Summary of the Novel
Tom Joad, a prison parolee, meets Jim Casy, a preacher who has given up his calling. They go to Tom’s home looking for his family, but the Joad farm and all those around it are deserted. They are told the Joads are living with Tom’s Uncle John. Arriving at Uncle John’s house, they learn the family has lost their farm and are making preparations to sell their belongings and move to California in search of promised work.
With Casy accompanying them, the Joads encounter many hardships on the road west, and the family crumbles. Grampa dies the first night he is separated from his beloved land. Granma dies while they are crossing the Arizona desert. Noah and Connie give up and leave the family. The further west they go, the more resistant and unfriendly the people are.
In California the family goes from camp to camp in a futile search for work and their living conditions worsen. Jim Casy organizes a strike against the unfair low wages being paid and is killed. Tom kills Jim’s murderer and goes into hiding. He leaves the family to continue Casy’s work. The Joads move to a cottonfield where the pay is better.
Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby during a fearful storm. The family has to abandon their boxcar home to escape the resultant flood. Taking refuge in a hillside barn, they discover a young boy and his near-dead, starving father who is saved when Rose feeds him from her milk-filled breasts.
When Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, the United States was suffering through a severe economic depression. Everywhere people lost their savings, homes, and means of earning a living. Especially hard hit were the farming areas of the Midwest. Poor farming practices had depleted the soil, and it became less capable of supporting the individual families who farmed their small sections of it. Also, the markets and prices for the crops declined. Agriculture markedly changed in the area as a result. Small farms were consolidated into larger, and more profitable units. Tractors, other machines, and day laborers replaced mules and family labor. Independent farm life, which had developed the area and dominated it during the 1800s, dwindled. In the mid-1930s there were severe droughts and erosion of the dry soil by strong winds. This created a “Dust Bowl” in the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Colorado. The small farmers, now tenants and sharecroppers, were uprooted from the homes and farms which had belonged to their families for many years. By the tens of thousands these victims of depression, drought, and dust headed west to seek a better life in the fertile fields of California. They found themselves as much victims there. Work was scarce, wages were low, and they were resented, resisted, and repressed by the residents. Their attempts to better their lives were branded as Communism, a system much disliked and feared by many Americans of the time.
Reaction to The Grapes of Wrath was immediate, and ran to extremes of praise and condemnation. One noted critic said the book might do for its time what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for its, because it so strongly exposed social injustice and called for social redress; but many people denounced it as Communist propaganda. People in California and Oklahoma charged it was full of exaggerated lies about the conditions and treatment of the migrants in their respective states. In California, one writer refuted point-by-point what he labeled the book’s inaccuracies. A Congressman from Oklahoma denounced it, on behalf of the people of his state, on the floor of the House of Representatives as “a dirty, lying, filthy manuscript-a lie, a damnable lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.”
Copies of the book were symbolically burned in a town in Illinois by order of the Library Board, even as the librarian noted that the waiting list for it was longer than for any other book in history. The burning order came in the same week the book had its largest sales in seven months. Indeed, the general public embraced The Grapes of Wrath. It became a best-seller shortly after publication and has been in print and widely read continuously since that time. The story was also made into a successful major motion picture starring Henry Fonda. A crowning accolade for the novel was the award of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Steinbeck.
List of Characters
Tom Joad—A farmer’s son. He has just been paroled from prison and joins his family for a trip to California when he learns they have lost their farm.
Pa Joad—Called “Old Tom.” A dispossessed tenant farmer. He hopes to find farm work in California.
Ma Joad—Tom’s mother, the mainstay of the family. Her main goals are to keep the family strong, fed, and together.
Grampa and Granma Joad—Pa Joad’s elderly parents. They settled the 40-acre farm in Oklahoma from which the family is now uprooted.
Noah Joad—Tom’s quiet and slow-witted older brother.
Al Joad—Pa and Ma’s third son, a 16-year-old whose foremost interests are girls and cars.
Ruthie and Winfield Joad—At 12 and 10 years of age respectively, they are the youngest daughter and son in the Joad family.
Rose of Sharon—Tom’s young, newly married sister who is expecting a child, and yearns for a good home for it.
Connie—Rose of Sharon’s equally young and ambitious husband.
Uncle John—Pa’s withdrawn and brooding brother.
Jim Casy—A friend of the family and former preacher who joins with the Joads for the trip to California.
