The Grapes of Wrath Summary

The Grapes of Wrath summary

Tom Joad is released from prison at the beginning of Steinbeck's classic novel of the Great Depression. Tom meets a former preacher named Jim, who joins the Joads on their journey to California.

  • The Grapes of Wrath begins when Tom Joad is released from prison. He then joins his family on their journey to California, where they hope to find a better life.

  • This journey to California is a perilous one, and the Joads face death, heat, and poverty while traveling West. 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 has recently lost her baby, feeds the starving man from her breast.


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.

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.

Unit V Chapters 22–26: 3–4 hrs.
Unit VI Chapters 27–30: 1–2 hrs.

The Grapes of Wrath Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 in with Jim Casy, a former preacher down on his luck. Jim’s initials can be interpreted religiously, as can much of the book. When Jim and Tom get to the farm where the Joads were tenant farmers, they find the place deserted, as are the farms around it, now dusty remnants of what they had been. Tom learns that his family has sold what little it owned, probably for five cents on the dollar, and headed to the promised land: California. En route, the family has paused to rest at a relative’s place and to work on the antique truck they had bought secondhand for the trip. Tom and Jim catch up with them there, and they all leave—an even dozen of them—for the land in which they have placed their future hope.

The chronicle of the slow trip west, reminiscent of the turtle’s arduous creep across the parched road, is recorded in such realistic detail that the reader is transported into a world peopled by hobos, stumblebums, the dispossessed, the disenchanted, and the dislocated—all of them pushing ahead to the jobs they believe exist for agricultural workers in California. Death haunts the motley band, threatening the elderly and those who are weak. The grandfather dies of a stroke the first night out; his wife dies as the family crosses the Mojave Desert. Noah, the retarded son, wanders off and is not heard from again. Ahead, however, lies hope, so the Joads bury their dead and keep going.

The land of their hearts desire, however, proves to be no Garden of Eden. The dream of a future that will offer hope and security quickly develops into a nightmare. Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, lacks the funds for a funeral when her baby dies. She prays over it and sets it adrift in the rushes beside a river. Tom gets into trouble with the police, but Jim surrenders in his place and is taken away. By the time Tom and Jim meet again, Jim is a labor agitator. In an encounter with the police, Jim is killed and Tom is injured. The Joads hide Tom in their shack, then sneak him into a farm. There he takes up Jim’s work as a labor organizer.

As the rains come, the Joads, who are encamped beside a river, endure floods that ruin their old truck. Having no place to live, they go into a decrepit barn, where a boy and his starving father have sought shelter. Rose of Sharon, having lost her baby, nourishes the starving man with the milk from her breasts, thereby saving his life. One is reminded again of the turtle and of the grain of wheat it deposits in the desiccated soil.

The Grapes of Wrath is a bitter tale of humans against nature and against a brutally exploitive society, but it is also a tale of nobility, of self-sacrifice, and ultimately of hope. It often offends the sensibilities, but life frequently offends one’s sensibilities. The novel is a polemic, but one more detached and objective than first thought by many a critic.

The Grapes of Wrath Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 management decisions and tenants work and share equally. The Joads begin to realize that only by working-class unity can they hope to combat the crop owners and their police. As Ma Joad states, “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”

The Joads then show they can reciprocate as class-conscious members of the struggle for economic survival in an America dominated by the capitalist “monster.” After Rose of Sharon’s baby is predict-ably stillborn, given the family’s deprivation, the Joads are forced from home by a flood. Struggling to higher ground, they take refuge in an old barn, where they discover a starving man and his son. Proving their newfound dedication to their class and ability to adjust, endure, and eventually conquer, Ma and Rose of Sharon look at each other, Rose of Sharon saying “Yes.” Ma responds, “I knowed you would. I knowed!” as Rose of Sharon kneels beside the starving man to feed him from her breast. The Joad women thus demonstrate that all of the suffering poor are their family, to be nurtured and sustained in the unending struggle for economic justice in an economically unjust America.

The Grapes of Wrath Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 kill the pigs they have left and salt down the meat so that they will have food on the way.

