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.
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.
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, 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.