The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck Jr; also wrote under the pseudonym Amnesia Glasscock) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter. See also The Chrysanthemums Criticism, John Steinbeck Short Story Criticisim, John Steinbeck Literary Criticisim (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21, 124.
The following entry presents criticism on Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is distinguished by its lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Written after Steinbeck produced a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma and Arkansas farmers facing poverty and starvation due to the Great Depression and severe drought of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar of controversy and was one of the most commonly banned books of its time because of Steinbeck's obvious socialist sympathies. Nonetheless, the novel remains one of the most admired and studied works of social protest fiction of the twentieth century.
Plot and Major Characters
The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the supposed Eden of California after drought and economic depression cause their small family farm to collapse. They are joined by Jim Casy, a former preacher, now disillusioned with religion, who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community that must work together for the greater good, and who inspires the Joads's son Tom to support the cause of the working poor. Interspersed among the chapters dealing specifically with the Joads are chapters in which Steinbeck took a broader, more universal approach to illustrate the full force of the tragedy of the migrant farmers—commonly and disparagingly referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies”—of the 1930s. Simultaneously symbolic and journalistic, these chapters provide a historical overview of the events of the time not only for the displaced farmers but also for American society as a whole, which, according to Steinbeck, must bear the responsibility and the consequences for its callous treatment of the working poor. During the course of their travels, the family's dog is hit by a car, and both of the grandparents die. Then Rose of Sharon, the Joads's pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. When the Joads—and all those like them—finally make their way to California, they expect to find themselves in a kind of paradise with plenty of well-paid work available. Instead they find an oversaturated work market where they are forced by hunger and desperation to work as scabs in migrant camps. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by a thug who works for the farm owners, and Tom Joad, who has already violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, must go into hiding after killing Casy's murderer. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life.
The Grapes of Wrath is in one sense a documentary account of American socioeconomic events of the 1930s. Photojournalists recorded the suffering of the people of the Dust Bowl region, and Steinbeck was strongly influenced by the widely published photographs, including those in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Steinbeck's interest in the plight of farmers in the face of rapidly encroaching agribusiness and his sympathy for union organizers became important themes in the novel, along with the struggles of the average person against big business. But beyond the depiction of historical events is Steinbeck's symbolism. Jim Casy, although he is a reluctant preacher, serves as a Christlike figure, leading the Joads and the workers to consider the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Ma Joad, with her considerable inner strength, and Rose of Sharon, particularly in the final scene of the novel, are earth-mother symbols who instinctively understand their roles as nurturers. This religious symbolism—both Christian and non-Christian—pervades the novel. Images of exodus, plague, and the search for paradise, as well as of the sanctity of the land, dominate the farmers' travels to the West.
While The Grapes of Wrath is praised by most critics for the universality of its themes, it is sometimes faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Initial reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. With its political implications now defused, critical study of The Grapes of Wrath has more recently focused on Steinbeck's religious and nature symbolism and the role of his female characters, which earlier critics had considered stereotypical and one-dimensional. But regardless of critical opinion, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the most respected modern American novels.
Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional References to History (novel) 1929
The Pastures of Heaven (novel) 1932
To a God Unknown (novel) 1933
Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935
In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936
Nothing So Monstrous (short stories) 1936
Saint Kay the Virgin (short stories) 1936
Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937
Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1937
The Red Pony (novella) 1937
The Long Valley (short stories) 1938
The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939
The Forgotten Village (novel) 1941
Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (travel book) 1941
The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942
The Moon Is Down: Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942
How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. (short stories) 1943
Cannery Row (novel) 1945
The Pearl (novella) 1947
The Wayward Bus (novel) 1947
Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novel) 1950
East of Eden (novel) 1952
(The entire section is 170 words.)
SOURCE: Cowley, Malcolm. “American Tragedy.” New Republic 98, no. 1274 (3 May 1939): 382-83.
[In the following review, Cowley disagrees with the assessment that The Grapes of Wrath is “the greatest novel of the last ten years” but rather finds it to be among the best of the “great angry books” that have the power to spur readers on to protest and action.]