Spurred by handbills that state that agricultural workers are badly needed in California, the Joads, along with thousands of others, make their tortuous way, in a worn-out vehicle, across the plains toward the mountains. Grampa dies of a stroke during their first overnight stop. Later, there is a long delay when the truck breaks down. Small businesspeople along the way treat the migrants as enemies, and, to add to their misery, returning migrants tell the Joads that there is no work to be had in California, that conditions are even worse than they are in Oklahoma. The dream of a bountiful West Coast, however, urges the Joads onward.

Close to the California line, where the group stops to bathe in a river, Noah, feeling he is a hindrance to the others, wanders away. It is there that the Joads first hear themselves addressed as Okies, another word for tramps. Granma dies during the night trip across the desert. After burying her, the group goes into a Hooverville, as the migrants’ camps are called. There they learn that work is all but impossible to find. A contractor comes to the camp to sign up men to pick fruit in another county. When the Okies ask to see his license, the contractor turns the leaders over to a police deputy who accompanied him to camp. Tom is involved in the fight that follows. He escapes, and Casy surrenders himself in Tom’s place. Connie, husband of the pregnant Rose of Sharon, suddenly disappears from the group. The family is breaking up in the face of its hardships. Ma Joad does everything in her power to keep the group together.

Fearing recrimination after the fight, the Joads leave Hooverville and go to a government camp maintained for transient agricultural workers. The camp has sanitary facilities, a local government made up of the transients themselves, and simple organized entertainment. During the Joads’ stay at the camp, the Okies successfully defeat an attempt of the local citizens to give the camp a bad name and thus to have it closed to the migrants. For the first time since they arrived in California, the Joads find themselves treated as human beings.

Circumstances eventually force them to leave the camp, however, for there is no work in the district. They drive to a large farm where work is being offered. There they find agitators attempting to keep the migrants from taking the work because of the unfair wages offered. The Joads, however, thinking only of food, are escorted by motorcycle police to the farm. The entire family picks peaches for five cents a box and earns in a day just enough money to buy food for one meal. Tom, remembering the pickets outside the camp, goes out at night to investigate. He finds Casy, who is the leader of the agitators. While Tom and Casy are talking, deputies, who have been searching for Casy, close in on them. The pair flee but are caught. Casy is killed. Tom receives a cut on his head, but not before he fells a deputy with an ax handle. The family conceals Tom in their shack. The rate for a box of peaches drops, meanwhile, to two-and-a-half cents. Tom’s danger and the futility of picking peaches drive the Joads on their way. They hide the injured Tom under the mattresses in the back of the truck, and then they tell the suspicious guard at the entrance to the farm that the extra man they had with them when they came was a hitchhiker who stayed behind to pick.

The family finds at last a migrant crowd encamped in abandoned boxcars along a stream. They join the camp and soon find temporary jobs picking cotton. Tom, meanwhile, hides in a culvert near the camp. Ruthie innocently discloses Tom’s presence to another little girl. Ma, realizing that Tom is no longer safe, sends him away. Tom promises to carry on Casy’s work in trying to improve the lot of the downtrodden everywhere.

The autumn rains begin. Soon the stream that runs beside the camp overflows and water enters the boxcars. Under these all but impossible conditions, Rose of Sharon gives birth to a dead baby. When the rising water makes their position no longer bearable, the family moves from the camp on foot. The rains had made their old truck useless. They come to a barn, which they share with a boy and his starving father. Rose of Sharon, bereft of her baby, nourishes the famished man with the milk from her breasts. The poor keep each other alive in the years of the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath Summary

Chapters 1–11: Leaving Oklahoma
The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapter Summary and Analysis

The Grapes of Wrath Chapters 1-6 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Chapter 1
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 entire section is 1946 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapters 7-11 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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


(The entire section is 2006 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 12-16 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Chapter 12
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...

(The entire section is 2432 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapters 17-21 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Floyd Knowles: a migrant having trouble finding work

Chapter 17
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...

(The entire section is 2680 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapters 22-26 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Chapter 22
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...

(The entire section is 2440 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath Chapters 27-30 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
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

Chapter 27
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...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)