Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is one of his best known novels because it provides opportunities for rich analysis of its narrative style, setting, and historical context.

Narrative style

Steinbeck uses a third-person omniscient point of view in The Grapes of Wrath. This point of view follows several characters' perspectives and changes within specific chapters. This change of perspective contributes to tone, adding more opportunities for readers to gain different understandings of the text.

  • For example, Jim Casy's perspective is reflective, full of long-winded speeches, and slow mannerisms. This change in tone forces readers to also slow down and reflect.

Steinbeck also intersperses the novel with short chapters that are not about the Joad family’s journey. These chapters, usually odd numbered, summarize ideas and events. With these chapters, Steinbeck explores bigger concepts and themes, such as the use of land, migration of families, class conflict, and community.

Steinbeck’s use of perspective gives the novel a broader scope. Readers not only see all of the character’s interactions, but also glimpse the larger contextual aspects of The Grapes of Wrath through these historical, context-based chapters.

Steinbeck also employs colloquial speech. For instance, characters from Midwestern states within the novel speak in a Midwestern dialect; this deviates from the characters who speak the “standard” West Coast accent in California.

The difference in language between the Midwestern migrant workers and the California landowners is stark. On one level, this highlights their class differences; on another, it suggests a value judgment on location, in which the idea of a place is equated with being either desirable or not.

  • To the Californians who are growers, landowners, or the upper-class, the migrant farm laborers are the “other’’—and are therefore different enough to deserve being ostracized.

Much of the novel focuses on class conflict and the mistreatment of the migrant farm laborers. The groundwork of this mistreatment lies in language, because it is one of the first indicators of difference. Steinbeck uses the colloquial language of the Joad family and other migrant laborers to illustrate their different values.

  • For instance, the speech and mannerisms of migrant laborers, as seen in the interactions of the Joad family, are full of kindness, caring, and humor.

By contrast, the growers, contractors, and police often use cold or judgmental language. Because of this, readers often sympathize with the migrant laborers and their colloquial language.


Steinbeck uses different settings in The Grapes of Wrath to help provide a rich backdrop for the Joad family's journey. In addition to reflecting historical events, the stark contrast between Oklahoma and California illustrate the tension between migrant workers and land owners, the working class and middle to upper class.

The story begins in Oklahoma, home to the Joads and recently devastated by the dust bowl. Steinbeck begins the novel in Oklahoma in order to convey how dry and unforgiving the land of Oklahoma was; everything is described as red or brown, very dusty, and with little vegetation or shade. This environment illustrates how dire the Joads' situation is and their need to move elsewhere to survive.

The Joad family finds hope in California; they heard that farms there are bountiful, and that laborers are needed. The latter half of The Grapes of Wrath takes place in the San Joaquin Valley in southern California. Rich in fertile land for agriculture, the San Joaquin Valley provides a stark contrast to the sparseness and poverty of both Oklahoma and the Joad family. However, despite moving to a fertile and healthy land, the Joads find that it is no so-called promised land, because the growers and landowners are unwelcoming and pay very little.

Other settings important to The Grapes of Wrath include the following: Route 66, the Colorado River, the “Hoovervilles,” and the Weedpatch Camp. These locations are migratory and unstable to varying degrees with the exception of the Weedpatch camp, which gives migrant families a chance to engage in civic duties, to live in cleanliness, and to live in relative happiness:

  • Route 66 represents travel and movement; the majority of the Joad family’s story takes place along Route 66, highlighting how little the Joads have in terms of stability and possessions.
  • The Colorado River represents character movement. Near the California state border, the Colorado River is where the Joad family loses their son Noah, who decides to leave the family to live on the river.
  • The “Hoovervilles,” a derogatory name for camplike towns that migrant families would set up, further show the Joads' lack of security. These camps also lack in safety and cleanliness, further illustrating the plight of the migrant workers.
  • The Weedpatch Camp, set up by the government, is the first sanitary and relatively protected place that the Joads experience. Weedpatch's positive portrayal may indicate a preference for the government's efforts at the time since they provided better living conditions for migrant workers than the California growers and landowners did. Furthermore, the Weedpatch Camp highlights the migrant people’s ability to be successful and well-organized when given the opportunity to thrive.

In addition to the broad impact the settings have on the novel's events, other settings act as catalysts for specific characters.