While keeping our eyes on the cataclysms in Europe and Asia, we have lost sight of a tragedy nearer home. A hundred thousand rural households have been uprooted from the soil, robbed of their possessions—though by strictly legal methods—and turned out on the highways. Friendless, homeless and therefore voteless, with fewer rights than medieval serfs, they have wandered in search of a few days' work at miserable wages—not in Spain or the Yangtze Valley, but among the vineyards and orchards of California, in a setting too commonplace for a color story in the Sunday papers. Their migrations have been described only in a long poem and a novel. The poem is “Land of the Free,” by Archibald MacLeish, published last year with terrifying photographs by the Resettlement Administration. The novel, which has just appeared, is John Steinbeck's longest and angriest and most impressive work.
The Grapes of Wrath begins with Tom Joad's homecoming. After being released from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he...
(The entire section is 1216 words.)
SOURCE: Isherwood, Christopher. “The Tragedy of Eldorado.” Kenyon Review 1, no. 4 (autumn 1939): 450-53.
[In the following review, Isherwood praises Steinbeck's efforts in The Grapes of Wrath but finds the novel overly didactic and propagandistic.]
Out in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, the earth is dying of sheer exhaustion. Three generations back, white men took this land from the Indians. Their children grew poor on it, lost it, and became sharecroppers. Now, when the sharecroppers' landlords can no longer pay the interest on their debts, the banks step in to claim what is legally theirs. They will plough up the small holdings with their tractors, and farm them for cotton, until that crop, too, is exhausted. The land will pass to other owners. The cycle of futile, uneconomic possession will continue.
Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American historical cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other Promised Land. After the Land Rush, the Gold Rush, the Movie Rush, comes the Fruit Rush. The poor farmers are only too ready to believe the handbills which assure them that there will be work for everybody in the orchards and orange-groves of the Pacific Coast. They swarm over the mountains and across the deserts in...
(The entire section is 1596 words.)
SOURCE: Carpenter, Frederic I. “John Steinbeck: The Philosophical Joads.” In American Literature and the Dream, pp. 167-75. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1955.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1941, Carpenter argues that the philosophical center of The Grapes of Wrath lies not in its documentary-style interchapters but in the character of Jim Casy, who, Carpenter notes, embodies and transforms both American transcendentalism and pragmatism.]
A popular heresy has it that a novelist should not discuss ideas—especially not abstract ideas. Even the best contemporary reviewers concern themselves with the entertainment value of a book (will it please their readers?), and with the impression of immediate reality which it creates. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, was praised for its swift action and for the moving sincerity of its characters. But its mystical ideas and the moralizing interpretations intruded by the author between the narrative chapters were condemned. Presumably the book became a best seller in spite of these; its art was great enough to overcome its philosophy.
But in the course of time a book is also judged by other standards. Aristotle once argued that poetry should be more “philosophical” than history; and all books are eventually weighed for their content of wisdom. Novels that have become classics do more than tell a...
(The entire section is 3894 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, Walter Fuller. “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered: Some Observations on John Steinbeck and the ‘Religion’ of Secularism.” Mississippi Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1959): 136-44.
[In the following essay, Taylor finds that readers twenty years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath will come away with a considerably different experience than those who read the book while the social issues of its time were fresh in their consciousness.]
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, vintage of 1939; and now that the wine has aged for twenty years it reveals underlying flavors that in the first flush of discovery were overlooked. Since some of these flavors have a noticeable acerbity, suggestive less of grape than of green persimmon, and since they have undoubtedly been there from the beginning, it is a bit surprising that they should have been so long neglected. Yet the flavor, the “meaning” of a book is not absolute or unalterable. The residue of experience that a reader brings away now from The Grapes of Wrath may be, must be, different from that in 1939, when the naturalism of Zola and Frank Norris still carried prestige, and when the memory of the evils of the Great Depression focused in brilliant bitter light Steinbeck's indictment of social injustice.
The Grapes of Wrath still fulfills, of course, its...
(The entire section is 4185 words.)
SOURCE: Lisca, Peter. “The Dynamics of Community in The Grapes of Wrath.” In From Irving to Steinbeck: Studies of American Literature in Honor of Harry R. Warfel, edited by Motley Deakin and Peter Lisca, pp. 127-40. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1970, Lisca discusses the relevance of Steinbeck's portrayal of social and economic upheaval in The Grapes of Wrath to later readers in times of similar turbulence.]
