The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck - Essay

John Steinbeck


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck Jr; also wrote under the pseudonym Amnesia Glasscock) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter. See also The Chrysanthemums Criticism, John Steinbeck Short Story Criticisim, John Steinbeck Literary Criticisim (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21, 124.

The following entry presents criticism on Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is distinguished by its lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Written after Steinbeck produced a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma and Arkansas farmers facing poverty and starvation due to the Great Depression and severe drought of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar of controversy and was one of the most commonly banned books of its time because of Steinbeck's obvious socialist sympathies. Nonetheless, the novel remains one of the most admired and studied works of social protest fiction of the twentieth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the supposed Eden of California after drought and economic depression cause their small family farm to collapse. They are joined by Jim Casy, a former preacher, now disillusioned with religion, who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community that must work together for the greater good, and who inspires the Joads's son Tom to support the cause of the working poor. Interspersed among the chapters dealing specifically with the Joads are chapters in which Steinbeck took a broader, more universal approach to illustrate the full force of the tragedy of the migrant farmers—commonly and disparagingly referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies”—of the 1930s. Simultaneously symbolic and journalistic, these chapters provide a historical overview of the events of the time not only for the displaced farmers but also for American society as a whole, which, according to Steinbeck, must bear the responsibility and the consequences for its callous treatment of the working poor. During the course of their travels, the family's dog is hit by a car, and both of the grandparents die. Then Rose of Sharon, the Joads's pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. When the Joads—and all those like them—finally make their way to California, they expect to find themselves in a kind of paradise with plenty of well-paid work available. Instead they find an oversaturated work market where they are forced by hunger and desperation to work as scabs in migrant camps. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by a thug who works for the farm owners, and Tom Joad, who has already violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, must go into hiding after killing Casy's murderer. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life.

Major Themes

The Grapes of Wrath is in one sense a documentary account of American socioeconomic events of the 1930s. Photojournalists recorded the suffering of the people of the Dust Bowl region, and Steinbeck was strongly influenced by the widely published photographs, including those in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Steinbeck's interest in the plight of farmers in the face of rapidly encroaching agribusiness and his sympathy for union organizers became important themes in the novel, along with the struggles of the average person against big business. But beyond the depiction of historical events is Steinbeck's symbolism. Jim Casy, although he is a reluctant preacher, serves as a Christlike figure, leading the Joads and the workers to consider the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Ma Joad, with her considerable inner strength, and Rose of Sharon, particularly in the final scene of the novel, are earth-mother symbols who instinctively understand their roles as nurturers. This religious symbolism—both Christian and non-Christian—pervades the novel. Images of exodus, plague, and the search for paradise, as well as of the sanctity of the land, dominate the farmers' travels to the West.

Critical Reception

While The Grapes of Wrath is praised by most critics for the universality of its themes, it is sometimes faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Initial reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. With its political implications now defused, critical study of The Grapes of Wrath has more recently focused on Steinbeck's religious and nature symbolism and the role of his female characters, which earlier critics had considered stereotypical and one-dimensional. But regardless of critical opinion, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the most respected modern American novels.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional References to History (novel) 1929

The Pastures of Heaven (novel) 1932

To a God Unknown (novel) 1933

Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935

In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936

Nothing So Monstrous (short stories) 1936

Saint Kay the Virgin (short stories) 1936

Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937

Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1937

The Red Pony (novella) 1937

The Long Valley (short stories) 1938

The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939

The Forgotten Village (novel) 1941

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (travel book) 1941

The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942

The Moon Is Down: Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942

How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. (short stories) 1943

Cannery Row (novel) 1945

The Pearl (novella) 1947

The Wayward Bus (novel) 1947

Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novel) 1950

East of Eden (novel) 1952

Viva Zapata! (screenplay) 1952

Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954

The Crapshooter (short stories) 1957

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957

The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961

Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

Malcolm Cowley (review date 3 May 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cowley, Malcolm. “American Tragedy.” New Republic 98, no. 1274 (3 May 1939): 382-83.