Muley Graves—A neighbor of the Joad’s who has also been dispossessed but hides and lives like an animal on his land because he cannot bring himself to leave it.
Ivy and Sarah Wilson—A migrant couple who join the Joads and travel with them after the Joads give them help on the road to California.
Jim Rawley—The manager of a clean and orderly camp provided by the government to better the migrants’ living conditions.
Ezra Huston—The chairman of the central committee by means of which the migrants govern themselves in the camp.
Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright—A couple who share a boxcar home near a cotton field with the Joads.
Aggie Wainwright—The Wainwrights’ daughter who becomes engaged to Al Joad.
Estimated Reading Time
The average person should be able to read the entire novel in a total of approximately 12 to 18 hours.
It is suggested that the reading of the novel be divided into the three blocks indicated. These three blocks divide the story into what happens in Oklahoma, on the journey west, and after the migrants arrive in California.
If desired, the reading can be further broken down into the six sub-units listed. In this study guide, study questions and suggested essay topics follow the summary and discussion of each of the six sub-units.
BLOCK ONE: LEAVING OKLAHOMA Reading Time: 4–6 hrs.
Unit I Chapters 1–6: 2–3 hrs.
Unit II Chapters 7–11: 2–3 hrs.
BLOCK TWO: THE JOURNEY WEST Reading Time: 4–6 hrs.
Unit III Chapters 12–16: 2–3 hrs.
Unit IV Chapters 17–21: 2–3 hrs.
BLOCK THREE: LIFE IN CALIFORNIA Reading Time: 4–6 hrs.
Unit V Chapters 22–26: 3–4 hrs.
Unit VI Chapters 27–30: 1–2 hrs.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck vents his anger against a capitalistic society that was capable of plunging the world into an economic depression, but he does not exonerate the farmers who have been driven from the Dust Bowl of the midwestern and southwestern United States. He deplores their neglect of the land that resulted in the Dust Bowl and which helped to exacerbate the Great Depression.
The book is interestingly structured. Interspersed among its chapters are frequent interchapters, vignettes that have little direct bearing on the novel’s main narrative. These interchapters contain the philosophical material of the book, the allegories such as that of the turtle crossing the road. As the animal makes its tedious way across the dusty thoroughfare, drivers swerve to avoid hitting it. One vicious driver, however, aims directly for it, clearly intending to squash it. Because this driver’s aim is not accurate, he succeeds only in nicking the corner of the turtle’s carapace, catapulting it to the side of the road it was trying to reach. Once the dust settles and the shock wears off, the turtle emerges and continues on its way, dropping as it does a grain of wheat from the folds of its skin. When the rains come, this grain will germinate; this is Steinbeck’s intimation of hope.
As the narrative opens, Tom Joad has been released from a prison term he served for having killed someone in self-defense. On his way home, he falls...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, is a starkly realistic rendition of the Depression-era struggle of an Oklahoma farm family forced to move to California in order to find employment. The family’s dilemma represents that of all rural, working-class households in the Midwest and West during an age of increasing mechanization for upper-class, capitalistic profit. In addition, Steinbeck’s female characters, especially, convey his message of working-class unity.
The Joads are typical 1930’s tenant farmers, forced from home because “one man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families.” Reading advertisements of work available in California, the Joads buy an old truck for the journey. The trip quickly kills lifelong Oklahoman Grandpa Joad, and Grandma Joad dies in the Nevada desert. Throughout, the impoverished Joads are victimized repeatedly, microcosmically representative of the entire capital exploitation system underlying the Great Depression.
Ma Joad’s determination, however, helps the Joads reach California. They then learn of their further victimization by machines. The work advertisements were mass-produced and deliberately overdisseminated to entice excess workers, thereby depressing wages even further and creating widespread unemployment in California. Fortunately, the family finds shelter in a government-operated, socialist-style cooperative camp, where a central committee makes...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Tom Joad, Jr., is released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He travels homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the way, he meets Jim Casy, a former preacher; the pair go together to the home of Tom’s family. They find the Joad place deserted. While Tom and Casy are wondering what happened, Muley Graves, a die-hard tenant farmer, ccomes by and discloses that all the families in the neighborhood have gone to California or are going. Tom’s folks, Muley says, went to a relative’s place to prepare for going west. Muley is the only sharecropper to stay behind. All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, sold or were forced out of the farms they tenanted. Junk dealers and used-car salesmen profiteer on them. Thousands of families take to the roads leading to the promised land: California.
