The Grapes of Wrath (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
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...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*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. 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...
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Troubles for Farmers
The story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath begins during the Great Depression but troubles for American farmers had begun years before that. Having enjoyed high crop prices during World War I when supplies of food were short and European markets were disabled, American farmers borrowed heavily from banks to invest in land and equipment. After the war, however, prices for wheat, corn, and other crops plummeted as European farmers returned to their businesses, and American farmers were unable to repay their loans. Thus, in the 1920s, while much of the country was enjoying economic good times, farmers in the United States were in trouble. Banks began to foreclose on loans, often evicting families from their homes. Families who rented acreage from landowners who had defaulted on loans would, like the Joads, be evicted from their homes. The situation, of course, became much worse after the stock market crash of 1929.
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
In October, 1929, stock prices dropped precipitously, causing businesses and banks to fail internationally and wiping out the savings of many families. Over the next few years, unemployment rates soared up to twenty-five percent. Although there is much disagreement today about the causes of the stock market crash, many...
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Chapters 1-6 Questions and Answers
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 Tom tell about keeping to himself and not causing trouble in prison?
10. What is the motive for farmers such as Joe Davis’ son taking jobs bulldozing other farmers’ homes?
1. The women looked for signs that they had not given up, defeated by the conflict with nature, or that the men still had the spirit to go on. The women could be strong only as long as the men had hope, and the children were aware of this.
2. He is unimportant as an individual character, yet his symbolic representation of the struggle of one class against another is important.
3. He is lonely and wants someone to talk to, and he greatly resents the company policy.
4. The turtle...
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Chapters 7-11 Questions and Answers
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 does Grampa change his mind about going to California?
1. They knew the farmers needed the cars and asked either high cash prices or high interest rates and sold anything they could get to operate through a variety of tricks, knowing they would not get complaints about the condition of the vehicles.
2. They are worried that Tom has broken out of jail, which would cause a problem for the family.
3. She is worried that jail may have made him “mean mad” like Pretty Boy Floyd and he will behave accordingly.
4. When she shows joy the family is happy. If she shows hurt they are sad. She is healer and arbiter and holds herself calm knowing that if she falters the...
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Chapter 12-16 Questions and Answers
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 breaks down again?
8. What worries Jim Casy about so many people going west?
9. How is the one-eyed man in the auto parts lot like the truck driver who gave Tom a ride earlier in the story?
10. How does the ragged man’s warning coincide with Casy’s worry about the availability of work in California?
1. He says charging people more than a thing is worth is considered business while taking what is needed without paying for it is considered theft.
2. The big companies get customers who spend more, but his customers beg for gas or want to trade items he can’t use.
3. The Wilsons give hospitality and shelter, and help when Grampa dies, and in...
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Chapters 17-21 Questions and Answers
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 Casy explain taking the blame for Floyd and Tom after the fight with the deputy?
9. How did the California landowners react to the Okies?
10. What is Tom Joad’s reaction to his first encounters with the people of California?
1. They formed larger groups of families in temporary communities and established laws to preserve order and their rights because they were basically good, law-abiding people.
2. They are told they will be checked out by the police.
3. He tells them he doesn’t want them “settling down.” This is echoed later when the deputy tells them Okies were not wanted in the town.
4. He is returning to his home having been...
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Chapters 22-26 Questions and Answers
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 day the family picks peaches?
9. Why were all the people shouting outside the fence?
10. Why is Jim Casy killed?
1. It is Federal government property that they can only enter with a warrant for a wanted criminal or to quell a riot.
2. The wages he pays are set, and dictated to him, by the Farmer’s Association and the bank which holds his mortgage.
3. It is clean and well-regulated and has facilities for decent living.
4. It shows they enjoy social life and music and, when organized and well led, they can deal with trouble efficiently.
5. They are themselves migrant workers who have been turned against their own kind of people...
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Chapters 27-30 Questions and Answers
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 Al and Aggie’s engagement symbolize?
9. What is a final crushing blow to the Joads’ dreams?
10. What does Rose of Sharon nursing the dying man symbolize?
1. Each side, bosses and migrants, thought the other was trying to cheat them.
2. They get a sturdier place to live than a tent and good neighbors to share it with.
3. Yes, they finally get enough money to eat more and better food and replace worn clothing.
4. Since he killed the deputy, he is a danger to the family, and Ruthie gives away the fact that he is wanted and nearby.
5. There are so many people seeking work, more migrants come to the small farm than are needed...
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Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice (“he”/“she”/“it”). What is particularly significant about this technique is that the point of view varies in tone and method, depending on the author’s purpose. The novel’s distinctive feature is its sixteen inserted, or intercalary, chapters (usually the oddnumbered chapters) that provide documentary information for the reader. These chapters give social and historical background of the mid-1930s Depression era, especially as it affects migrants like the Joads.
