Compare and Contrast Western Migrations

Published 13 Mar 2017

The word “migration” has been going on since the beginning of evolution, usually in search of food, protection, decent weather, and a safe place to live. Today, people still migrate but usually in search of a different job, or a desire to live in a different type of location – – either a smaller town or to a big city or a warm climate or even a colder. Comparing and contrasting the migrations in Grapes of Wrath and in My Antonia, show two different types of migrations that were a major part of our history at two different periods, involving different groups of people migrating for two entirely different reasons. Throughout the paper, the lives and experiences of these different characters are shown in their settings, both in their home country and that of the new land.

Different Motivations of the Migrations

The 1918 book by Willa Cather, My Antonia, was written in a setting of the Great Migration West to inhabit the plains of the North American continent. People wanted land to own and a better way of life to live, other than living on the crowded coasts or living overseas in poor countries with little agriculture prospects. The migration was called “great” because of the excessive number of people who desired to migrate to the West for land, choosing to leave the comforts of home for a better life in the West. One reason these people experienced such hardships were because of offers of “opportunity,” instead of staying home in an already established business or farm. Hardships and deprivation were a way of life for them once they arrived in the new land and during their long and hard migrating journey, as compared to their possessions and comfort they left behind in their original homes. Family and many loved ones were left behind, with many new immigrants never seeing them again.

The two type of migrations in each book were for two entirely different purposes, even though they were both a migration – – leaving their homeland for something better. The migrants and immigrants in My Antonia were not forced to leave their homeland, but chose to do so in the hopes of bettering themselves. Antonia’s immigrant family voluntarily left Bohemia with little money, furniture, clothing, books, security, and memories of a culture they had been part of and knew for generations. The only one who suffered greatly from coming to America was her elderly father, who never was over being homesick for his homeland. Little Jimmy was a migrant who had been orphaned in Virginia, and was heading out West to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Two different groups migrating at the same time on the same train, traveling in the same direction – yet Jimmy was not traveling by choice, but out of necessity due to the death of his parents.

On the other hand, Grapes of Wrath portrayed a group of people who were poor to start with and had no roots as they were poor tenant farmers in Oklahoma, forced on the migratory route to California due to events beyond their control. They had nothing to loose as they had already lost it all. In John Steinbeck’s 1939 book, Grapes of Wrath, the reason for the migration that occurred was an entirely different thing than that of My Antonia. Carl Sandberg’s poem, “The People, Yes” says it all,

In the darkness with a
great bundle of grief
the people march
In the night, and overhead
a shovel of stars for keeps,
the people march:
“Where to? What next?”

Jobless due to the stock market crash, the economic cost of WWI that brought our economy’s crisis response to a weakened condition, and the lowering of gold prices by Britain, all brought our nation’s economy to a standstill. The Dust Bowl brought agriculture down 50%, while farming output was up 6% – – all of this took 400,000 migrant workers onto the road within a short time, for a migration heading west for better jobs. In Grapes of Wrath, there was no choices available whether they wanted to go or not – – they had to leave. And they had to leave in a large group as everyone was living in poverty in the Southern Midwest areas when the Dust Bowl hit. When Tom got home from prison, he found his family over to his relatives, all discussing the migration that was coming. Most of the migrants, including the Joabs, simply wanted to live in a manner that they could eat, make some money, and could care for their family. But to do so, the Okie migrant workers would have to head off to California where they thought there were crops to pick and money to be made – – therefore, the migration west to the fruit fields of California was thought of as a land of “golden opportunity” for the migrants, as were those in My Antonia who left homelands because of the land of opportunity in America. Yet that was where the similarity ended, as one was by choice and one was by force – – which had a lot to do with their attitude when they arrived to their destination.