  • After the Weedpatch Camp, the Joads move north to the Pixley Peach Farm, a place which highlights the mistreatment of the migrant laborers by the growers. Here, the laborers attempt to unionize to fight for better wages and living conditions. They do not succeed; instead, the Pixley Peach Farm is the scene of Jim Casy’s death at the hands of vigilantes against the movement to unionize. This setting is also where the protagonist, Tom Joad, realizes that he needs to help others and become a part of the movement.
  • The boxcar is where the Joad family stays with the Wainwrights is meant to evoke visions of migration and movement for readers. This lack of permanence is what the Joad family struggles with. Despite the instability of the situation, the Joad and Wainwright families work together. They even have their children, Al Joad and Aggie Wainwright, get married. Despite living in tenuous conditions, the families work hard to create unity.
  • During the flood, the Joads and the Wainwrights, except the newlyweds Al and Aggie, travel through the rising water and find refuge in a barn. Rosasharn has just birthed a stillborn baby, Tom Joad has left, and the family is broken. Despite this, the barn becomes a place of truth and goodness. The family finds a starving father and his son hiding in the barn. Rosasharn decides to feed the starving man her breast milk. The novel ends on this scene of sacrifice and compassion, as the remaining Joads take shelter within the safety of the barn. The last two settings of the flooding boxcar and the barn help dramatize the Joad family’s journey and choices. the environment cannot stop the family from achieving unity and goodness in the end, despite their suffering.

Historical Context

The Grapes of Wrath depicts the struggle of farming families during the Great Depression. However, farmers in the United States were struggling before the start of the Great Depression. During WWI, European farmers were largely unable to tend their land, so American farmers found success selling their goods for higher prices as competition dropped. This success led many American farmers to take out large loans in order to buy better equipment or more land. The end of WWI meant the return of European farmers’ goods in the global market. American farmers became less successful and couldn’t pay off the loans they had taken out. Starting in the early 1920s, many American farmers were pushed off their land by banks for being unable pay off their loans.

In 1929, stock market prices crashed, resulting in the beginning of the Great Depression. Many families lost their savings, jobs, and homes. Banks came to collect on loans that many farming families could not repay. These families were often forced off of their land by the banks, just like the Joad family. In addition to the failing economy, areas such as Oklahoma, Kansas, and Northern Texas were also experiencing severe droughts. Bad farming practices, such as not rotating crops and over-farming the land, combined with drought, led crops to fail and farms to dry up. Dust accumulated, resulting in highly destructive dust storms. This period of environmental disasters during the 1930s is known as the Dust Bowl. This, combined with banks repossessing land, forced many families to move out of the Midwest and go towards California.

The Farm Security Administration was created as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933. This administration helped build government camps in California to house migrant farming families. The Joad family stays at the fictional Weedpatch camp, based on the Arvin Sanitary Camp near Bakersfield, California. The goal of these camps was to influence landowners to build similar housing for the migrant workers. This did not occur. As a result, many families ended up staying at these camps for long periods of time with little help or support from the growers, which gave rise to several issues:

  • Migrant laborers engaged in efforts to unionize, as can be seen in The Grapes of Wrath. These efforts were met with much resistance by the growers and landowners in California. With the aid of the local police forces, growers and landowners worked to try and quell the laborers, which often resulted in violence.
  • Vigilantism became a problem between the California growers and the migrant laborers, as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath with Casy’s death.

Steinbeck involved himself deeply in the lives of these migrant laborers. He went to government camps, worked as an itinerant laborer, and became familiar with the farmland of California. With this intimate knowledge, Steinbeck wrote several novels on the struggle of migrant farm laborers, the adverse effects of capitalism, and the hope of a shared dream. These novels were In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Religious Symbolism

Key religious imagery and symbols are seen in the general dream of going west to California. California symbolizes a “promised land” for all the migrating families within the novel. The movement of the families to California is reflective of the biblical story of the Exodus. Similar to the Israelites traveling to the promised land of Canaan, the displaced families’ migration is toward a land that they hope will bring an end to their suffering and that they can claim for their own. Steinbeck puts a twist on this, however, by placing the people with power and money in control over the poor migrating families’ fates. Instead of finding success in California, most families only find more suffering at the hands of people with financial interests. For example, many families were denied living wages or work in order to benefit the large companies and associations that run the farm land.

