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The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's acclaimed novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939. It tells the story of the Joad family from Oklahoma. The story is set during the Great Depression in America, a time of economic hardship and high unemployment in the 1930s. The story follows the difficult journey faced by the Joad family as they head west to California to look for work. It is written in the third person with an omniscient narrator. The novel was admired by both the reading public and critics alike, winning both the National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

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The Grapes of Wrath

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John Steinbeck's acclaimed novel The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939. It tells the story of the Joad family from Oklahoma. The story is set during the Great Depression in America, a time of economic hardship and high unemployment in the 1930s. The story follows the difficult journey faced by the Joad family as they head west to California to look for work. It is written in the third person with an omniscient narrator. The novel was admired by both the reading public and critics alike, winning both the National Book Award and The Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

John Steinbeck: the author of The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He was the author of over thirty books and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Growing up, John Steinbeck often worked on ranches with migrant workers, which may have influenced his later work The Grapes of Wrath. In 1920 Steinbeck attended Stanford University, although he never graduated and soon left for New York to become a writer.

Finding little success, John Steinbeck moved back to California. He wrote three novels to little acclaim and worked as a caretaker to make ends meet. His fourth novel, Tortilla Flat (1935), earned him recognition, closely followed by the success of Of Mice and Men (1937). In 1939, he published The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck died of heart failure in 1968 in New York City.

The Grapes of Wrath: plot summary

Overview: The Grapes of Wrath
Author of The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck
Published1939
GenreSocial realism, historical fiction
Brief summary of The Grapes of Wrath
  • The novel is about the Joad family, who are forced to leave their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl and travel to California in search of work and a better life.
  • Along the way, they encounter other migrant workers who are also struggling to survive and face numerous challenges including hunger, poverty, and exploitation by big businesses and wealthy landowners.
List of main charactersTom Joad, Ma Joad, Pa Joad, Jim Casy, Rose of Sharon
ThemesHuman cruelty, resilience, dignity, greed and generosity, the struggle for worker's rights
Setting1930s in the Salinas Valley of California
AnalysisSteinbeck portrays the devastating effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on American society and highlights the plight of the working class and the need for social justice.

The novel's protagonist, Tom Joad, has been released from prison and makes his way home to Oklahoma. On his way, he meets former preacher Jim Casy, a man whose political views become a great influence on Tom. They decide to travel together to Tom's family farm.

When they arrive they find the farm deserted, as are most of the surrounding farms. A neighbour informs Tom and Jim that the banks have had all the farmers evicted. They move on to Tom's uncle's farm where he is reunited with the rest of his family. The Joad family then pack their belongings to head west to look for work.

The Grapes Of Wrath, a close up image of a road with yellow and white lines stretching towards the horizon and route 66 painted on the centre of the road, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Route 66 today, the road that would take the Joad family west to California.

With their farm being repossessed and few work opportunities because of the drought, the family decide to head to California to look for work. Once they arrive on route 66 they see that they are not alone; the road is busy, and it appears many more are making a similar journey. The journey proves difficult.

Shortly after leaving, Grampa Joad becomes ill and dies. As they get closer to California, it becomes apparent work is not as plentiful as they had been told. As they reach a camp on the state border, Granma Joad dies and despondent Noah Joad and Connie Rivers abandon the group.

Once the Joad family reaches California the situation doesn't get any better. They find themselves in a hostile environment, the camps are overcrowded with migrant workers and the locals are angry. In one camp, Tom Joad and Jim Casy find themselves in an argument with a sheriff about forming a union. A fight breaks out and Jim Casy is arrested after knocking the sheriff unconscious. The Family find themselves on the move again as a result.

The Joads reach a government camp that is more welcoming than the camps they had visited previously. They make friends with fellow migrant workers and find work. However, the peace doesn't last long: the camp soon finds itself under threat from law enforcement who, under orders from the landowners, plot to burn the camp to the ground.

They reunite with Jim Casy, who is organising workers to demand better working conditions. Jim's actions have made him a number of enemies among the landowners and businessmen in the area.

Events reach a climax when Tom witnesses a group of police officers kill Jim Casy. Tom retaliates by killing two of them. He then goes into hiding and later decides to continue Jim's efforts in uniting the workers. Meanwhile, the cotton season ends, meaning the Joads no longer have any work, and floods ruin their camp. They take refuge in a barn on a hill where they encounter a dying man and his son. The novel ends with the eldest Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, nursing the starving man.

The Grapes of Wrath: characters

The Grapes of Wrath charactersDescription
Tom JoadThe protagonist of the novel and a former prison inmate who returns to his family's Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl. He becomes the leader of the Joad family and symbolizes the plight of the migrant workers.
Ma JoadThe matriarch of the Joad family who is fiercely determined to keep her family together through their struggles. She represents the strength and resilience of the working-class family unit.
Pa JoadThe patriarch of the Joad family who is initially reluctant to leave their farm but eventually becomes a strong supporter of his family's journey west.
Jim CasyA former preacher who becomes a mentor and friend to Tom Joad. He is a symbol of spiritual renewal and social justice, and his death foreshadows the sacrifices that will be made for the cause of workers' rights.
Rose of SharonTom Joad's pregnant sister who becomes a symbol of hope and renewal. She represents the potential for new life and growth amidst the devastation of the Dust Bowl.
Uncle JohnMa Joad's brother who struggles with guilt and depression after the death of his wife.
Grampa JoadPa Joad's father who dies early in the novel. He represents the older generation that is unable to adapt to the changing world around them.
Al JoadTom Joad's younger brother who is interested in cars and girls. He symbolizes the younger generation's desire for independence and modernization.
Noah JoadTom Joad's older brother who is mentally slow and eventually separates from the family. He represents the human toll of the Dust Bowl and economic depression.
Connie RiversRose of Sharon's husband who is initially optimistic about their future but eventually abandons her. He represents the men who are unable to fulfil their roles as providers and protectors during difficult times.