Tom and Casy find the Joads at Uncle John’s place, all busy with preparations for their trip to California. Assembled for the trip are Pa and Ma Joad; Noah, their developmentally disabled son; Al, the adolescent younger brother of Tom and Noah; Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, and her husband, Connie; the Joad children, Ruthie and Winfield; and Granma and Grampa Joad. Al has bought an ancient truck to take them West. The family asks Casy to go with them. The night before they start, they...
(The entire section is 1054 words.)
Chapters 1–11: Leaving Oklahoma
The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they leave the dust bowl of Oklahoma for a better life in California. The narrative begins as Tom Joad hitchhikes across the Oklahoma panhandle to his parents’ forty-acre farm. Tom has just been paroled after serving four years in prison for manslaughter. He meets ex-preacher Jim Casy, who is alone and singing by the side of the road. Casy recounts his own fall, his doubts about the saving grace of religion, and his growing sense of a collective human spirit. When the two men arrive at the Joad farm, they find it abandoned. A neighbor, Muley Graves, explains how the banks have repossessed the family farms, forcing people to leave. The smell of their dinner brings the sheriff, and the men have to hide in the fields.
At the house of Tom’s Uncle John, Tom and Casy meet up with the Joads: Granma; Grampa; Ma; Pa; Noah, the eldest son, who is slightly crazy; Al, sixteen, who is a “tomcat” and a mechanic; Rose of Sharon who is four months pregnant and married to Connie Rivers; and Ruthie and Winfield, Tom’s younger sister and brother. The Joads have seen handbills announcing work in California and are preparing for their departure by selling their possessions, slaughtering their pigs, and loading a secondhand car. Casy asks to go along and is accepted into the family. When the time comes to leave, Grampa refuses to...
(The entire section is 1305 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1-6 Summary and Analysis
Tom Joad: the protagonist, an Oklahoma tenant farmer’s son
Jim Casy: a former preacher who now questions traditional beliefs as he observes human behavior
Muley Graves: a farmer reduced to homeless poverty when he loses his family’s land through foreclosure
When the last of light rains ended in early May, the land began to dry up. Weeds changed their color to protect themselves from the harsh sun and the corn faded and dried up. The few drops of rain that fell in June gave no help. Animal hooves and vehicle wheels broke the dry dirt crust and formed dust. Winds drove the dust until it mixed with the air and the sky was dark. When the winds subsided, the dust settled and covered the earth like a blanket. Farm men stood silently and looked at the ruined corn blown down by the wind and covered by the dust. Their women watched the silent men, and when they saw anger in the men’s faces they knew there was still hope as long as the dust did not break the spirit of the men.
A man dressed in new, but cheap, clothes sees a large truck parked at a roadside cafe. Despite the “No Riders” sign on the truck he asks the driver for a ride. He points out that some drivers are “good guys” even if their bosses make them carry the sign. The driver lets him into the truck, around the corner out of...
(The entire section is 1946 words.)
Chapters 7-11 Summary and Analysis
Pa Joad: one of many dispossessed “Dust Bowl” farmers who dream of a better life in California
Ma Joad: his strong wife who is devoted to preserving her family
Grampa Joad: the elderly, senile patriarch of the family
Granma Joad: his wife who is a religious fanatic
Noah Joad: the eldest son who moves slowly and says little
Al Joad: the Joad’s teenage son who is good at working on cars
Uncle John: Pa Joad’s brother, a widower
Ruthie and Winfield Joad: Pa and Ma’s youngest children
Rose of Sharon: the Joad’s married and pregnant daughter
Connie: Rose of Sharon’s husband
Because there was more profit and demand for used cars and trucks, salesmen were selling them to the dispossessed tenants as quickly as possible. The tenants knew little about cars and the salesmen were able to cheat them on price, interest rates, and quality. They disguised the poor condition of the vehicles in many ways and ignored complaints. They knew the tenants would be driving the vehicles away from the area anyway, so they would get no complaints.
Muley wakes Tom and Casy before dawn and says he is leaving. Tom and Casy start walking to Uncle John’s house. On the way Tom tells Casy that Uncle John has been rather strange...
(The entire section is 2006 words.)