The title The Grapes of Wrath also highlights the religious connections within the novel. The origin of the phrase “grapes of wrath” may well come from the biblical scriptures of Isaiah 63 and Apocalypse 19; both refer to the winepress and grapes as holy symbols. Furthermore, in Isaiah 63 Jesus claims to have “trodden the winepress alone” whereas Apocalypse 19 suggests the wrath of God is the winepress.  The migrant laborers reflect the wrath of God and will eventually wreak havoc upon the landowners, as is reflected by this quote: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” It is also important to mention the hymn “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which includes the line “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” The hymn, which was a popular song sung by Union soldiers and abolitionists during the American Civil War, has long since been used as an espousal of faith, social justice, and the truth of God. It is perhaps fitting that the title The Grapes of Wrath reflects this battle hymn, as the migrant laborers are battling to unionize, bring truth, and enforce that proper wages are paid to them.

The Grapes of Wrath

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The Work

From the moment of its publication in 1939, no twentieth century American novel has provoked more controversy and criticism for its social philosophy, alleged atheistic beliefs, and profane language than has John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Born in Salinas, California, in 1902, Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold in 1929. Many other novels followed, including The Grapes of Wrath. Many critics consider this his finest work; it won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The Grapes of Wrath became an instant best-seller despite vehement attacks by critics, who were not limited to Californians and Oklahomans. Efforts by school boards from Kansas City, Kansas, to Buffalo, New York, to censor the book in public libraries on pornographic and political grounds were successful. Chambers of commerce and religious groups throughout the United States tried to prevent filming of the novel by producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Because of the intense furor, Zanuck sent a film crew to California to discover whether Steinbeck had exaggerated the plight of the migrants. What they discovered was worse than Steinbeck depicted, so they proceeded with the film—which later received seven Academy Award nominations.

However, Zanuck did alter certain parts of the novel, including the ending. Instead of having Rose of Sharon breast-feed a starving man after she delivered a stillborn child, the film ended with Ma Joad reaffirming the belief that common people would endure despite their hardships.

While The Grapes of Wrath was accused of exploiting the poor, using lewd and obscene language, and portraying life in a bestial, mean way, most criticism focused on two misconceptions: The novel’s alleged espousal of atheism—largely through the character of Jim Casy—and its supposedly sympathetic view of communism. Such accusations were made by critics who misunderstood the two basic American concepts underlying the novel, Transcendentalism and Jeffersonian Agrarianism.

Steinbeck’s characters of Jim Casy, Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Rose of Sharon convey spiritual, rather than atheistic, attitudes toward life. Although Casy is a defrocked preacher, he believes in the universal presence of a deity in every facet of life and relies on his conscience to guide his behavior. In a Christ-like gesture, Casy sacrifices his life for the good of all displaced people. Tom Joad, too, sacrifices himself at the end of the novel for the same goal. The two main female characters exhibit the Christian qualities of self-sacrifice, uncompromising love, and strength in the face of tragedy.

Charges that the novel is sympathetic toward communism are equally unfounded. Its story calls for unity among migrant workers in order to preserve rather than restrict their rights. The collective efforts of the poor farmers against the power structure are based on pragmatic objectives, not Marxist concepts. Representing yeoman farmers in the Jeffersonian tradition, the migrant workers believe that working and owning the land gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Because of ideas such as these, The Grapes of Wrath remains a classic depiction of humanity’s struggle against oppression.


Ditsky, John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. In addition to important essays on the novel’s composition, critical reception, and other topics, this collection provides contemporary reviews of the novel and useful maps of the 1936 Dust Bowl, westward migration in the 1930’s, Route 66, and a government camp.

Donohue, Agnes McNeill. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. Contains thirty-seven discussions of the novel as both a social document and as literature. Also reprints Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and suggests topics for studying or writing about the novel.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. A fresh and intelligent discussion of Ma Joad, Granma Joad, and Rose of Sharon as “indestructible women” who hold the family together. This study opens ground for feminist consideration of Steinbeck’s works.

Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989. Steinbeck’s journals and correspondence while writing the novel are valuable resources for studying the cultural, historical, and literary origins of the book, as well as the author’s creative process. DeMott provides an insightful introduction to these materials.

Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Five essays covering Steinbeck’s portrayal of human history as an organic process, Ma Joad’s character, the novel’s relationship to journalism, and the propagandistic aspects of John Ford’s 1940 film version of the novel.

Places Discussed

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*Dust Bowl

*Dust Bowl. Central region of the United States that was devastated by great dust storms during the 1930’s. The first part of The Grapes of Wrath is set in Oklahoma, at the center of the Dust Bowl. Tom Joad returns from four years in prison to find that his family has lost its farm, and many of his neighbors have been made homeless by the banks and land companies that have taken over their farms when the tenants could not keep up with their payments through several disastrous seasons. Lured by handbills distributed by West Coast growers, Tom and his family begin the long trek from the devastated Dust Bowl to the promising fields of California.