The Grapes of Wrath, more than Steinbeck's other novels, remains viable not just in drugstore racks of Bantam paperbacks or in college survey courses but in the world of great literature, because in that novel he created a community whose experience, although rooted firmly in the particulars of the American Depression, continues to have relevance. Certainly one aspect of that community experience which contributes to its viability is its dimension of social change. It is not coincidence that in the last decade, full of violent social action in so many aspects of American life, we have found ourselves turning with new interest toward the 1930s, recognizing there an immediate political and emotional relevance. The Grapes of Wrath moves not only along Route 66, east to west, like some delayed Wagon Wheels adventure, but along the unmapped roads of social change, from an old concept of...
(The entire section is 5912 words.)
SOURCE: Lutwack, Leonard. “The Grapes of Wrath.” In Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century, pp. 47-63. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
[In the following essay, Lutwack identifies The Grapes of Wrath as a novel in the epic tradition, drawing in particular from the stories of the Israelites in the biblical Exodus narrative and the Trojans in the Aeneid.]
The line of descent from The Octopus to The Grapes of Wrath is as direct as any that can be found in American literature. The journey of the Okies in Steinbeck's book is certainly in the spirit of one of those “various fightings westward” that Norris identified as productive of epic writing: “Just that long and terrible journey from the Mississippi to the ocean is an epic in itself.”1 As one would expect, too, the later book reflects a more advanced stage of economic development, presenting as it does the struggle of proletarian masses against capitalist power, while the conflict in The Octopus is between two parties of the owning class, the ranchers, or small entrepreneurs, against the trust. Both novels have a universalizing tendency in that they create from a local situation a synecdoche of worldwide import. Thus Steinbeck's Okies, having all the surface characteristics of rural Americans of a certain region, are...
(The entire section is 5700 words.)
SOURCE: Carr, Duane R. “Steinbeck's Blakean Vision in The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck Quarterly 8, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1975): 67-73.
[In the following essay, Carr uses Jim Casy's speech at Grandpa Joad's graveside as a starting point to analyze instances of allusion to the poetry of William Blake in The Grapes of Wrath.]
Steinbeck criticism has come a long way since Edmund Wilson's early judgment of The Grapes of Wrath as principally about animals, not humans,1 and Stanley Edgar Hyman's rather harsh judgment of Steinbeck as interested only in the study of ecology.2 Three critics in particular—Peter Lisca, Warren French, and Joseph Fontenrose—have demonstrated Steinbeck's interest in the growth of the individual man from self-centered isolation to involvement in the human community,3 and Fontenrose notes that “Steinbeck is an heir of the Romantic movement,” not the Naturalistic.4 I would like to place Steinbeck even more firmly in the Romantic tradition by demonstrating his close affinity to the poet William Blake.
Steinbeck's interest throughout his writing career in Blake's themes, as well as in the actual poetry, is evident from his first published novel, Cup of Gold, a title taken from Blake's “The Mental Traveller.” The novel deals with innocence and experience, and Steinbeck describes the gold cup as...
(The entire section is 2922 words.)
SOURCE: Cox, Martha Heasley. “The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution.” San Jose Studies 1, no. 3 (11 November 1975): 73-81.
[In the following essay, Cox reviews critical reaction to the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and examines Steinbeck's own discussion of the novel in his journals to argue that the final scene was not hastily conceived sentimentalism but instead a well-thought-out part of Steinbeck's total plan for the book.]
According to local legend, John Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath about three o'clock on the morning of October 23, 1938, awakened his wife and house guests who had gathered in his Los Gatos, California, home for the occasion, and read them the final pages. That celebrated ending has probably aroused more comment and controversy than the conclusion of any other contemporary novel.
Though Howard Levant, in the most recent book-length study of Steinbeck's novels, exaggerates the negative reaction when he says that the final scene “has been regarded universally as the nadir of bad Steinbeck,”1 the conclusion has been the subject of at least five separate articles,2 none condemnatory, and has been discussed in almost every review and analysis of the novel. John M. Ditsky, in the last published article devoted exclusively to the ending, asserts that the crucial problem of...
(The entire section is 4494 words.)
SOURCE: Brasch, James D. “The Grapes of Wrath and Old Testament Skepticism.” San Jose Studies 3, no. 2 (May 1977): 16-27.
[In the following essay, Brasch finds elements from stories in the Old Testament in The Grapes of Wrath.]
