The Grapes of Wrath Summary
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel by John Steinbeck in which the downtrodden Joad family travels west in pursuit of better economic opportunity.
- The Joad family sets out for California to escape the economic depression created by the Dust Bowl.
- This journey to California is a perilous one, and the Joads contend with harsh weather, poverty, and illness. Upon reaching California, they're disappointed to find that life is no better there.
After a flood, the Joads seek refuge in a barn where they find a starving man and his son. Rose of Sharon, who recently lost her baby, nurses the starving man.
Last Updated on September 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1803
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) chronicles the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California after industrial farming pushes them off their land. Though poor and possessing few resources to ease their journey, they are hopeful, having heard rumors that California is a promised land for migrant families looking to start afresh.
During their journey, the Joads persist through sickness, harassment from border guards, and the deaths of family members. Upon reaching California, they find it less magical than they expected: work is hard to find and wages are low, making mere survival difficult. Morale is low because workers are not respected and considered expendable. Nonetheless, the family remains resourceful and persistent, largely because they have no other options.
The Grapes of Wrath is interspersed with shorter chapters examining American culture, Depression-era economics, and hardships faced by migrants. These hardships include the acquisition of farmland by rich owners and banks, as well as the desperation, crime, starvation, and death caused by poverty. Steinbeck also explores the loss of authenticity suffered when people long connected to the land are forced to stop farming it. Last, Steinbeck delves into the destructive consequences of a culture that places self-interest and industry above compassion.
Though the novel is fictional, the Joads’ journey is based on real-life events during the Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930s. Fueled by the Great Depression, dust storms, and the rise of industrial farming, blue-collar, primarily white families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas traveled west in search of better opportunities. Like the Joads, many of the working-class families were poor and faced low wages and infrequent work upon reaching California. This situation was largely due to the surplus of migrants and the scarcity of jobs.
Tom Joad Jr., who has just been released from jail and is on parole, hitchhikes back to his family’s farm in Oklahoma. He hasn’t been home in four years, having served a four-year sentence for killing another man in self-defense.
After getting dropped off, Tom walks the rest of the way. He comes upon Jim Casy, a former preacher, whose sermons his family attended when Tom was young. Casy says he has lost his sense of faith and has been having sinful thoughts, so he stopped preaching and now lives in solitude.
Tom and Casy reach the Joad house and find it empty and dilapidated. Due to a lack of farming profits, the tenants living on the farmland have been forced out by landowners and large banks. Tom’s family’s farm has been consolidated and is now a cotton farm. A neighbor, Muley Graves, shows up and explains that the Joads are staying nearby with Uncle John and plan to go west soon to look for work. Muley, however, doesn’t plan on leaving. He confesses that he wants to kill the people responsible for forcing out not just the Joads, but all the local families. The three men hide when the landowner’s patrollers come to check the land for trespassers.
Tom and Casy walk to Uncle John’s, where Tom reunites with his parents, Ma and Pa, and grandparents, Granma and Grampa Joad. His brothers, Noah, Al, and Winfield, and sisters, Rose of Sharon—called “Rosasharn”—and Ruthie, are also there. Last, there is Uncle John and Rosasharn’s husband, Connie.
The next day, the family sets out for California with some trepidation and sadness. They pile themselves, their dog, and their valuables into their car, and Casy joins them. Grampa refuses to leave, so the family drugs him and brings him after he falls asleep.
The Joads stop at a roadside shack for gas and water. The family dog gets run over. They stop at night on the road and meet a couple, Ivy and Sairy Wilson. Grampa falls ill and Casy prays over him, but Grampa dies soon thereafter. The family digs a hole and buries him with a note that explains how he died. They leave Grampa’s grave unmarked, because they know they could get into trouble for not reporting his death and paying for his burial. However, they don’t have the money. The Joads and Wilsons decide to travel together the rest of the way.
The group drives west through Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Rosasharn and Connie make plans to move to town once they arrive in California and make a good life for their growing family, because Rosasharn is pregnant. One of the cars breaks down and needs a part fixed. Tom and Al go to the nearest town to replace the part. While Tom and Al talk with some other travelers, a man warns them that he’s already been to California and found no work there.