The epic structure of the novel becomes a triptych of Oklahoma/journey/California. In the intercalary chapters—those interchapters of the novel, such as five and fourteen, in which Steinbeck gives important sociohistorical background—he explains what happened to this land and why, and how the loss of their farms led thousands of “Okies” to leave for California.

*Route 66

*Route 66. Highway leading out of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas toward California. This narrow strip of highway, bordered by hamburger stands and gasoline pumps, is the escape route for the Joads and other families hit hardest by the Depression. It is also the place where they come together and form extended families moving westward. In the evenings, in their makeshift camps, “a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family.” Route 66 is thus the setting for one of Steinbeck’s major themes, which is how communities form and provide strength for all their members. As the Joad family loses members along the way, Ma Joad emerges as the leader and helps shape a larger, matriarchal family as others join them. “They ain’t gonna wipe us out,” she says. “Why, we’re the people—we go on.”


*California. Site of fruitful fields and bountiful crops. Steinbeck describes the Joads’ first sight of the San Joaquin Valley’s rich farming land in almost biblical language, as he does in other passages in the novel: “The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses.” The contrast to Oklahoma’s impoverished farms could not be stronger; however, Steinbeck makes it clear in intercalary chapters 19 and 21 that similar economic and agronomic policies are exploiting the land and its people in both locales, and that “when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.” This second theme—that of revolutionary socialism—emerges in The Grapes of Wrath, not in the Dust Bowl, but in California, where so many migrants have been drawn to the harvests by the promise of work that they see their wages steadily reduced because of the surplus of workers. The Okies are thus transformed from tenant-farmers to migrant workers. The next step, Steinbeck says, is certain: “On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

Steinbeck shows no California cities in the novel, but reveals the contrast between the bountiful fields and the “Hoovervilles,” the temporary camps in which migrant workers are forced to live without adequate water or sanitation in California’s great Central Valley. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation,” Steinbeck writes. “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Steinbeck’s thematic metaphors, including his novel’s title, grow directly out of the land he describes.


Weedpatch. Government-run camp for migrant workers located below Bakersfield in central California (based on the Arvin Sanitary Camp) where the Joads stay for several weeks. Weedpatch is the emotional high point of the novel, and a clear contrast to the Hoovervilles. When the Joads arrive, they are greeted by migrants like themselves who run the camp with efficiency and care. The community theme in the novel is thus reinforced in these chapters, culminating in the festive Saturday night dance. Given a chance, Steinbeck is showing, people will manage their own affairs well and work for better lives. The local land owners want the camp removed and try to cause a disturbance at the dance, however, for Weedpatch gives people hope for a better life and reveals that they only want the same opportunities as other Americans.

Pixley peach farm

Pixley peach farm. Dirty migrant cabins and a depressing contrast to living conditions at Weedpatch. When the Joads are forced to leave Weedpatch in order to find work farther north, they arrive at a peach farm where the owners have reduced wages so low that workers go on strike. It is here that Jim Casy—the labor organizer who travels west with the Joads—is killed and Tom leaves the family to join the organizers fighting the terrible conditions for migrant workers in California.


Boxcar. Last home of the Joads in the novel. Drawn by the promise of cotton picking, the depleted Joad family ends up living in a boxcar with other displaced families. It is in a field near which Tom says good-bye to Ma with the promise that he’ll always be near: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. . . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

Black barn

Black barn. Last shelter for the Joads. Forced out of the boxcars by torrential rains, the family seeks shelter in a barn on higher ground, and the novel ends when Rose of Sharon, whose own baby is stillborn, suckles a dying old man and smiles “mysteriously” across the barn. In the biological metaphor that defines the novel, life is being nurtured even at this last site, and hope for the people survives.

