Written during the Great Depression and published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the devastating effects of the Depression in the lives of one American family, the Joads. Through their struggles to survive with dignity after forces beyond their control destroy their former lives, Steinbeck celebrates the human spirit while condemning the corporate greed that created the Depression and its tragic consequences in the lives of millions of Americans like the Joads.
A hardworking Oklahoma farm family, the Joads lose their land in the heart of the Dust Bowl when their crops fail, they are unable to pay their debt to the bank, and the bank takes possession of the farm, leaving the family homeless. Hoping to find work in the fertile valleys of California, the Joads pack up the few possessions they can take with them and head west on Route 66. The novel details their journey and their experiences in California where they find themselves living among scores of families like their own, displaced by the Depression and flung into a life of desperate poverty and deprivation.
Throughout the novel, the Joads face a grueling series of challenges to their survival. Their surname is reminiscent of “Job,” and like the biblical character, they also endure terrible trials that test their faith. The family’s saving grace is their unfailing loyalty and devotion to one another. As Ma Joad reminds them, “What we got lef’ in the worl’? Nothin’ but us.”
When the Joads reach the “promised land” of California, their dream of prosperity becomes a nightmare. Not only are there thousands of “Okies” like themselves looking for the few available jobs, the people of California resent and despise them, making the newcomers’ lives miserable. The Joads quickly learn the cruel, discriminatory nature of their new environment and try to adapt to the harsh reality of industrial farming as it is practiced in California. As they move from one migrant camp to another in search of work, they encounter the best and the worst of humanity. The lessons in poverty and oppression are not lost on Tom Joad, the oldest son; ultimately he makes it a personal mission to work on behalf of the oppressed everywhere:
Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build— why, I’ll be there.”
Tom’s declaration toward the conclusion of the novel represents Steinbeck’s call for social justice.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California, not far from the fertile San Joaquin Valley, the novel’s California setting. Although he enjoyed a comfortable childhood, he worked on nearby farms in his youth, often laboring alongside migrant workers; their experiences would later shape his Dustbowl Trilogy of novels—In Dubious Battle (1936); Of Mice and Men (1937); and The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—as well as a later novel, East of Eden (1952). After attending Stanford University and leaving without a degree, Steinbeck worked in a number of jobs, always with an interest in writing about the world he witnessed. In 1936 he wrote “The Harvest Gypsies,” a series of articles on migrant workers published in the San Francisco News; he utilized the research for the articles in writing The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath is an explicitly political novel, a damning critique of the forces of capitalism and industrial agriculture and of those who plunged the country into the Depression. In reference to his book, Steinbeck said, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression]. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” As he wrote it, Steinbeck knew The Grapes of Wrath would be controversial. He warned his publisher, “The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary.” When the novel was published, it created a firestorm and was banned in many localities across the United States. In the San Joaquin Valley, it was decried as “communist propaganda” and publicly burned. Some critics, even today, question the novel’s literary stature, but most agree with novelist Don DeLillo’s assertion that “Steinbeck shaped a geography of conscience, for it is a novel in which there is something at stake in every sentence.”
In creating “a geography of conscience,” Steinbeck wanted to awaken the conscience of America; through the story of the Joad family, he sought to inspire moral outrage against injustice and to promote social reform. The title of the novel, taken from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reflects the gravity of his intentions and of the novel itself. “I like the title,” Steinbeck told his literary agent, “because it is a march and this book is a kind of a march—because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning.” The “large meaning” Steinbeck refers to can be interpreted in numerous ways, as America’s most solemn battle hymn that inspired the title of the novel is one of faith, courage, truth, and ultimate justice.
The public outcry against The Grapes of Wrath that erupted in many parts of the country did not stop people from buying it. The novel was the bestselling book of the year and of the following decade. It remains one of the bestselling books in American history and has never gone out of print. The controversy at the time of its publication also did not influence the judgment of literary critics; in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Steinbeck’s willingness to expose injustice in his own society was appreciated by the members of the Swedish Academy who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. As they remarked then, Steinbeck “holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.” The Grapes of Wrath is widely considered to be Steinbeck’s masterpiece.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and give examples of the main themes of the novel.
2. Understand and explain the historical context of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
3. Identify and interpret at least three symbols in the novel.
4. Provide specific examples of the way family and gender roles are challenged in the novel.
5. Understand and explain the economic structures underlying the plight of the Joad family as migrant workers.
6. Analyze and evaluate the decisions of certain characters and the events and circumstances that lead them to make these decisions.
7. Identify and analyze the author’s literary perspective and narrative style as they change from chapter to chapter.
8. Relate and compare the experience of migrant workers as depicted in the novel to the experience of migrant workers today.
9. Define and discuss the concept of organized labor and collective action.
10. Understand and explain the concept of social justice and relate it to our contemporary society.