[In the following review, Cowley disagrees with the assessment that The Grapes of Wrath is “the greatest novel of the last ten years” but rather finds it to be among the best of the “great angry books” that have the power to spur readers on to protest and action.]

While keeping our eyes on the cataclysms in Europe and Asia, we have lost sight of a tragedy nearer home. A hundred thousand rural households have been uprooted from the soil, robbed of their possessions—though by strictly legal methods—and turned out on the highways. Friendless, homeless and therefore voteless, with fewer rights than medieval serfs, they have wandered in search of a few days' work at miserable wages—not in Spain or the Yangtze Valley, but among the vineyards and orchards of California, in a setting too commonplace for a color story in the Sunday papers. Their migrations have been described only in a long poem and a novel. The poem is “Land of the Free,” by Archibald MacLeish, published last year with terrifying photographs by the Resettlement Administration. The novel, which has just appeared, is John Steinbeck's longest and angriest and most impressive work.

The Grapes of Wrath begins with Tom Joad's homecoming. After being released from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he has served four years of a seven-year sentence for homicide, he sets out for his father's little farm in the bottom lands near Sallisaw. He reaches the house to find that it is empty, the windows broken, the well filled in and even the dooryard planted with cotton. Muley Graves, a neighbor, comes past in the dusk and tells him what has happened. It is a scene that I can't forget: the men sitting back on their haunches, drawing figures with a stick in the dust; a half-starved cat watching from the doorstep; and around them the silence of a mile-long cottonfield. Muley says that all the tenant farmers have been evicted from their land—“tractored off” is the term he uses. Groups of twenty and thirty farms are being thrown together and the whole area cultivated by one man with a caterpillar tractor. Most of the families are moving to California, on the rumor that work can be found there. Tom's people are staying temporarily with his Uncle John, eight miles away, but they will soon be leaving. Of this whole farming community, no one is left but stubborn Muley Graves, hiding from the sheriff's men, haunting empty houses and “jus' wanderin' aroun',” he says, “like an ol' graveyard ghos'.”

Next morning Tom rejoins his family—just in time, for the uncle too has been ordered to leave his farm. The whole family of twelve is starting for California. Their last day at home is another fine scene in which you realize, little by little, that not only a family but a whole culture is being...

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Christopher Isherwood (review date autumn 1939)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Christopher. “The Tragedy of Eldorado.” Kenyon Review 1, no. 4 (autumn 1939): 450-53.

[In the following review, Isherwood praises Steinbeck's efforts in The Grapes of Wrath but finds the novel overly didactic and propagandistic.]

Out in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, the earth is dying of sheer exhaustion. Three generations back, white men took this land from the Indians. Their children grew poor on it, lost it, and became sharecroppers. Now, when the sharecroppers' landlords can no longer pay the interest on their debts, the banks step in to claim what is legally theirs. They will plough up the small holdings with their tractors, and farm...

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Frederic I. Carpenter (essay date 1941)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Frederic I. “John Steinbeck: The Philosophical Joads.” In American Literature and the Dream, pp. 167-75. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1955.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1941, Carpenter argues that the philosophical center of The Grapes of Wrath lies not in its documentary-style interchapters but in the character of Jim Casy, who, Carpenter notes, embodies and transforms both American transcendentalism and pragmatism.]

A popular heresy has it that a novelist should not discuss ideas—especially not abstract ideas. Even the best contemporary reviewers concern themselves with the entertainment value of a...

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Walter Fuller Taylor (essay date summer 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Walter Fuller. “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered: Some Observations on John Steinbeck and the ‘Religion’ of Secularism.” Mississippi Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1959): 136-44.

[In the following essay, Taylor finds that readers twenty years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath will come away with a considerably different experience than those who read the book while the social issues of its time were fresh in their consciousness.]

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, vintage of 1939; and now that the wine has aged for twenty years it reveals underlying flavors that in the first flush of discovery were...