Historical Context

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Troubles for Farmers
The story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath begins during the Great Depression but troubles for American farmers had begun years before that. Having enjoyed high crop prices during World War I when supplies of food were short and European markets were disabled, American farmers borrowed heavily from banks to invest in land and equipment. After the war, however, prices for wheat, corn, and other crops plummeted as European farmers returned to their businesses, and American farmers were unable to repay their loans. Thus, in the 1920s, while much of the country was enjoying economic good times, farmers in the United States were in trouble. Banks began to foreclose on loans, often evicting families from their homes. Families who rented acreage from landowners who had defaulted on loans would, like the Joads, be evicted from their homes. The situation, of course, became much worse after the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl
In October, 1929, stock prices dropped precipitously, causing businesses and banks to fail internationally and wiping out the savings of many families. Over the next few years, unemployment rates soared up to twenty-five percent. Although there is much disagreement today about the causes of the stock market crash, many analysts feel that the root of the problem was weaknesses in the coal, textile, and farming industries. Forty percent of the working population in America at the time were farmers. When low crop prices made it difficult or impossible for consumers to buy items such as radios and refrigerators, it had a significant impact on the economy. Goods began to pile up in warehouses with no customers to buy them, leading to the sudden devaluation of company stocks.

The resulting pressure on banks to collect on loans caused them to evict many farmers. However, this wasn’t the only problem that plagued farm families. Six years of severe droughts hit the Midwest during the 1930s, causing crops to fail. This, compounded by poor farming practices such as overgrazing and failure to rotate crops, caused the land to wither and dry up. Great dust storms resulted that buried entire communities in sand. More than five million square miles of land from Texas to North Dakota and Arkansas to New Mexico were affected. The Midwest came to be called the Dust Bowl. Although no one escaped the economic pain this caused, small farm families similar to the Joads were the hardest hit. Of these states, Oklahoma was especially hard-pressed. Dispossessed farming families migrated from their state to California by the thousands. These people were called “Okies,” although many of the migrant workers were from states other than Oklahoma.

Migrant Camps and Labor Unions
Upon taking office in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a comprehensive agenda of government programs to combat the Depression. Collectively called the New Deal, these programs included new federal agencies designed to create employment opportunities and to improve the lot of workers and the unemployed. Among the many such agencies, the one that most directly touched the Okies’ lives was the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Operating under the authority of the Department of Agriculture, in 1936 the FSA began building camps in California in which the homeless migrants could live. Ten such camps were finished by the following year. Steinbeck visited several in his research for The Grapes of Wrath. He had the Joads stay at one—the Arvin Sanitary Camp, also called the Weedpatch Camp, in Kern County. The intention was that the orchard owners would follow this example and build larger, better shelters for their migrant workers. This never came about, however, and many families ended up staying at the uncomfortable federal camps for years.

In an attempt to defend their right to earn living wages, migrant workers tried to organize labor unions. Naturally, this was strongly discouraged by the growers, who had the support of the police, who often used brute force. In Kern County in 1938, for example, a mob led by a local sheriff burned down an Okie camp that had become a center for union activity

Literary Style

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Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice (“he”/“she”/“it”). What is particularly significant about this technique is that the point of view varies in tone and method, depending on the author’s purpose. The novel’s distinctive feature is its sixteen inserted, or intercalary, chapters (usually the oddnumbered chapters) that provide documentary information for the reader. These chapters give social and historical background of the mid-1930s Depression era, especially as it affects migrants like the Joads.

These inserted chapters range from descriptions of the Dust Bowl and agricultural conditions in Oklahoma, to California’s history, to descriptions of roads leading west from Oklahoma. In the more restricted chapters that focus on the Joads, the point of view shifts to become close and dramatic. In addition, many of the inserted chapters contain basic symbols of the novel: land, family, and the conflict between the migrants and the people who represent the bank and agribusiness. The turtle in Chapter 3 symbolizes Nature’s struggle and the will to survive. It characterizes the will to survive of the Joads and “the people.”

John Steinbeck wrote some of his best fiction about the area where he grew up. The territory that Steinbeck wrote about is an area covering thousands of square miles in central California. He particularly used the Long Valley as a setting in his fiction, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. The Long Valley, covering more than one hundred miles, lies between the Gabilan Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Pacific Coast. The major site of The Grapes of Wrath is the San Joaquin Valley, which lies east of the Long Valley and the Gabilan Mountains. The Long Valley is also the general setting for Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952), two of Steinbeck’s other well-known works. This rich agricultural area is an ironic setting for a novel that examines the economic and social problems affecting people during the Depression. It was no promised land for the Joads and others like them.

One of Steinbeck’s major achievements is his remarkable descriptions of the environment and nature’s effects on social history. He was also ahead of his time in writing about the circumstances of the migrant workers and small farmers fighting corporate farms and the financial establishment decades before such subjects gained national press coverage in the 1970s.