Chapter 12-16 Summary and Analysis
Ivy Wilson: a farmer from Kansas, headed west, whose car has broken down along the highway
Sarah Wilson: his wife, who shows the strain of travel
Highway 66 was the main cross-country road running through Oklahoma and on west. On its long way it crossed mountains, dusty plains, more mountains, the arid southwestern desert, and one final range of mountains before reaching the fertile green valleys of California. The migrants streamed from their former homes to the north and south of it and turned westward, forming small caravans of whatever vehicles they had been able to obtain.
When they needed parts to keep the vehicles moving, people along the way tried to take advantage of their plight and raised the price of the parts. If they charged much more than the four dollars a tire was worth, they considered it business. If the migrant took it for nothing, however, he was a thief. So the migrants would go on and try to make an old tire do until they could get a fairer price. Many times they had to walk long distances to get a needed part.
After driving awhile, the Joads have to stop so Granma can go to the bathroom. They realize they have not brought any water with them, and Al says the truck needs gas also so they will stop at the next station and get both. The first thing the station...
(The entire section is 2432 words.)
Chapters 17-21 Summary and Analysis
Floyd Knowles: a migrant having trouble finding work
Day by day the migrants moved westward along the highway, clustering each night where there was water and company. Each camp became a temporary world for the night and “twenty families became one family.” A form of self-government grew up. Out of the respect for law and order they brought from their old homes, the migrants established rules of conduct and of rights among themselves, and the rules became laws. Any violator of these laws was expelled from the group. Evenings were spent in making friends and talking about their homes and their future. There might even be some singing, but mainly they rested to be ready for the next day’s travel.
At the Arizona border a guard asks the Joads where they are going and how long they will be in Arizona, and he tells them they had better keep moving. They drive on and stop just across the Colorado River, the California border. The first person they talk to warns them a cop will be down to “look them over.” They decide they need some rest before crossing the desert ahead.
The men go to the river and sit in its coolness. A man and boy join them. The man says they are on their way back because he can’t make a living in California. When Pa asks about work there, the man describes poor conditions. He...
(The entire section is 2680 words.)
Chapters 22-26 Summary and Analysis
Jim Rawley: the manager of a camp where the migrants govern themselves and living conditions are much better
Ezra Huston: a migrant who heads the Central Committee, the group of people who regulate conduct in the camp
The Joads go to a camp provided for the migrants by the Federal government where there is one vacant spot they can occupy. Tom learns that cops can’t come into this camp unless there is major trouble or they have a warrant, and the migrants elect their own police and make their own laws.
The next morning Tom meets the Wallaces. They invite him to breakfast and offer to take him to a farm where they have found work digging ditches. The farmer, his land mortgaged, has to pay less than he has been paying or be in trouble with the Farmer’s Association and the bank who dictate the wages he pays. Being sympathetic to the Okies, he secretly warns them some people will start trouble at the camp dance on Saturday to give the deputies an excuse to enter and break up the camp. The landowners fear the migrants are getting used to being treated too well in the camp and will be harder to control when they move to other camps run by the owners.
Ma is delighted with the running water and wash tubs, showers, and toilets and is happy to be able to clean up to meet the Ladies Committee for the Joad’s section of the camp....
(The entire section is 2440 words.)
Chapters 27-30 Summary and Analysis
Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright: migrants who have little left but their pride who share living space in a boxcar with the Joads
Aggie Wainwright: their daughter who will marry Al Joad
There was cotton to be picked and willing hands to pick it. The wages weren’t bad and they knew cotton, having picked it back home. They bought a collecting bag and paid for it with the first part of their labor. It was hard, tiring work. They dragged the big bag and filled it. Even the kids helped fill it. And they talked and sang as they worked. The bag got heavy. They got paid by the weight. The boss said they put rocks in it, and they said his scale was crooked. Each was right at times. It was good work, with money and meat at the end of each day. But there were thousands arriving to do the work of hundreds and the fields were picked clean rapidly. And winter was coming fast and there would be no work then.
Being among the first to reach the cotton field, the Joads get to live in one-half of a boxcar rather than a tent. With the money they earn, they are able to buy new clothes and eat meat every night. But when Ma buys some Cracker Jacks as a special treat for Ruthie and Winfield, Ruthie gets into a fight over them with another girl. She threatens the girl by telling her about Tom killing two men and hiding nearby....
(The entire section is 1803 words.)