Check Your Understanding

How does Steinbeck organize the information he reveals about the first family in the text? How is the family introduced? What does Steinbeck describe first, and what connections does he make between their living conditions and the state of their health? Cite specific textual evidence in your response.

Answer: Steinbeck introduces the family by describing their deplorable living conditions. He then describes the filth that can be found within their makeshift dwelling. In paragraph 3, he says: “The tent is full of flies clinging to the apple box that is the dinner table, buzzing about the foul clothes of the children, particularly the baby, who has not been bathed nor cleaned for several days.” In the next paragraph, he states: “There is no toilet here, but there is a clump of willows nearby where human feces lie exposed to the flies–the same flies that are in the tent.” In paragraphs 5-7, he proceeds to describe the four-year-old boy who dies from convulsions. The sequence of events that Steinbeck describes leads the reader to the conclusion that these squalid living conditions, combined with a poor diet, have contributed to the boy’s death.

In paragraphs 5-6, Steinbeck writes that when the father and mother saw that their four-year-old boy had eyes that were “feverish,” they gave “him the best place in the bed. But one night he went into convulsions and died,” and “[i]t was one step down.” What does Steinbeck mean by the phrase, “one step down”? What comparisons can you make between the first and second families the author describes that explains what he means when he talks about the middle and lower classes of the squatters’ camp, and why this tragic event is “one step down”? Support your answer with specific textual evidence.

Answer: In paragraph 6, the meaning of the phrase “one step down,” which is used in conjunction with the four-year-old boy’s death, is not apparent until Steinbeck writes about the lower-class family, in paragraph 14. This second family has suffered a number of deaths. In paragraphs 20-21, we learn that the mother has given birth to a baby that was born dead; another child, “born less than a year ago, lived a week.” In addition, a three-year-old child suffers from malnutrition and likely “will die in a very short time.” These deaths are the result of a lack of proper nutrition, and now that the “middle-class” family has also lost a child for the same reason they are “one step down,” or closer to becoming “lower-class” migrant workers.

Make connections between what happens to the boy in the “middle class” family and the events that happen as a result. Annotate examples in the text and identify any important transition words or phrases in paragraphs 7-10 that signal interactions between individuals and events.

Answer: Steinbeck writes in paragraph 7 that with the boy’s “death there came a change of mind in his family. The father and mother now feel that paralyzed dullness with which the mind protects itself against too much sorrow and too much pain.” In the next paragraph he writes that as a result, “this father will not be able to make a maximum of four hundred dollars a year any more because he is no longer alert. . . . His spirit is losing caste rapidly.” According to paragraph 9, the “dullness shows in the faces of this family, and in addition there is a sullenness that makes them taciturn.” Also, in paragraph 10, the children, who are dressed in rags, will not go to school because they are “scorned” when they get there. Important transition words and phrases in paragraphs 7-10 include: caused, now, because, in addition, and sometimes.

In addition to the actual horror of physical death, Steinbeck describes the stages a family goes through before reaching the lower class, and compares it to a kind of death. Evaluate his claim that falling from middle-class prosperity and self-sufficiency into poverty is a kind of dying. Highlight evidence from the text that supports this idea.

Answer: Steinbeck describes in paragraph 13 the “middle-class” family just before it slips into the “lower class” He claims that “[D]ignity is all gone, and spirit has turned into sullen anger before it dies.” Clearly, the life is seeping out of these people. Vivid details bolster Steinbeck’s argument that poverty is a slow death; it is the death of the self-respect people have when they can take care of themselves and their children and pay their own way.

In “The Harvest Gypsies” Steinbeck presents facts and information about a historical event in U.S. history–the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. He does not use sensational descriptions of the conditions he found in the migrant camps. He also does not give his opinion. What effect does Steinbeck’s straightforward expository style have on the level of empathy readers feel for the people he describes? Highlight specific evidence from the text that will support your ideas.

Answer: Steinbeck does not depict the conditions he describes vividly or emotionally. He lets the facts speak for themselves as a journalist does. In paragraph 21, he states that after the mother’s baby was born dead, “the mother rolled over and lay still for two days.” In paragraph 20, he says that the three-year-old suffering from malnutrition “will die in a very short time.” These are clear, almost matter-of-fact statements that readers can understand; we all feel compassion when we hear that someone has lost a child or is dying. By presenting these details as just another event in a series of days and weeks, Steinbeck shows the reader how the events feel to those experiencing them. A lack of drama or commentary may also make these details seem more believable–more like real life–to the reader.