The Changing and Shaping of the Migrants by the Migration

In the Great Migration West in My Antonia, the migration helped shape and change the migrants for the better life as they voluntarily began their migration to the West, hoping to have something better for their future and that of their children. It was their choice to leave the security and financial resources for land that they could call their own. Even though Antonia’s father never wanted to leave Bohemia and was always homesick for it, her mother wanted the family to move to America, giving him and her sons a chance to become a wealthy farmers. He never could change with his new way of life and eventually killed himself, but Antonia became part of the land along with her mother and brothers, raising her own large family on it, yet still retaining her Bohemian culture and background. When they arrived in Black Hawk, NE, the mother carried a small trunk with their belongings from home, and carried it with care and love. The fact they left the culture they were born into did not seem to bother them, yet felt that had to bring some of it over on the ships to America to preserve the culture they left behind.
Meanwhile, in Steinbook’s Grape of Wrath, the fact that the Okie’ migrants could not find food or have a roof over their head had a lot to do with their decision to migrate to California and the surrounding areas for jobs. John Steinbeck meant his book to be taken literally, as he had taken it from his travelings on the migration route with the migrant workers. The fictitious Joad family in his book had lost their 40-acre farm to the banks, and were preparing to leave for California when their oldest son, Tom, arrived who had been in prison. Banks were hiring large tractors to work the land that used to belong to the tenant farmers, attempting to recoup some of their financial loss. People were forced to leave their land due to the Depression and Dust Bowl, leaving everyone with no money or assets. The choice of leaving was not available to them as it had been to those of My Antonia, yet not everyone in the Joab family wanted to leave. It was not long after leaving that the two grandparents died, one right after another, due to the stress of being forced to go to a strange home. None of the family really wanted to leave, but felt they had no choice – – it was a matter of starvation and staying, or leaving with the possibility of a new job in a new home, as they had lost everything already and were desolate. In the end, Tom begins to realize his philosophy of life was wrong, and that of the preacher friend was right. In the end, he feels that the migrants are a unity that needs to work together, due to their poverty and the intense dislike by the Californians.

The Relationship Between the Migrant and the New Land

When the migrants came to Nebraska in My Antonia, they found an extremely hard life and had to form a whole new way of life with the new land. When the narrator, Jimmy, finds Antonia and their family – – they are living in a cave as a home, as a form of dugout – – with five people living in it. Jimmy’s grandparents, on the other hand, lived in a white frame home with a cellar kitchen in comparison, even though most of their neighbors were like the family of Antonia and lived in dugouts and sod houses. Obviously the original home of the grandparents in Virginia was that of security and comfort, to the point even in the new country it was important to them. The cellar is where the kitchen was located, like the other homes, but the grandparents had built a wooden frame for the remainder of the home above this.

In My Antonia, Antonia’s family paid much more money for their farm and extras that was worth less than was paid, which meant many immigrants were probably taken advantage of due to their lack of knowledge of the area, lack of proper English, and not knowing how to handle business in America. The home they lived in was thought of by the neighbors with extreme worry for the winters for this new family, with nothing short of a few pieces of wood pounded into the dirt and a hill. Obviously they had been taken advantage of, as they even had to purchase a cook stove for twenty-five dollars that was not considered by the neighbors as worth even ten dollars. But throughout the story, Antonia, her mother, and brothers, all become stronger in the new land while the father seems to be of another breed and country, and eventually gives up. Jimmy thrives on the land and keeps a love of it, even as he becomes older and helps young men find work in Montana and Wyoming as a successful lawyer.

In Grapes of Wrath, the new land they arrived at wasn’t nearly as friendly as that of Willa Cather’s lands. They have troubles from the beginning, as the Californians are hostile to them and the landowners unite viciously against the migrants. Large companies and landowners exploit the migrants, forcing even the companies who are charitable to the Joads and others with them, to reduce their pay or they will be foreclosed on. This is opposite to the dream they had when starting out on their migration. The land of milk and honey of their hopes and dreams had now become hostile to them, forcing them to struggle just as much in California as they did in Oklahoma. One of the camp migrant families at Weedpatch had to sell their vehicle for ten dollars due to need, only to find it for sale later on at 75 dollars – greed and repression run ramped for the migrants, eventually forcing many to turn on each other yet with some helping each other. The camp had running water, toilets and showers, which make the Joads “feel like people again” and offered them twenty-five cents credit at the Weedpatch store. Ma Joad is a kind and optimistic soul, as compared to that of Tom, and the camp reinforces her belief in mankind.

