The Grapes of Wrath Analysis
by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath book cover
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The Grapes of Wrath Analysis

Introduction

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.

Setting

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...

(The entire section is 8,032 words.)