John Steinbeck's Salinas Valley has always rested in the shade of the mountains of the Old Testament, and the legends of the people of Israel have frequently charted and illuminated the vicissitudes of his characters. Humble gestures and heroic achievements in Steinbeck's novels recount the history of “God's chosen people” as they struggled from the Garden of Eden to the Promised Land. Frequently, the speech rhythms of Steinbeck's chosen people echo the stately rhythms of the King James Version of the Old Testament. Even when he used quotations from the Vedas (To a God Unknown) or Paradise Lost (In Dubious Battle) as epigraphs for his novels, the tone, diction, syntax, and characterization were reminiscent of the language patterns of the Old Testament writers. This debt to the old chronicles of grief and pain has never been more obvious and influential than in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).1
The religious, political, philosophical and economic context of The Grapes of Wrath has concerned readers and critics of Steinbeck's work ever since the novel was published.2 Jim Casy has usually been accepted...
(The entire section is 5595 words.)
SOURCE: Watkins, Floyd C. “Flat Wine from The Grapes of Wrath.” In In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, pp. 19-29. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Watkins contends that Steinbeck made many errors in his depiction of Oklahomans in The Grapes of Wrath.]
A character in fiction is known in part by his relationship with things; he is defined by the clutter of his world. If the things are vague or false, the character is unlikely to be genuine. In a novel with sparse details, the people usually share the vagueness of the environment. Nature may be a large part of the raw materials of fiction. When an author does not know the natural objects of the world he is writing about, then he also gets the manufactured products and the people wrong. A skyscraper or a horse trough or a churn helps to make characters what they are. A writer who does not know a world well should not write about it. But that is precisely what Californian John Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath when he wrote about Okies, a people he did not know.
The effect on fiction of an author's ignorance is difficult to measure. It may also be difficult for a critic who is ignorant of a culture to try to interpret fiction about it. One who knows a country or small-town culture can perhaps understand the mores of another country people better than he can understand...
(The entire section is 4310 words.)
SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “The Grapes of Wrath: A Reconsideration.” Southern Humanities Review 13, no. 3 (summer 1979): 215-20.
[In the following essay, Ditsky describes The Grapes of Wrath as “a romantic epic of the U.S. highway.”]
It can be argued that the American road provides the major theme of our national literature. Broaden the consideration to include the road's literary counterparts—the river and the sea—and the point acquires further strength. Four decades after its creation, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath begs recognition as the sort of book it really is: a classic of undiminished power that is fundamentally a romantic epic of the U.S. highway. Misguided assumptions stemming from the critical attitudes of the Thirties have kept this book from being seen for what it has always been—a volume in the service of mankind, of course, but not one with a sense of specific doctrinal mission, a philosophical axe to grind.
Naturalist, sentimentalist, non-teleologist—a succession of terms such as these has been used to describe, and thus to dismiss, the author of The Grapes of Wrath. As the work of a new generation of Steinbeck critics has shown (I am thinking especially of Richard Astro and Robert DeMott), the thinking of this humblest of writers cannot so easily be encapsuled in a single descriptive noun; and as the recent publication of...
(The entire section is 2467 words.)
SOURCE: Garcia, Reloy. “The Rocky Road to Eldorado: The Journey Motif in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck Quarterly 14, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1981): 83-93.
[In the following essay, Garcia argues that The Grapes of Wrath derives its fundamental structure from the “initiation motif of African and Native American quest tales.]
In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck's unhappy travellers span two apparently distinct and opposing worlds: the droughty Oklahoma of the early chapters of the novel and the rich and fertile paradise of Chapter Eighteen and after. His characters, here and everywhere, stand invariably one foot in the Oklahoma of the real world and the other in the California of their dreams. This juxtaposition of promise with sterile reality is pervasive in Steinbeck. Melanie Mortlock contends that his characters “attempt to escape the physical world and the world of reality by creating a dream-world, a world of fantasy or illusion. …”1 For every dream there is an awakening, for every Eden a snake. The longer works, in particular, are impelled by a journey to a land of dreams which evaporates mirage-like as it nears. This pattern seems to hold in The Grapes of Wrath; indeed, that is the way the novel is most often read. But the novel and Steinbeck's pattern, I suggest, are far richer and more complex than is generally supposed....
(The entire section is 4813 words.)
SOURCE: Salter, Christopher L. “John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as a Primer for Cultural Geography.” In Humanistic Geography and Literature: Essays on the Experience of Place, edited by Douglas C. D. Pocock, pp. 142-58. London: Croom Helm, 1981.