Oklahoma offers little unfamiliar memories to a family that lived their life traveling for work as a tenant farmer. They did not have the security and stability that the families in My Antonia had, to the point a shower and a running toilet were things of luxury to Tom’s mother. Money always seemed scarce, and their life was a struggle. They were poor whites and traveled wherever work could be found, so the migration to California was not a new thing to them. What was new was the intense dislike the Californians had for them, and were fearful of the “need in the eyes of the migrants.” Jobs were not exactly plentiful due to the stock market crash and the country’s economy, so they were fearful of the migrants taking over their jobs and security. But the Californians are not the only ones struggling with the migrant move. Pa Joad struggled in the new land also, as his whole life had been that of tenant farming, and picking fruit in California combined with the intense dislike from the Californians, slowly destroys him to the point he loses his complete identity and mind. Without Ma Joad, the family would have gone down a long time ago, as the safety and welfare of her family is her entire concern the whole trip to California. A strong woman of high ethical values, she is the heroine in the story to many.

The homeland in My Antonia compares to that of Nebraska quite a bit with Jimmy, as he is supposed to live with his grandparents after his parent’s death in Virginia. His grandmother warns him that in Nebraska they don’t have as much to eat or have, so they need to be careful. Virginia is one of the older settled states during this time, and he and his parents had an established home. Yet Jimmy is happier with the new land at it is full of new and exciting immigrant neighbors, such as that of Antonia and her family, and he has freedom here that he did not have before. In the book, he seems to have a found a love of the life, which makes him happy in addition to enjoying his life with the grandparents. At ten, he begins a life with an open mind and full of curiosity.

Comparison of the Previous Life of the Migrant to the New Land

Antonia’s previous land was established in Bohemia, but obviously they were not a family of richness and luxury as they came to Nebraska to become rich landowners and farmers. Yet they obviously had been established in their original country, as the father was extremely homesick for what he considered his “home” which was full of fond memories. But the elderly father was sick and frail, and played music instead of farming, which in the old country he did for extra money. This demonstrates their need for money, but Jimmy wonders why they are always offering stuff to other people, instead of keeping it for themselves. Money obviously is unimportant to them, yet they are always hungry and the children are dressed poorly – – always cold and shivering. The land they have purchased is not quality farming land but rocky and hilly, and the shack is not of livable quality – – so they appear to be rather naïve in financial matters and also trusting honest people. Yet Antonia and her mother do not dislike the land, and consider it a home and a future. The only thing the father is concerned about is whether his Antonia will learn English in this new land, choosing Jimmy to teach her. There seems to be a connection between the land and Antonia to the point she never leaves, and spends her entire life here.

The previous land of the Joads was Okalahoma, where the Dust Bowl was helping lower an already struggling agriculture field in our country. The economy was bad all over the United States with the Dust Bowl focusing on the Southern Midwestern states. Previously in 1892, the Homestead Act had brought many of these immigrants over from other countries, along with migrants from the East coast. They began working the red grass on the prairie as a way to make money, eventually planting wheat. Others raised cattle that ate the grass down to nothing. Between the two livings of the people, the dirt was laid bare with high winds bringing about dust storms that have not been equaled to this day. The Great Depression was settling in when Tom was getting out of prison, so any fond memories the Joad family had of their homeland was demolished due to a life of eventual poverty that was even worse than the life they had lived prior to this.

Comparison between the Migrant’s Old Land and the New Land

The comparison lies between the two homelands lies in several areas. The family of Antonia, and also the Joabs, had a poor homeland and struggled for money, yet the poverty of the Joabs somehow seems worse, as they did not have a precious trunk to carry over or the money for a trip overseas to America. As poor as Antonia’s family was, they obviously had things that were vital in those days and a way to acquire money, even though they may have been considered poor in their home country. They came to America for a better life and land. Yet money was not as important to them as they were always offering what they had to their neighbors, which was always astounding Jimmy. When Antonia’s family first came to Black Hawk, Jimmy’s grandmother brought over housewarming gifts of food, which were greatly appreciated as they had eaten the same food they had brought over from their homeland, since arriving in Nebraska. It could be little spared, but the migrants and immigrations were courteous in those days – – gifts for welcome were part of being a neighbor in those days.