The major symbol in the novel is the family, which stands for the larger “family” of humanity. The Joads are at the center of the dramatic aspects of the novel, and they illustrate human strengths and weaknesses. Dangers in nature and in society disrupt the family, but they survive economic and natural disasters, just as humanity does. At the end, the Joads themselves recognize they are part of a larger family. The land itself is a symbol that is equated in the novel with a sense of personal identity. What the Joads actually suffer when they lose their Oklahoma farm is a sense of identity, which they struggle to rediscover during their journey and in California. Pa Joad, especially, loses his spirit after the family is “tractored off” their land. He must cede authority in the family to Ma after their loss.

There is also a sequence of Judeo-Christian symbols throughout the novel. The Joads, like the Israelites, are a homeless and persecuted people looking for the promised land. Jim Casy can be viewed as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who began His mission after a period of solitude in the wilderness. Casy is introduced in the novel after a similar period of retreat. And later, when Casy and Tom meet in the strikers’ tent, Casy says he has “been a-gin’ into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out sumpin.” Also, Jim Casy has the same initials as Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Casy finally offers himself as the sacrifice to save his people. Casy’s last words to the man who murders him are significant: “Listen, you fellas don’ know what you’re doing.” And just before he dies, Casy repeats: “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’.” When Jesus Christ was crucified, He said, “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” Tom becomes Casy’s disciple after his death. Tom is ready to continue his teacher’s work, and it has been noted that two of Jesus’s disciples were named Thomas.

Biblical symbols from both Old and New Testament stories occur throughout the novel. Twelve Joads start on their journey from Oklahoma, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve disciples of Christ (with Jim Casy, the Christ figure) on their way to spiritual enlightenment by a messiah. Like Lot’s wife, Grampa is reluctant to leave his homeland, and his refusal to let go of the past brings his death. Later, the narrative emphasizes this symbolism when Tom selects a Scripture verse for Grampa’s burial that quotes Lot. The shifts between the Old and New testaments coalesce with Jim Casy, whose ideas about humanity and a new social gospel parallel Christ’s new religion two thousand years ago. Biblical myths also inform the final scene through a collection of symbols that demonstrate the existence of a new order in the Joads’ world. As the Joads seek refuge from the flood in a dry barn, the narrative offers symbols of the Old Testament deluge (Noah’s ark), the New Testament stable where Christ was born (the barn), and the mysterious rite of Communion as Rose of Sharon breast feeds the starving man. With this ending, it is clear that this is a new beginning for the Joads. All the symbols express hope and regeneration despite the continuing desperate circumstances.

Allusions, or literary references, to grapes and vineyards are made throughout the novel, carrying Biblical and economic connotations. The title of the novel, from Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is itself an allusion dating back to the Bible’s Old Testament. In Isaiah 63:4–6, a man tramples grapes in his wrath: “For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, suggested the title after hearing the lyrics of the patriotic hymn: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Steinbeck loved the title and wrote to his agent: “I think it is Carol’s best title so far. I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march—because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning. And I like it because people know the ‘Battle Hymn’ who don’t know the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”

Indeed, Steinbeck knew that his unfinished novel was revolutionary and that it would be condemned by many people as Communist propaganda. So the title was especially suitable because it carried an American patriotic stamp that Steinbeck hoped would deflect charges of leftist influence. He decided that he wanted the complete hymn, its words and music, printed on the endpapers at the front and back of the book. He wrote his publisher: “The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They will try to give it the communist angle. However, the ‘Battle Hymn’ is American and intensely so. Further, every American child learns it and then forgets the words. So if both the words and music are there the book is keyed into the American scene from the beginning.”

An allegory is a story in which characters and events have a symbolic meaning that points to general human truths. The turtle in Chapter 3 is the novel’s best-known use of allegory. The patient turtle proceeds along a difficult journey over the dust fields of Oklahoma, often meeting obstacles, but always able to survive. Like the Joads, the turtle is moving southwest, away from the drought. When a trucker swerves to hit the turtle, the creature survives, just as the Joads survive the displacement from their land. Later, Tom finds a turtle and Casy comments: “Nobody can’t keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go—off somewheres.” The turtle is hit by a truck, carried off by Tom, attacked by a cat and a red ant, yet, like the Joads and “the people,” he is indomitable with a fierce will to survive. He drags himself through the dust and unknowingly plants a seed for the future.