[In the following essay, Salter discusses Steinbeck's descriptions of places and landscapes to explore the effects of human mobility on geographical issues.]
There is no need to write additional textbooks in cultural geography. All the messages of the profession are already committed to ink. The motivations, processes, patterns and the consequences of human interaction with the landscape have all been discovered and chronicled with grace and clarity. Authors dedicated to the comprehension and elucidation of order within the overtly haphazard flow of human events have given academics the materials needed to profess the patterns which illustrate this order. We fail, however, as scholars to make adequate use of these data for the simple reason that this material is labelled ‘fiction’.1
Fiction in its primary meaning denotes invention. Ironically, the process of invention in the human species is one of the most consistently lauded acts that we can be associated with. Invention in professional fields is celebrated as creativity and insight. The same act in the commercial world generates considerable cash. And even greater...
(The entire section is 7117 words.)
SOURCE: Pizer, Donald. “John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation, pp. 65-81. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
[In the following essay, Pizer finds the Joads the embodiment of Steinbeck's ideals in spite of, rather than because of, Steinbeck's literary expression of them.]
Steinbeck's most famous novel is enshrouded in a number of myths about its origin and nature. Here is a work which appears to be the epitome of the 1930s proletarian novel in that all its good people speak bad English, which sweetens its animal view of human nature with an anomalous mixture of Christian symbolism and scientific philosophy, and which appeals principally on the level of sentimentality and folk humor. The Grapes of Wrath, in short, is naturalism suffering the inevitable consequences of its soft thinking and its blatant catering to popular interests.1
The Grapes of Wrath is indeed closely linked to the 1930s. Unlike either Studs Lonigan or U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath is set entirely within the 1930s and is concerned with a distinctive condition of the depression. The novel is also a work of the 1930s in the sense that it is a product of Steinbeck's artistic maturation during that decade. His first three novels, all of the late 1920s, are marked by...
(The entire section is 7615 words.)
SOURCE: Conder, John J. “Steinbeck and Nature's Self: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase, pp. 142-59. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
[In the following essay, Conder examines the role of determinism in The Grapes of Wrath.]
Both Dreiser and Dos Passos saw the self as a product of mechanisms and hence incapable of freedom, and both postulated the existence of a second self beyond the limitations of determinism. Dreiser arrived late at the notion and, borrowing it wholesale from Brahmanic thought, barely tested its meaning, save to see it as the source of man's freedom. Although Dos Passos never developed a version of such a self, he early found its existence and suppression the cause of man's misery and, in elaborating on that theme, he was able to enlarge a cluster of themes and attitudes associated with a second self—in particular those associated with its relationship to society and to nature. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck renders his version of a second self in man and brings to mature development that cluster of themes and attitudes. Significantly, he brings them to maturity within a framework of determinism and so harmonizes authentic freedom and determinism in a way that Dos Passos never could do, since the second self, the true source of man's freedom, remains forever an embryo in his pages.
(The entire section is 7330 words.)
SOURCE: Owens, Louis. “The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath.” In Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, pp. 108-16. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989.
[In the following essay, Owens examines the elements with which Steinbeck balances the potential sentimentality in The Grapes of Wrath.]
The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In spite of howls of outrage from opposite ends of the novel's journey—both Oklahoma and California—America took the Joads to heart, forming out of The Grapes of Wrath a new American archetype of oppression and endurance, survival if not salvation.1 So warmly did readers embrace the Dust Bowl Okies, in fact, that critics began almost immediately to accuse Steinbeck again of sentimentality in his portrayal of the downtrodden proletariat. Edmund Wilson was one of the first serious critics to take such a position, declaring that in this novel Steinbeck learned much from films, “and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but from the sentimental symbolism of Hollywood.”2 Bernard De Voto had...
(The entire section is 3731 words.)
SOURCE: McKay, Nellie Y. “‘Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom’: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.”1 In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 47-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, McKay examines the ways in which the women in The Grapes of Wrath subvert stereotypical gender roles.]