In Grapes of Wrath, the top of the vehicle had been loaded with possessions the Joads felt they could not do without, as did Antonia and her family on their trip overseas. As the trip went on, some of these possessions became not as important as the trip did itself. The trip from Sallisaw, Okalahoma, consisted of a long eighteen hundred miles and covered Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and California. They left a life what they hoped would offer the same thing to them in California, working in agriculture and picking fruit, and a way to make a living. That was all they hoped for and wanted. When they got there, the hostility of the Californians was more than they bargained for, with the same level of poverty and struggling for the migrants and lower class. But it showed a wide diversification between the large companies and those in power, and their treatment toward those less fortunate.

What is Home to the Characters in My Antonia and Grapes of Wrath

In My Antonia, what home meant was different things to each character. To Jimmy, the narrator of the story, at the beginning it meant a life in Virginia with his deceased mom and dad, but after arriving in Nebraska it meant a happy life with his grandparents and friends. He may have wanted to return at the beginning of the story, but eventually he could not image any other way that in Black Hawk, Nebraska. He had not desire to return to Virginia, as his view of home had changed as also his perception of what he wanted in life. To Antonia, home seemed to be in Nebraska from the start, continuing throughout her life. Every time she would leave the farm, as in having her baby, she would return to the land in Black Hawk for comfort and security as this was her home. To her mother, home was where success was and a prosperous future, and every minute of every day was spent in achieving that for her two sons, especially the eldest who was a lot like her. Whatever offered the most prosperity would be home to her. But Antonia’s father never really left his homeland, as he was always sad and homesick in his heart, to his death. He never could quite overcome it and greet the new land with hope and happiness. He never really returned to is homeland as he never had actually left it.

In Grapes of Wrath, the Grandfather and Grandma Joab had originally started the farm that was lost during the Dust Bowl. He said he would migrate but died the first day out, as his heart could not make the trip, with Grandma Joab passing away soon after. Tom’s Dad could not seem to grasp reality or his own identity after leaving the family farm also. It seemed as if the term “home” was harder to transfer with the older ones, and Tom was in transition in what home actually was. Young ones consider home as where there is food, comfort, and security.

Other than Grandma and Grandpa Joab, and Tom’s dad, home was where the Joabs could find work and care for their family. The location really was not important, as their whole life had been spent as that of a tenant farmer. The old saying, “Home is where the heart is” is where the home is for the Joabs, especially the mother. As long as her family is safe and there is security and food, she is happy, as home is her son, daughter, and husband.
Both books had characters looking for new homes for different reasons. Some made it, and others did not. But in order to look for a new home there seems to be something wrong with the old home, or migrating would have been out of the question. But after that, everything became different for the characters. The Joabs were more or less forced to move out of desperation, Jimmy was forced to move due to the death of his parents, while Antionia’s family moved out of choice for a better life. The background they all had mattered little for the reasons yet influenced the migration trip and the attitude toward their new life. Jimmy successfully survived the migration transition due to his young age and the type of grandparents he would live with. The Joabs who finally made it to California seemed well prepared to survive the struggle as Tom and his sister became better people, while Antonia and her family accepted the rough Nebraska land with all their heat, excluding her father.

The migration was part of our country past and is still going on today – – better jobs and more money seem to be at the forefront of every one of them, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. The fact that migrant workers were struggling made them easy prey by shysters and crooks, which did not help them when struggling in their new land. Even though the majority of immigrations, migrants, and migrations were not welcome in a lot of areas, the American people began this country with moves from many countries, such as England, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands to name a few. This “gypsy quality” seems to still be in the blood of many, and it keeps our country on the move and from becoming stagnant.


  1. John Steinbeck (1998). Grapes of Wrath. New York: Random House, Inc. Original print in 1939.
  2. Willa Cather (1988). My Antonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Original print in 1918.
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