Main ideas and themes in The Grapes of Wrath

Here is a more in-depth look at the themes and ideas contained in the novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Human cruelty

The Joads' troubles are the result of extreme weather, with drought making farming difficult. But the Joads suffer most at the hands of their fellow man. It is the banks that repossess both the Joad family farm and those of their neighbours. The gap between the rich and the poor is the result of the greed of the banks and the landowners. As the banks and farms expand, the workers are treated worse and paid less. One farm goes as far as destroying food to increase profits, while the workers are starving to death.

The Grapes of Wrath, a man in a suit with a briefcase is walking past and gazing down at a person in more disheveled clothing sitting dejectedly on the ground, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - The division between the rich and the poor is prominent in the novel

The fierce competition for work causes migrant workers to become rivals. Earlier in the novel their dire situation forces workers to compete against each other for a handful of jobs. The locals and landowners of California feel threatened by the influx of migrant workers and treat them poorly as a result.

The power of the group

The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of two families, the traditional blood family of the Joads and the community of migrant workers. The Joad family are joined early on their journey by the former preacher Jim Casy, and then by the Wilson couple. They believe that their journey would be made easier if they joined forces. This is demonstrated when the Wilsons' car breaks down and is fixed by Al Joad, a favour that is returned when the Wilsons provide Grampa Joad with a suitable place to die.

Later we see the power of community when Jim Casy and Tom Joad attempt to unite the workers to improve working conditions. The only way that the migrant workers can improve their situation is by working together. The power of the group is stronger than the individual.

We’re proud to help. I ain’t felt so—safe in a long time. People needs—to help.''

Sairy Wilson exemplifies the power of community in chapter 13.

Resilience and dignity

The resilience and dignity of the Joad family is constantly tested throughout the novel. Despite the numerous hardships they face, the Joads and fellow migrant workers refuse to be beaten, they refuse charity in the worker camps, preferring to work for their food and keep their honour. Tom and Jim fight against the corruption of the landowners despite the heavy price they have to pay. The feeling around the camps is that as long as the workers keep their wrath, they keep their dignity.

Greed and generosity

Greed and generosity are competing forces in the novel, with the rich often depicting greed and the poor depicting generosity. The landowners and businessmen are blamed in the novel for upholding a system that keeps the families in poverty. Food prices are controlled to increase profits while creating competition for work keeps their wages low.

We see two examples of the chain reaction caused by both greed and generosity in the novel. In one chapter the owners of a petrol station treat their employee badly to keep profits high. In turn, the employee is hostile towards the Joad family. We also see the opposite effect generosity has when a waitress is seen selling bread cheaply to the poor, the truck drivers tip the waitress well as a result. In both examples, the reader sees that greed creates more greed, and generosity makes others more generous.

Reading the novel, can you find further examples of these themes?

The Grapes of Wrath: genre

The novel can be classified as a genre mix of social realism, naturalism, and historical fiction.

Social realism

The Grapes of Wrath is an enduring classic of American literature and an example of social realist fiction. The novel's commentary on the plight of migrant workers was damning, so much so that landowners and businessmen banned the book in states such as California and Kansas. The argument for banning was that landowners and businesses were being misrepresented and for the book's use of bad language.

Despite these protestations, the novel was immensely popular and exposed its audience to the hardships faced by the poor working class of 1930s America.

Social realism is social commentary in a realistic setting. Often used to critique social injustice, social realism is a sub-genre of realism, which began in the middle of the 19th Century. Charles Dicken's Hard Times (1854) is considered an early example.

Naturalism

In addition to its focus on social issues, The Grapes of Wrath also incorporates elements of naturalism, a literary movement that emphasizes the impact of the environment, heredity, and social conditions on human behaviour. The novel's vivid descriptions of the Dust Bowl and the challenges faced by the migrant workers reflect this naturalistic approach.

Historical fiction

The novel can be considered historical fiction, as it is set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and draws heavily on real historical events and conditions.

Steinbeck conducted extensive research for the novel, travelling to migrant worker camps in California and interviewing people who had experienced the hardships of the Depression and Dust Bowl firsthand. The Joad family and other characters in the novel are fictional, but they are based on real people and situations that Steinbeck encountered in his research.

The novel also incorporates real historical events, such as the development of the migrant worker camps and the conflict between the workers and the California landowners. Steinbeck uses these historical events to shed light on the social and economic conditions of the time and to critique the injustices faced by working-class people.

The Grapes of Wrath - Key takeaways

  • The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1939 by John Steinbeck.
  • The novel follows the hardships of the Joad family, and is set during the Great Depression in America.
  • The Grapes of Wrath was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
  • The novel is narrated in the third person.
  • The book is an example of social realism, historical fiction, and naturalism.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is about the hardships faced by the Joad family during the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath is an example of social realism.

The setting of the Grapes of Wrath starts in Oklahoma and follows a family's journey west to California.

John Steinbeck is the author of The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression in the 1930s in America

The argument for banning was that landowners and businesses were being misrepresented, and also because of the book's use of bad language

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