Women's social roles in western culture are central concerns in contemporary feminist criticism. The discourse focuses on the idea that our society is organized around male-dominated sex-gender systems that admit two genders, that privilege heterosexual relationships, and that embrace a sexual division of labor in which wife and mother are the primary functions of women.2 In such works as Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich,3Man's World, Woman's Place by Elizabeth Janeway,4The Reproduction of Motherhood: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender by Nancy Chodorow,5 and Contemporary Feminist Thought by Hester Eisenstein,6 critics argue that, in spite of prevailing social dogma to the contrary, the biological functions of childbearing and lactation (motherhood), and the cultural one of nurturing (mothering) are divisible. Whereas one is restricted to women, the other need not be. Parenting, in place of mothering, is not biologically...
(The entire section is 8405 words.)
SOURCE: Railton, Stephen. “Pilgrims' Politics: Steinbeck's Art of Conversion.” In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 27-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Railton contends that The Grapes of Wrath is about change at its most fundamental—biological and organic—level.]
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about things that grow—corn, peaches, cotton, and grapes of wrath. From the start Steinbeck identifies his vision of human history with organic, biological processes. A recurrent image is established in the first chapter, when the drought and wind in Oklahoma combine to uproot and topple the stalks of corn. In Chapter 29, the last of Steinbeck's wide-angle interchapters, it is the rain and flooding in California that “cut out the roots of cottonwoods and [bring] down the trees” (589). Tragically, even human lives are caught in this pattern of being pulled up from the soil. Farmers are made migrants. Forced to sell and burn all of their pasts that won't fit onto a homemade flatbed truck, they too are uprooted, torn from their identities. Right alongside this pattern, however, Steinbeck establishes a second one: that of seed being carried to new ground, new roots being put down. This image is announced in Chapter 3. The turtle who serves as the agent of movement in that chapter has attracted a lot of commentary from the...
(The entire section is 7866 words.)
SOURCE: Cassuto, David N. “Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 55-75. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Cassuto argues that the farmers' move from east to west—and the ultimate failure of this move—in The Grapes of Wrath is an “indictment” of the American myths of the garden and the frontier as places of refuge and unlimited potential, and that these myths surrounding the American West have historically created ecological disaster.]
Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.
—Henry David Thoreau
The Old Testament describes wilderness as “a thirsty ground where there was no water.” When the Lord wished to punish, He threatened to “turn the rivers into islands and dry up the pools and … command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” When granting redemption in Isaiah, God promises instead that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” and that “the desert and dry land shall be glad” (Deut. 8:7, 15; Isaiah 5:6, 35:1, 6, 43:20). The Garden of Eden provided the antithesis of desert wilderness, a place where water flowed freely and...
(The entire section is 7933 words.)
SOURCE: Cederstrom, Lorelei. “The ‘Great Mother’ in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 76-91. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Cederstrom argues that the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath is not derived from Christian symbolism, as has been asserted, but rather from earlier pagan notions of the “Great Mother” and traces evidence of matriarchal ideals throughout the novel.]
In his depiction of the destruction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended upon her abundance, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath presents a visionary foreshadowing of the universal ecological disaster that looms so prominently on the horizon today. Equally visionary is his evocation of the primordial alternative to the patriarchal structures and attitudes that are destroying the earth. Throughout the novel, he describes the reemergence of the archetypal feminine and asserts the importance of matriarchal cultures that understand the relationship between the cycles of their lives and the natural world. An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization....
(The entire section is 6430 words.)
Bredahl, A. Carl, Jr. “The Drinking Metaphor in The Grapes of Wrath.” Steinbeck Quarterly 6, no. 4 (fall 1973): 95-8.
Examines the significance of four beverages—liquor, water, milk, and coffee—that appear in The Grapes of Wrath and how metaphor of drinking comes full circle in the final scene.
Campbell, Russell. “Trampling Out the Vintage: Sour Grapes.” In The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, pp. 107-18. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978.
Analyzes the attempts of film makers to preserve the spirit of Steinbeck's novel in their film version of The Grapes of Wrath, finding that their use of documentary elements ultimately failed to capture the scope of Steinbeck's themes.
DeMott, Robert. “‘Working Days and Hours’: Steinbeck's Writing of The Grapes of Wrath.” In The Grapes of Wrath. Text and Criticism, edited by Peter Lisca, pp. 526-39. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Traces the composition history of The Grapes of Wrath.
Eisinger, Chester E. “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath.” University of Kansas City Review 14, no. 3 (autumn 1947): 149-54.
Argues that the dispossessed farmers in The Grapes of Wrath posit...
(The entire section is 619 words.)