These inserted chapters range from descriptions of the Dust Bowl and agricultural conditions in Oklahoma, to California’s history, to descriptions of roads leading west from Oklahoma. In the more restricted chapters that focus on the Joads, the point of view shifts to become close and dramatic. In addition, many of the inserted chapters contain basic symbols of the novel: land, family, and the conflict between the migrants and the people who represent the bank and agribusiness. The turtle in Chapter 3 symbolizes Nature’s struggle and the will to survive. It characterizes the will to survive of the Joads and “the people.”
John Steinbeck wrote some of his best fiction about the area where he grew up. The territory that Steinbeck wrote about is an area covering thousands of square miles in central California. He particularly used the Long Valley as a...
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The dominant feature of The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's juxtaposition of the story of the Joad family with short chapters that speak in sweeping terms about the plight of the migrant workers during this period. Called "intercalary chapters," these vignettes parallel the action of the main story, and often have some tangential relationship to it. The most famous of these is the third chapter of the novel, in which Steinbeck describes the journey of a land turtle across a highway, dragging its body up one side of the edge of the roadbank, across the asphalt (where cars swerve to avoid or hit it), and being knocked to the opposite side by a truck. That journey can be seen as symbolic of the Joads' trek to California (the turtle even heads in the same direction). Similarly, the Joads' story is presented as a microcosm of the journey of all the migrants. Through the insertion of these chapters, Steinbeck suggests that their story is not unique, but rather is representative of the universal struggle of men and women to seek dignity in their lives, and to find a kind of paradise, either on earth or within themselves.
Steinbeck also relies heavily on the Biblical story of the Exodus as an organizing principle for the novel. The work divides neatly into three parts: the abandonment of the parched land in Oklahoma (paralleling the Jews' departure from Egypt), the trek across the Western desert (similar to the forty-years' wandering), and finally the...
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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 published, and continues to generate heated debate among literary critics, historians, and sociologists. Although Steinbeck clearly sides with the Joads and their fellow Oklahomans, the conflicts of rights — those of the landowners vs. those of the people who come to California to eke out a living — serves as a catalyst for discussion on the hierarchy of legal and moral values which the novelist is careful to dramatize.
1. Tom Joad commits a number of minor crimes, and he is pursued by the authorities as an outlaw; nevertheless, Steinbeck treats him with great sympathy. What does this reveal about the author's attitude toward the law? What does this suggest about the conflict between law and morality?
2. Steinbeck takes his title from the Civil War anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Why has he done so?
3. The Joads find themselves in California with thousands of others who have felt the effects of the Great Depression. What does Steinbeck reveal about the nature of people who find themselves in extreme poverty?
4. A number of critics have accused Steinbeck of being a propagandist for socialist values. Do you agree? What evidence in the novel supports your opinion?
5. In Steinbeck's novel, In Dubious Battle, written shortly before he began work on the...
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The Great Depression of the 1930s provides the material for Steinbeck's most important and most acclaimed novel. Set in the lush California valley country, the novel contrasts the Edenic natural state of the land with the abject poverty of the migrant workers who left the Midwest dust bowl region during those hard years to seek a better life where the land could sustain them. Steinbeck focuses on the social conditions that forced men to abandon their homeland in Oklahoma and other states: the growing encroachment of "absentee farmers," large corporations, and banks that bought up tracts of land in these states and then, using new methods of farming, forced out the small farmers whose ancestors had originally converted the land from wilderness and plains into farm country. Through the journey of the Joad family, Steinbeck shows how the land of plenty in California, where fruit grows abundantly, becomes a kind of man-made hell for the migrants. Native Californians, afraid of the power of this influx of people, set up laws and regulations to keep this group disenfranchised and poor.
The novel provides a penetrating and demoralizing view of the inhuman way in which Americans treat each other when their territorial rights are in danger. Nevertheless, The Grapes of Wrath also shows how such adversity often brings out the best in people who are forced to share what little they have to stay alive. In the novel, Steinbeck explores a particular theory of...
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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 current labor laws protecting the rights of these workers today. Have conditions improved in the last sixty years?
- Besides drought, one cause for the tragedy of the Dust Bowl was poor farming practices—including overgrazing by cattle and failure of farmers to rotate their crops—which exhausted the land’s resources. How have farming practices changed since the 1930s to protect and manage the land to help ensure it will remain fertile for future generations?
- The mass migration of the Okies to California was caused by drought and economic depression. What other important mass migrations have occurred in U. S. history? Research the reasons behind these migrations and discuss the effects they have had on local economies and societies.
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Steinbeck did significant original research and fieldwork for this novel, traveling with migrants from Oklahoma to California and living in the migrant workers' camps for a time. His nonfictional reports of that experience were collected in Their Blood Is Strong (1938), and these can be seen as a source for materials that have found their way into The Grapes of Wrath. The novel is also similar in some ways to Steinbeck's earlier work about life in the California migrant camps, In Dubious Battle (1936).