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Peter Lisca (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lisca, Peter. “The Dynamics of Community in The Grapes of Wrath.” In From Irving to Steinbeck: Studies of American Literature in Honor of Harry R. Warfel, edited by Motley Deakin and Peter Lisca, pp. 127-40. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1970, Lisca discusses the relevance of Steinbeck's portrayal of social and economic upheaval in The Grapes of Wrath to later readers in times of similar turbulence.]

The Grapes of Wrath, more than Steinbeck's other novels, remains viable not just in drugstore racks of Bantam paperbacks or in college survey courses but in the...

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Leonard Lutwack (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lutwack, Leonard. “The Grapes of Wrath.” In Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century, pp. 47-63. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Lutwack identifies The Grapes of Wrath as a novel in the epic tradition, drawing in particular from the stories of the Israelites in the biblical Exodus narrative and the Trojans in the Aeneid.]

The line of descent from The Octopus to The Grapes of Wrath is as direct as any that can be found in American literature. The journey of the Okies in Steinbeck's book is certainly in the spirit of one of those...

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Duane R. Carr (essay date summer-fall 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carr, Duane R. “Steinbeck's Blakean Vision in The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 8, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1975): 67-73.

[In the following essay, Carr uses Jim Casy's speech at Grandpa Joad's graveside as a starting point to analyze instances of allusion to the poetry of William Blake in The Grapes of Wrath.]

Steinbeck criticism has come a long way since Edmund Wilson's early judgment of The Grapes of Wrath as principally about animals, not humans,1 and Stanley Edgar Hyman's rather harsh judgment of Steinbeck as interested only in the study of ecology.2 Three critics in particular—Peter Lisca, Warren French, and...

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Martha Heasley Cox (essay date 11 November 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cox, Martha Heasley. “The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution.” San Jose Studies 1, no. 3 (11 November 1975): 73-81.

[In the following essay, Cox reviews critical reaction to the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and examines Steinbeck's own discussion of the novel in his journals to argue that the final scene was not hastily conceived sentimentalism but instead a well-thought-out part of Steinbeck's total plan for the book.]

According to local legend, John Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath about three o'clock on the morning of October 23, 1938, awakened his wife and house guests who had gathered in...

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James D. Brasch (essay date May 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brasch, James D. “The Grapes of Wrath and Old Testament Skepticism.” San Jose Studies 3, no. 2 (May 1977): 16-27.

[In the following essay, Brasch finds elements from stories in the Old Testament in The Grapes of Wrath.]

John Steinbeck's Salinas Valley has always rested in the shade of the mountains of the Old Testament, and the legends of the people of Israel have frequently charted and illuminated the vicissitudes of his characters. Humble gestures and heroic achievements in Steinbeck's novels recount the history of “God's chosen people” as they struggled from the Garden of Eden to the Promised Land. Frequently, the speech rhythms of Steinbeck's...

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Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watkins, Floyd C. “Flat Wine from The Grapes of Wrath.” In In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, pp. 19-29. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Watkins contends that Steinbeck made many errors in his depiction of Oklahomans in The Grapes of Wrath.]

A character in fiction is known in part by his relationship with things; he is defined by the clutter of his world. If the things are vague or false, the character is unlikely to be genuine. In a novel with sparse details, the people usually share the vagueness of the environment. Nature may be a large part of the raw materials of fiction. When an author does...

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John Ditsky (essay date summer 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “The Grapes of Wrath: A Reconsideration.” Southern Humanities Review 13, no. 3 (summer 1979): 215-20.

[In the following essay, Ditsky describes The Grapes of Wrath as “a romantic epic of the U.S. highway.”]

It can be argued that the American road provides the major theme of our national literature. Broaden the consideration to include the road's literary counterparts—the river and the sea—and the point acquires further strength. Four decades after its creation, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath begs recognition as the sort of book it really is: a classic of undiminished power that is fundamentally a romantic...

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Reloy Garcia (essay date summer-fall 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garcia, Reloy. “The Rocky Road to Eldorado: The Journey Motif in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 14, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1981): 83-93.

[In the following essay, Garcia argues that The Grapes of Wrath derives its fundamental structure from the “initiation motif of African and Native American quest tales.]

