on the working class. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, McCoy’s portrayal of the poor and working classes is demonstrated as exploitative and corrupt. The nihilistic Gloria with her deluded view of life is in stark contrast to Robert’s fantastical optimism. McCoy shows the seedier side of Hollywood and through Gloria and Robert, highlights how unobtainable the American Dream really is.


Carpenter, F. (1988). ‘The Philosophical Joads’. In: Bloom, H. (ed.). Modern Critical Interpretations- The Grapes of Wrath. USA: Chelsea House Publishers.

Fine, D. (ed.) (1995). ‘Beginning in the Thirties: The Los Angeles Fiction of James M. Cain and Horace McCoy’. In: Fine, D. (ed.). Los Angeles in Fiction- A Collection of Essays. Revised Edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Gray, R. (2012). A History of American literature. Second Edition. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gregory, J. (2004). ‘The Dust Bowl Migration’. In: Mink, G. & O’Connor, A. (eds.). Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics and Policy. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Lehan, R. (1995). ‘The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West’. In: Los Angeles in Fiction- A Collection of Essays. Revised Edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

McCoy, H. (2010). They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. London: Serpent’s Tail.

McKay, N. (1990). ‘Happy [?]- Wife-and-Motherdom: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In: Wyatt, D. (ed.). New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nyman, J. (1997). Men Alone- Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-Boiled Fiction. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi.

Pizer, D. (1988). ‘The Enduring Power of the Joads’. In: Bloom, H. (ed.). Modern Critical Interpretations- The Grapes of Wrath. USA: Chelsea House Publishers.

Railton, S. (1990). ‘Pilgrims’ Politics: Steinbeck’s Art of Conversion’. In: Wyatt, D. (ed.). New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richmond, L. (1971). ‘A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance: Horace McCoy’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”’. Twentieth Century Literature. [Online] 17 (2) pp. 91-99. Available from: [Accessed 18/03/2018].

Steinbeck, J. (1996). The Grapes of Wrath. USA: Penguin Books Ltd


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