The Joads and Wilsons finally cross into California. They stop at a migrant camp by the Colorado River and talk with a man who is going the opposite direction. He claims Californians hate the migrants. Noah decides to try to make a life for himself by the river and walks off. An officer shows up and tells Ma Joad they need to clear out by morning, calling her and the other migrants “Oakies.” The Wilsons stay behind, because Sairy is sick. Sairy knows she’s dying and asks Casy to say a prayer.
At a border control station, Ma tells the officer that the family has a sick old woman in the truck and that they need to find a hospital. The officer lets them pass, and they drive on through the desert. They reach a valley and marvel at the trees, houses, and farmland. Ma admits that she knew Granma had died before the border but lied to get the family through the desert. They take Granma’s body to the local coroner and leave it there.
That night, they stop at a migrant camp and learn that everyone there is looking for work, too. This oversupply of labor is intentional: bosses over-advertise so they can pay desperate workers less. A contractor arrives and looks for men willing to work for next to nothing. A fight breaks out, and Casy volunteers to take the blame for hurting a deputy, even though he didn’t do it. Police take him away.
The Joads leave camp to find work. They are almost held back by a mob who don’t want “Oakies” camping near their town. Connie leaves, saying he’s just going out for a little bit. In truth, he leaves for good, abandoning Rosasharn.
The Joads drive south to a government community. There, the police aren’t allowed in without a warrant and migrants are allowed to live in safety. The Joads stay there, awed by modern conveniences like running water and flush toilets. Tom gets work at a nearby farm. Pa, Al, and Uncle John look for work without success.
The community preps for a dance. The police are planning to sabotage the dance by inciting violence, thus giving them a reason to break into the camp and kick people out. Men from the camp stop paid rioters from causing trouble, thwarting the police’s plan. One man suggests to Pa that the men of the camp should all gather their guns and prepare to revolt for better wages.
After staying at the government camp for a month, the Joads are barely scraping by. They are almost out of food and haven’t found steady work. They reluctantly decide to get on the road again.
On the road, they pass striking workers protesting for fairer wages. The Joads are escorted through by police. They come to a peach orchard, where they find work immediately and stay in a small, near-empty cabin. Ma is able to buy food with the credit the family earns picking peaches, but the credit is insufficient and the food overpriced. Tom wanders off and finds Casy camped nearby with men who used to work at the orchard. They are striking against pay cuts that make it difficult to survive. Casy, a leader of the group, says the workers’ wages have been slashed and will be slashed again.
The group is caught and cornered by guards, who kill Casy. Tom attacks, kills a guard, and escapes. Injured, he hides out at the family’s cabin and avoids returning to work for fear of being caught. The strike ends and wages drop, just as Casy predicted. The family decides to leave and sneaks Tom out with them. They stop by a cotton farm advertising for workers. Tom decides to hide until he has healed and the police have lost interest in him.
The family lives in a boxcar while they pick cotton for the farm. They make more money but are still poor. Ruthie gets in a fight with bullies. She accidentally tells them about Tom, so Ma goes to warn him. He has been living in the wilderness, eating food Ma leaves out for him. He tells Ma he wants to do something to help poor people stand up to their oppressors. They say goodbye, knowing the meeting could be their last together.
Back at the farm, Al tells the family he’s going to get married to Aggie Wainwright, the daughter of a local family. The Joads and the Wainwrights make a day trip to another farm to work. They all pick cotton—even Rosasharn—but make little money because there are so many pickers. They finish just before a downpour, and Rosasharn falls ill.
At the boxcars, it rains so much that the local families worry about flooding. Rosasharn is feverish and goes into labor. Pa recruits other men to help build a bank to protect them from the growing flood of water. Their efforts fail, however, because a tree falls and destroys part of the bank. Al tries to move the family car but there’s too much water in it and the engine does not start.
Rosasharn gives birth, but the baby is stillborn. Ma and Aggie’s mother put the baby in a box. Uncle John takes the box and releases it in the stream of floodwater so that it will float downstream and serve as a symbol for how rough life is for the migrants.
The family builds a platform on which to store their few possessions and thereby keep them dry. They soon grow tired of the arrangement and leave the boxcar for higher ground. Al stays behind to be with Aggie. Ma, Pa, Rosasharn, Ruthie, and Winfield take shelter in a barn, where a father and his son are already hunkered down. The son says his father is starving but can’t eat solid food. Ma looks to Rosasharn and asks everyone to leave the barn. In an effort to save the man, Rosasharn lets him drink her breast milk.