Study Guide

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath Analysis

The Grapes of Wrath (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

From the moment of its publication in 1939, no twentieth century American novel has provoked more controversy and criticism for its social philosophy, alleged atheistic beliefs, and profane language than has John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold in 1929. Many other novels followed, including The Grapes of Wrath. Many critics consider this his finest work; it won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The Grapes of Wrath became an instant best-seller despite vehement attacks by critics, who were not limited to Californians and Oklahomans. Efforts by school boards from Kansas City, Kansas, to Buffalo, New York, to censor the book in public libraries on pornographic and political grounds were successful. Chambers of commerce and religious groups throughout the United States tried to prevent filming of the novel by producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Because of the intense furor, Zanuck sent a film crew to California to discover whether Steinbeck had exaggerated the plight of the migrants. What they discovered was worse than Steinbeck depicted, so they proceeded with the film—which later received seven Academy Award nominations.

However, Zanuck did alter certain parts of the novel, including the ending. Instead of having Rose of Sharon breast-feed a starving man after she delivered a stillborn child, the film ended with Ma Joad reaffirming the belief that common people would endure despite their hardships.

While The Grapes of Wrath was accused of exploiting the poor, using lewd and obscene language, and portraying life in a bestial, mean way, most criticism focused on two misconceptions: The novel’s alleged espousal of atheism—largely through the character of Jim Casy—and its supposedly sympathetic view of communism. Such accusations were made by critics who misunderstood the two basic American concepts underlying the novel, Transcendentalism and Jeffersonian Agrarianism.

Steinbeck’s characters of Jim Casy, Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Rose of Sharon convey spiritual, rather than atheistic, attitudes toward life. Although Casy is a defrocked preacher, he believes in the universal presence of a deity in every facet of life and relies on his conscience to guide his behavior. In a Christ-like gesture, Casy sacrifices his life for the good of all displaced people. Tom Joad, too, sacrifices himself at the end of the novel for the same goal. The two main female characters exhibit the Christian qualities of self-sacrifice, uncompromising love, and strength in the face of tragedy.

Charges that the novel is sympathetic toward communism are equally unfounded. Its story calls for unity among migrant workers in order to preserve rather than restrict their rights. The collective efforts of the poor farmers against the power structure are based on pragmatic objectives, not Marxist concepts. Representing yeoman farmers in the Jeffersonian tradition, the migrant workers believe that working and owning the land gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Because of ideas such as these, The Grapes of Wrath remains a classic depiction of humanity’s struggle against oppression.


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.

The Grapes of Wrath Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Dust Bowl

*Dust Bowl. Central region of the United States that was devastated by great dust storms during the 1930’s. The first part of The Grapes of Wrath is set in Oklahoma, at the center of the Dust Bowl. Tom Joad returns from four years in prison to find that his family has lost its farm, and many of his neighbors have been made homeless by the banks and land companies that have taken over their farms when the tenants could not keep up with their payments through several disastrous seasons. Lured by handbills distributed by West Coast growers, Tom and his family begin the long trek from the devastated Dust Bowl to the promising fields of California.

The epic structure of the novel becomes a triptych of Oklahoma/journey/California. In the intercalary chapters—those interchapters of the novel, such as five and fourteen, in which Steinbeck gives important sociohistorical background—he explains what happened to this land and why, and how the loss of their farms led thousands of “Okies” to leave for California.

*Route 66

*Route 66. Highway leading out of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas toward California. This narrow strip of highway, bordered by hamburger stands and gasoline pumps, is the escape route for the Joads and other families hit hardest by the Depression. It is also the place where they come together and form extended families moving westward. In the evenings, in their makeshift camps, “a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family.” Route 66 is thus the setting for one of Steinbeck’s major themes, which is how communities form and provide strength for all their members. As the Joad family loses members along the way, Ma Joad emerges as the leader and helps shape a larger, matriarchal family as others join them. “They ain’t gonna wipe us out,” she says. “Why, we’re the people—we go on.”


*California. Site of fruitful fields and bountiful crops. Steinbeck describes the Joads’ first sight of the San Joaquin Valley’s rich farming land in almost biblical language, as he does in other passages in the novel: “The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses.” The contrast to Oklahoma’s impoverished farms could not be stronger; however, Steinbeck makes it clear in intercalary chapters 19 and 21 that similar economic and agronomic policies are exploiting the land and its people in both locales, and that “when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.” This second theme—that of revolutionary socialism—emerges in The Grapes of Wrath, not in the Dust Bowl, but in California, where so many migrants have been drawn to the harvests by the promise of work that they see their wages steadily reduced because of the surplus of workers. The Okies are thus transformed from tenant-farmers to migrant workers. The next step, Steinbeck says, is certain: “On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

Steinbeck shows no California cities in the novel, but reveals the contrast between the bountiful fields and the “Hoovervilles,” the temporary camps in which migrant workers are forced to live without adequate water or sanitation in California’s great Central Valley. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation,” Steinbeck writes. “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Steinbeck’s thematic metaphors, including his novel’s title, grow directly out of the land he describes.