Literary Techniques

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The dominant feature of The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's juxtaposition of the story of the Joad family with short chapters that speak in sweeping terms about the plight of the migrant workers during this period. Called "intercalary chapters," these vignettes parallel the action of the main story, and often have some tangential relationship to it. The most famous of these is the third chapter of the novel, in which Steinbeck describes the journey of a land turtle across a highway, dragging its body up one side of the edge of the roadbank, across the asphalt (where cars swerve to avoid or hit it), and being knocked to the opposite side by a truck. That journey can be seen as symbolic of the Joads' trek to California (the turtle even heads in the same direction). Similarly, the Joads' story is presented as a microcosm of the journey of all the migrants. Through the insertion of these chapters, Steinbeck suggests that their story is not unique, but rather is representative of the universal struggle of men and women to seek dignity in their lives, and to find a kind of paradise, either on earth or within themselves.

Steinbeck also relies heavily on the Biblical story of the Exodus as an organizing principle for the novel. The work divides neatly into three parts: the abandonment of the parched land in Oklahoma (paralleling the Jews' departure from Egypt), the trek across the Western desert (similar to the forty-years' wandering), and finally the attempt at settlement in California (matching the attempts to gain a foothold in the Promised Land of Canaan). Frequent references to Biblical passages and situations reinforce the parallels and suggest the universal nature of the Joads' experience. Finally, as he does in many of his other works, Steinbeck relies heavily on animal imagery as a means of highlighting to the reader the struggles his characters undergo.

Social Concerns

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The Great Depression of the 1930s provides the material for Steinbeck's most important and most acclaimed novel. Set in the lush California valley country, the novel contrasts the Edenic natural state of the land with the abject poverty of the migrant workers who left the Midwest dust bowl region during those hard years to seek a better life where the land could sustain them. Steinbeck focuses on the social conditions that forced men to abandon their homeland in Oklahoma and other states: the growing encroachment of "absentee farmers," large corporations, and banks that bought up tracts of land in these states and then, using new methods of farming, forced out the small farmers whose ancestors had originally converted the land from wilderness and plains into farm country. Through the journey of the Joad family, Steinbeck shows how the land of plenty in California, where fruit grows abundantly, becomes a kind of man-made hell for the migrants. Native Californians, afraid of the power of this influx of people, set up laws and regulations to keep this group disenfranchised and poor.

The novel provides a penetrating and demoralizing view of the inhuman way in which Americans treat each other when their territorial rights are in danger. Nevertheless, The Grapes of Wrath also shows how such adversity often brings out the best in people who are forced to share what little they have to stay alive. In the novel, Steinbeck explores a particular theory of human behavior that fascinated him throughout the 1930s: the "group man" theory. For some time, Steinbeck believed that the behavior of men in groups took on a human-like identity, independent of the individuals who made up the group, and distinctive in characteristic. Men in groups lost their individuality and became a part (almost in a biological sense) of a larger organism that had a life of its own. Throughout this novel, and in others written in the years before it, Steinbeck includes scenes that explore the nature of the "group man" and the relationship of individuals to each other as a part of this organism.

Literary Precedents

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Steinbeck did significant original research and fieldwork for this novel, traveling with migrants from Oklahoma to California and living in the migrant workers' camps for a time. His nonfictional reports of that experience were collected in Their Blood Is Strong (1938), and these can be seen as a source for materials that have found their way into The Grapes of Wrath. The novel is also similar in some ways to Steinbeck's earlier work about life in the California migrant camps, In Dubious Battle (1936).

The novel has other literary forbears as well. Certainly the Bible heavily influenced Steinbeck, both in his treatment of theme and in his organization of the story. More contemporary parallels can be found in the work of naturalistic writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The use of intercalary chapters reminds one of the "camera eye" technique employed by John Dos Passes in the U.S.A. trilogy. The technique is also similar to that employed by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick (1851), where the chapters on whaling interlace the adventurous narrative of Ahab's pursuit of the white whale. In his use of animal imagery, Steinbeck parallels the American naturalists such as Frank Norris, and may evoke recollections of some of Ernest Hemingway's fiction.


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The Grapes of Wrath had not been on bookstands for long before Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck brought out a screen version starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The movie, directed by John Ford (who would go on to be one of Hollywood's most celebrated directors), was a box-office success. It was nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. Fonda received a nomination as best actor; Ford won an Oscar as best director; and Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad, won the best supporting actress award. Steinbeck himself helped with the production.

The structure of the novel was changed significantly for the movie; much of the final third was rearranged, so that the screen version ends in the government camp. Nevertheless, the movie, like the book, was controversial, as politicians and various civic groups in California and Oklahoma objected to Steinbeck's portrayal of conditions in their states. In fact, Zanuck produced the movie under a false name (Highway 66) until he was ready to release it to avoid problems during the filming.

