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Portrait of Fear in The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck shows throughout The Grapes of Wrath that mankind is afraid of failure. Although that fear is present in both the desperate migrant workers and the big, ruthless land owners, Steinbeck uses Al Joad’s character to his full advantage t model this characteristic of man. Al’s personal fear of failure motivates him to do well in life in comparison to his male role models, as well as to help support the family. This is conveyed through Al’s sense of responsibility to his family, his careful nature, and his moody and defensive behavior.

Al’s sense of responsibility to his family is a major element in his determination not to fail. His knowledge and operation of automobiles are Al’s major contribution to the family: “He might be a musking goat sometimes, but this was his responsibility, this truck, its running, and its maintenance… And everyone respected him and his responsibility” (Steinbeck, pages 131 and 132). Al not only helps the family succeed in getting to California by taking on this responsibility, he also makes up for other areas of his character in which he feels he is failing or lacking.

Such an area of character might be his apathy towards letting his family know his whereabouts when he disappears for days at a time in Oklahoma. Al’s careful nature is another obvious sign that he does not want to fail. He feels that precaution is the only way to prevent something from going wrong and ultimately failing. This is visible in his meticulous care of the truck: “Al grew tense over the wheel. A little rattle had developed in the engine. He speeded up and the rattle increased… Al blew his horn and pulled the car to the side of the road” (page 225).

Al’s care, though obvious only in that of the truck, definitely suggests that should he fail to properly maintain the truck, he would fail himself and his family as well. To offset such an event, Al constantly watches for and prevents any possible problems with the truck. Al’s moody and defensive behavior is also a strong example of his resolution not to fail. Although his attitude could be attributed to adolescent arrogance, one who examines Al’s character can see that he has more pressure placed upon him than most of the other members of the family.

Because he is expected not only to work to support the family in California, but also to transport the Joads halfway across the country safely, he feels pressured to do so flawlessly. His failure is apparent when the con-rod bearing burns out on the highway: “‘I don’t know what made her go out. I give her plenty of oil. ‘ Al knew the blame was on him. He felt his failure” (page 226).

The guilt Al feels from his failure makes him assume everyone else thinks he is to blame, which causes him to lose his temper: “‘Now go easy,’ Tom called. Take her slow or you’ll break a spring too. ‘ Al’s face went red with anger. He throttled down his motor. ‘Goddamn it,’ he yelled, ‘I didn’t burn that bearing out! What d’ya mean, I’ll bust a spring too? ‘” (page 226) The con-rod burnout reveals the side of Al that despises failure and fears what others may think of him. Events such as these encourage Al to make fewer mistakes in order to avoid guilt or embarrassment. Consequently, he is driven to make better efforts at helping the family and becoming a more successful person.

Steinbeck effectively exposes man’s preoccupation with failure not just in the novel, but in the world as well. He uses Al as a vehicle for this common human characteristic by showing that the fear of failing to meet one’s own expectations will motivate one to succeed. Because the combination of fear and failure makes such a powerful motivator, Steinbeck creates an enthralling theme throughout The Grapes of Wrath that forces man to examine one’s self and realize that one is always afraid of failing, no matter how confident and bold a facade one presents to the world.

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