Weedpatch. Government-run camp for migrant workers located below Bakersfield in central California (based on the Arvin Sanitary Camp) where the Joads stay for several weeks. Weedpatch is the emotional high point of the novel, and a clear contrast to the Hoovervilles. When the Joads arrive, they are greeted by migrants like themselves who run the camp with efficiency and care. The community theme in the novel is thus reinforced in these chapters, culminating in the festive Saturday night dance. Given a chance, Steinbeck is showing, people will manage their own affairs well and work for better lives. The local land owners want the camp removed and try to cause a disturbance at the dance, however, for Weedpatch gives people hope for a better life and reveals that they only want the same opportunities as other Americans.

Pixley peach farm

Pixley peach farm. Dirty migrant cabins and a depressing contrast to living conditions at Weedpatch. When the Joads are forced to leave Weedpatch in order to find work farther north, they arrive at a peach farm where the owners have reduced wages so low that workers go on strike. It is here that Jim Casy—the labor organizer who travels west with the Joads—is killed and Tom leaves the family to join the organizers fighting the terrible conditions for migrant workers in California.


Boxcar. Last home of the Joads in the novel. Drawn by the promise of cotton picking, the depleted Joad family ends up living in a boxcar with other displaced families. It is in a field near which Tom says good-bye to Ma with the promise that he’ll always be near: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. . . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

Black barn

Black barn. Last shelter for the Joads. Forced out of the boxcars by torrential rains, the family seeks shelter in a barn on higher ground, and the novel ends when Rose of Sharon, whose own baby is stillborn, suckles a dying old man and smiles “mysteriously” across the barn. In the biological metaphor that defines the novel, life is being nurtured even at this last site, and hope for the people survives.

The Grapes of Wrath Historical Context

A migrant family in Nipomo, California, 1936. Published by Gale Cengage

Troubles for Farmers
The story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath begins during the Great Depression but...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Quizzes

Chapters 1-6 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What signs were the farm women and children watching the men for?

2. Why is the truck driver who gives Tom a ride nameless?

3. Why does the truck driver break the “No Riders” rule of his company?

4. How does the land turtle foreshadow events in the story?

5. What reason does Jim Casy give for no longer preaching?

6. How did the bankers’ agents explain foreclosing on mortgages and driving the farmers off of their land?

7. What reason does Muley Graves give for sharing his rabbits?

8. What does the presence of the cat and the condition of the Joad house tell Tom?

9. Why does the author have...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Chapters 7-11 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How did the used car salesmen take advantage of the farmers?

2. What is Ma and Pa Joad’s first concern upon seeing Tom?

3. What is Ma’s second concern about Tom?

4. What makes Ma Joad the core and strength of the family?

5. How does Jim Casy’s behavior liken him to Jesus Christ?

6. Why did the farmers have to sell their tools and possessions for so little?

7. How do Ma and Tom feel about going to California just as the family is about to set off?

8. Why does Jim Casy ask to come along?

9. What does Ma do with the last few of her personal things, and why does she do it?

10. Why...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Chapter 12-16 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Steinbeck compare what actions are considered to be business and what is considered to be thievery in Chapter 12?

2. Why does the gas station attendant resent the big company stations in town?

3. How do the Joads and Wilsons help each other?

4. For what three reasons do the Joads decide to bury Grampa themselves?

5. How does Chapter 14 herald the formation of a new society, with a new attitude among the migrants?

6. How do the people in this unit represent the “haves” and “have nots” in American society during the depression?

7. Why doesn’t Ma want the truck to go on ahead when the Wilsons’ car...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapters 17-21 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What good thing happened when the migrants stopped for the night along the highway, and why?

2. What is the first warning of trouble the Joads receive when they arrive in California?

3. What attitude of the California residents does the cop at the river represent?

4. How does the man at the river echo the ragged man at the roadside camp?

5. Why did Ma keep Granma’s death a secret at the inspection station?

6. Why didn’t the migrants organize to obtain better working and living conditions?

7. What promise of better living did the young girl indicate to Ma was available at the government camps?

8. How does...

(The entire section is 350 words.)

Chapters 22-26 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why don’t the police and deputies harass the people in the Weedpatch camp?

2. What makes the farmer named Thomas lower the wages he has paid to the Wallaces?

3. How does the government camp differ from the “Hoover-villes”?

4. What things does the Saturday night dance tell about the character of the migrants?

5. What kind of men are the three who come to the dance to cause trouble?

6. How does the camp committee forestall the deputies who are poised to enter the camp the night of the dance?

7. Why do the Joads leave Weedpatch and move to the peach field?

8. What is Ma’s big disappointment the first...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Chapters 27-30 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the significance of the arguments over the weight of the cotton the migrants picked?

2. How do the Joads benefit from getting to the cotton field ahead of many others?

3. Do other conditions improve for the Joads when they get work picking cotton?

4. What makes it necessary for Tom to break away from the family?

5. Why is the 20 acres of cotton picked so quickly?

6. Why were the migrant women relieved when they saw the faces of the men after all the troubles?

7. What does Mr. Wainwright’s worry about Al and Aggie reveal about him and his way of life?

8. What do Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby and...

(The entire section is 329 words.)