In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck employs a third-person, omniscient narrator to relay the story of the Joad family as they are forced to abandon their home in Oklahoma due to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. They join thousands of other Okies in a journey to faraway California.
When telling a highly personal story, many writers will opt to use the first-person narrator point of view. Writers sometimes fear using the third-person omniscient, because the narrator can seem detached and disinterested from the story. This does not happen in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s use of the third-person omniscient improves the reader’s understanding of the plot and themes.
First, the characters are stoic in their difficult situations. This allows the narrator to communicate the macro-level disadvantages that the characters are subjected to and help explain why they are in this situation in the first place. The narrator is able to critique American greed and corruption without breaking up the plot of the novel. The characters are worried about keeping the family together, not railing against American banks. This deepens the reader’s understanding of the plot and its background.
A key theme of the novel is the power of family. By working to keep the family together, the Joads create an oasis in their desperate situation. When the narrator keeps switching between characters, the reader understands that this is a universal theme, not just specific to the Joads but applicable to all Americans going through this situation.