The novel has other literary forbears as well. Certainly the Bible heavily influenced Steinbeck, both in his treatment of theme and in his organization of the story. More contemporary parallels can be found in the work of naturalistic writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The use of intercalary chapters reminds one of the "camera eye" technique employed by John Dos Passes in the U.S.A. trilogy. The technique is also similar to that employed by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick (1851), where the chapters on whaling interlace the adventurous narrative of Ahab's pursuit of the white whale. In his use of animal imagery, Steinbeck parallels the American naturalists such as Frank Norris, and may evoke recollections of some of Ernest Hemingway's fiction.
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Both in setting and theme, The Grapes of Wrath is kin to In Dubious Battle. The California setting is common to most of Steinbeck's best fiction, however, and the focus on down-and-out characters struggling for survival in California links this work with Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), and others in the Steinbeck canon. The stories in The Long Valley (1938) also fall in this category. In some ways, Steinbeck tried to repeat the success he enjoyed in The Grapes of Wrath in another long novel, East of Eden (1952). Like its predecessor, this novel is set in California and uses the story of a family (actually two families) to survey more universal human themes.
Another of Steinbeck's works that is also similar in technique to The Grapes of Wrath is his documentary film script, The Forgotten Village (1941). In that work, Steinbeck consciously sought to display the plight of the Mexican Indians by concentrating on the daily lives of a single family.
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The Grapes of Wrath had not been on bookstands for long before Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck brought out a screen version starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The movie, directed by John Ford (who would go on to be one of Hollywood's most celebrated directors), was a box-office success. It was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. Fonda received a nomination as best actor; Ford won an Oscar as best director; and Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad, won the best supporting actress award. Steinbeck himself helped with the production.
The structure of the novel was changed significantly for the movie; much of the final third was rearranged, so that the screen version ends in the government camp. Nevertheless, the movie, like the book, was controversial, as politicians and various civic groups in California and Oklahoma objected to Steinbeck's portrayal of conditions in their states. In fact, Zanuck produced the movie under a false name (Highway 66) until he was ready to release it to avoid problems during the filming.
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- The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a film by Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. The film was directed by John Ford and starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Jane Darwell as Ma Joad; Doris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon; and John Carradine as Jim Casy. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson; the cinematography was by Gregg Toland. The film won two Academy Awards: for Best Director (John Ford) and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell). It also won two awards from the New York Film Critics Circle for 1940: Best Director (Ford), and Best Film. Available from Fox Video, Baker & Taylor Video, Home Vision Cinema.
- The Grapes of Wrath was also adapted as an audio cassette (58 minutes), Dolby processed, published by Harper Audio in New York City. Read by Henry Fonda, who starred as Tom Joad in the 1940 movie, the sound recording contains excerpts from the novel about the plight of the migrants during the 1930s. Harper Audio, 1994.
- The novel was also adapted as a 58–minute audio cassette by Caedmon Inc. in 1978.
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What Do I Read Next?
- In Dubious Battle (1936) is John Steinbeck’s first book of a trilogy by the author that looks at the migrant labor problem in the 1930s. The novel focuses on labor organizers and a strike in California’s apple fields. The book caused controversy when it was published.
- Of Mice and Men (1937) is the second book in Steinbeck’s trilogy of migrant farmers. It is about two migrants, one who is mentally handicapped, and how their dreams of a better life can never be realized because of the oppressive social system.
- Emile Zola’s Germinal (1885) is set in a French mining town. The main character in the novel, Etienne Lantier, witnesses how the families of the working class are destroyed by a social environment that sees people only as disposable resources. It is a fate that Etienne is unable to change.
- The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris is the first in Norris’s “Trilogy of the Wheat.” It is set in the San Joaquin Valley of California and addresses the abuses of railroad companies on the local wheat farmers. Norris was concerned with the question of how a Judeo-Christian ethic can exist in a harsh and uncaring world.
- In the nonfiction book Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Angoff, Charles. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In North American Review, Summer, 1939, p. 387.
Cowley, Malcolm. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New Republic, May 3, 1939, p. 382.
Fadiman, Clifton. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New Yorker, April 15, 1939, p. 101.
Jackson, Joseph Henry. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New York Herald Tribune Books, April 16, 1939, p. 3.
Kronenberger, Louis. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In Nation, April 15, 1939.
Roscoe, Burton. “Excuse It, Please.” In Newsweek, May 1, 1939, p. 38.
Weeks, Edward. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In Atlantic Monthly, June, 1939.
For Further Study
Carpenter, Frederick I. “The Philosophical Joads.” In College English, Vol. 2, January, 1941, pp. 324-25. Carpenter describes the origins of Steinbeck’s social philosophy in American thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson to William James.
Eisinger, Chester E. “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath.” In University of Kansas City Review, Vol. 14, Winter, 1947, pp. 149-54. The critic discusses the relationships between people and the land and how these relationships have changed in the twentieth century.
Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy. John Steinbeck: An...
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