In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck's unhappy travellers span two apparently distinct and opposing worlds: the droughty Oklahoma of the early chapters of the novel and the rich and fertile paradise of Chapter Eighteen and after. His characters, here and everywhere, stand invariably one foot in the...

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Christopher L. Salter (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Salter, Christopher L. “John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as a Primer for Cultural Geography.” In Humanistic Geography and Literature: Essays on the Experience of Place, edited by Douglas C. D. Pocock, pp. 142-58. London: Croom Helm, 1981.

[In the following essay, Salter discusses Steinbeck's descriptions of places and landscapes to explore the effects of human mobility on geographical issues.]

There is no need to write additional textbooks in cultural geography. All the messages of the profession are already committed to ink. The motivations, processes, patterns and the consequences of human interaction with the landscape have all been discovered...

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Donald Pizer (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pizer, Donald. “John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation, pp. 65-81. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Pizer finds the Joads the embodiment of Steinbeck's ideals in spite of, rather than because of, Steinbeck's literary expression of them.]

Steinbeck's most famous novel is enshrouded in a number of myths about its origin and nature. Here is a work which appears to be the epitome of the 1930s proletarian novel in that all its good people speak bad English, which sweetens its animal view of human nature with an anomalous...

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John J. Conder (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Conder, John J. “Steinbeck and Nature's Self: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase, pp. 142-59. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

[In the following essay, Conder examines the role of determinism in The Grapes of Wrath.]

Both Dreiser and Dos Passos saw the self as a product of mechanisms and hence incapable of freedom, and both postulated the existence of a second self beyond the limitations of determinism. Dreiser arrived late at the notion and, borrowing it wholesale from Brahmanic thought, barely tested its meaning, save to see it as the source of man's freedom. Although Dos Passos never developed...

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Louis Owens (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Owens, Louis. “The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath.” In Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, pp. 108-16. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989.

[In the following essay, Owens examines the elements with which Steinbeck balances the potential sentimentality in The Grapes of Wrath.]

The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In...

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Nellie Y. McKay (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McKay, Nellie Y. “‘Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom’: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.1 In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 47-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, McKay examines the ways in which the women in The Grapes of Wrath subvert stereotypical gender roles.]

Women's social roles in western culture are central concerns in contemporary feminist criticism. The discourse focuses on the idea that our society is organized around male-dominated sex-gender systems that admit two genders, that privilege heterosexual relationships, and...

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Stephen Railton (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Railton, Stephen. “Pilgrims' Politics: Steinbeck's Art of Conversion.” In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 27-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Railton contends that The Grapes of Wrath is about change at its most fundamental—biological and organic—level.]

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about things that grow—corn, peaches, cotton, and grapes of wrath. From the start Steinbeck identifies his vision of human history with organic, biological processes. A recurrent image is established in the first chapter, when the drought and wind in Oklahoma combine to uproot and topple...

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David N. Cassuto (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cassuto, David N. “Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 55-75. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cassuto argues that the farmers' move from east to west—and the ultimate failure of this move—in The Grapes of Wrath is an “indictment” of the American myths of the garden and the frontier as places of refuge and unlimited potential, and that these myths surrounding the American West have historically created ecological disaster.]


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Lorelei Cederstrom (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cederstrom, Lorelei. “The ‘Great Mother’ in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 76-91. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cederstrom argues that the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath is not derived from Christian symbolism, as has been asserted, but rather from earlier pagan notions of the “Great Mother” and traces evidence of matriarchal ideals throughout the novel.]

In his depiction of the destruction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended upon her...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bredahl, A. Carl, Jr. “The Drinking Metaphor in The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 6, no. 4 (fall 1973): 95-8.

Examines the significance of four beverages—liquor, water, milk, and coffee—that appear in The Grapes of Wrath and how metaphor of drinking comes full circle in the final scene.

Campbell, Russell. “Trampling Out the Vintage: Sour Grapes.” In The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, pp. 107-18. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978.

Analyzes the attempts of film makers to preserve the spirit of Steinbeck's novel in...

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