The Joads sell their farming equipment for eighteen dollars to flee the Dust Bowl drought. With Jim Casy, a preacher who stresses the holiness of all individuals, the family leaves Oklahoma to find work in California.
Hardship begins at once with Granpa Joad’s death. Later, Granma dies in Ma Joad’s arms during a night crossing of a desert leading into California. Ma conceals this fact until morning to prevent a delay in reaching their supposed Eden.
The Joads cannot find work since droves of “Okies” have fled to the same “promised land.” The family is forced to live in poverty while slowly losing its individual members. Noah follows the shoreline of a river into oblivion. Connie flees his pregnant Rose of Sharon.
After leaving the haven of a government camp for migrants, the family loses Jim Casy, who is killed in his efforts to organize labor. Tom kills Casy’s murderer and goes into hiding. The remaining family finds work picking cotton and make their home in a boxcar. Here, Rose of Sharon makes a sacrifice which provides the novel with a controversial ending, symbolizing the fortitude of the human will to survive.
The Joads represent Steinbeck’s concerns with American farmers during the Depression. The intercalary chapters aid in relating the Joads’ struggles to those of all farmers.
Within this novel, there is a progression from “I” to the collective “we” of Ma Joad. The self-centered Tom Joad is transformed into a person concerned with the rights of all individuals. This reflects a central theme, voiced by Casy, that every man and woman shares a unity with all humanity. Steinbeck suggests that in terms of “we,” man can endure any adversity.
Ditsky, John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. In addition to important essays on the novel’s composition, critical reception, and other topics, this collection provides contemporary reviews of the novel and useful maps of the 1936 Dust Bowl, westward migration in the 1930’s, Route 66, and a government camp.
Donohue, Agnes McNeill. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. Contains thirty-seven discussions of the novel as both a social document and as literature. Also reprints Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and suggests topics for studying or writing about the novel.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. A fresh and intelligent discussion of Ma Joad, Granma Joad, and Rose of Sharon as “indestructible women” who hold the family together. This study opens ground for feminist consideration of Steinbeck’s works.
Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989. Steinbeck’s journals and correspondence while writing the novel are valuable resources for studying the cultural, historical, and literary origins of the book, as well as the author’s creative process. DeMott provides an insightful introduction to these materials.
Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Five essays covering Steinbeck’s portrayal of human history as an organic process, Ma Joad’s character, the novel’s relationship to journalism, and the propagandistic aspects of John Ford’s 1940 film version of the novel.