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.

Bibliography:

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

*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

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

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...

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The Grapes of Wrath Literary Style

Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice (“he”/“she”/“it”). What is particularly...

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The Grapes of Wrath Literary Techniques

The dominant feature of The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's juxtaposition of the story of the Joad family with short chapters that...

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The Grapes of Wrath Ideas for Group Discussions

Steinbeck's graphic tale of the plight of migrant workers in the paradisal climes of California stirred controversy when it was originally...

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The Grapes of Wrath Social Concerns

The Great Depression of the 1930s provides the material for Steinbeck's most important and most acclaimed novel. Set in the lush California...

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The Grapes of Wrath Topics for Further Study

  • Compare and contrast the current conditions of migrant farm workers in California with those of the migrants of the 1930s. Research...

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The Grapes of Wrath Literary Precedents

Steinbeck did significant original research and fieldwork for this novel, traveling with migrants from Oklahoma to California and living in...

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The Grapes of Wrath Related Titles

Both in setting and theme, The Grapes of Wrath is kin to In Dubious Battle. The California setting is common to most of...

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The Grapes of Wrath Adaptations

The Grapes of Wrath had not been on bookstands for long before Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck brought out a screen version starring...

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The Grapes of Wrath Media Adaptations

  • The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a film by Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. The film was directed by John Ford and starred...

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The Grapes of Wrath What Do I Read Next?

  • In Dubious Battle (1936) is John Steinbeck’s first book of a trilogy by the author that looks...

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The Grapes of Wrath Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Angoff, Charles. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In North American Review, Summer, 1939, p....

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