Media Adaptations

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  • The Grapes of Wrath was adapted as a film by Twentieth Century Fox in 1940. The film was directed by John Ford and starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Jane Darwell as Ma Joad; Doris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon; and John Carradine as Jim Casy. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson; the cinematography was by Gregg Toland. The film won two Academy Awards: for Best Director (John Ford) and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell). It also won two awards from the New York Film Critics Circle for 1940: Best Director (Ford), and Best Film. Available from Fox Video, Baker & Taylor Video, Home Vision Cinema.
  • The Grapes of Wrath was also adapted as an audio cassette (58 minutes), Dolby processed, published by Harper Audio in New York City. Read by Henry Fonda, who starred as Tom Joad in the 1940 movie, the sound recording contains excerpts from the novel about the plight of the migrants during the 1930s. Harper Audio, 1994.
  • The novel was also adapted as a 58–minute audio cassette by Caedmon Inc. in 1978.


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Ditsky, John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. In addition to important essays on the novel’s composition, critical reception, and other topics, this collection provides contemporary reviews of the novel and useful maps of the 1936 Dust Bowl, westward migration in the 1930’s, Route 66, and a government camp.

Donohue, Agnes McNeill. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. Contains thirty-seven discussions of the novel as both a social document and as literature. Also reprints Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and suggests topics for studying or writing about the novel.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. A fresh and intelligent discussion of Ma Joad, Granma Joad, and Rose of Sharon as “indestructible women” who hold the family together. This study opens ground for feminist consideration of Steinbeck’s works.

Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989. Steinbeck’s journals and correspondence while writing the novel are valuable resources for studying the cultural, historical, and literary origins of the book, as well as the author’s creative process. DeMott provides an insightful introduction to these materials.

Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Five essays covering Steinbeck’s portrayal of human history as an organic process, Ma Joad’s character, the novel’s relationship to journalism, and the propagandistic aspects of John Ford’s 1940 film version of the novel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Angoff, Charles. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In North American Review, Summer, 1939, p. 387.

Cowley, Malcolm. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New Republic, May 3, 1939, p. 382.

Fadiman, Clifton. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New Yorker, April 15, 1939, p. 101.

Jackson, Joseph Henry. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In New York Herald Tribune Books, April 16, 1939, p. 3.

Kronenberger, Louis. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In Nation, April 15, 1939.

Roscoe, Burton. “Excuse It, Please.” In Newsweek, May 1, 1939, p. 38.

Weeks, Edward. Review of The Grapes of Wrath. In Atlantic Monthly, June, 1939.

For Further Study
Carpenter, Frederick I. “The Philosophical Joads.” In College English, Vol. 2, January, 1941, pp. 324-25. Carpenter describes the origins of Steinbeck’s social philosophy in American thought from Ralph Waldo Emerson to William James.

Eisinger, Chester E. “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath.” In University of Kansas City Review, Vol. 14, Winter, 1947, pp. 149-54. The critic discusses the relationships between people and the land and how these relationships have changed in the twentieth century.

Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. Barnes & Noble, 1963. The critic discusses the novel’s biblical references, its relation to myth, and its stylistic devices.

French, Warren, ed. A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin, 1989. A selection of criticism and interpretations of the novel.

Levant, Howard. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. University of Missouri Press, 1974. A collection of essays on Steinbeck’s novels. Levant examines the role of symbolism and allegory in The Grapes of Wrath.

Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. Rutgers University Press, 1958. Lisca is an important critic of Steinbeck and is knowledgeable about his life and works. His readings of the novel range from Steinbeck’s use of symbols and political thought to his work with the migrants.

McCarthy, Paul. John Steinbeck. Ungar, 1980. Among other things, the critic discusses Steinbeck’s biblical references and the styles of discourse he uses in the novel.

Moore, Harry Thornton. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A First Critical Study. Kennikat Press, 1968. Moore discusses how the novel helped the migrant workers and compares this to other works of literature that have had social impact.

Shockly, Martin Staples. “The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma.” In American Literature, Vol. 15, January, 1954, pp. 351-61. The critic notes how and why the citizens of Oklahoma were offended by the novel.

Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” edited by Robert DeMott. Penguin, 1989. Steinbeck’s journal entries recording his thoughts and the physical exhaustion he endured while writing his novel.

Wyatt, David. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” Cambridge University Press, 1990. Wyatt provides an overview of criticism on the novel from 1940–1989.

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