Introductory Lecture and Objectives

The Grapes of Wrath eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

Written during the Great Depression and published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the devastating effects of the Depression in the lives of one American family, the Joads. Through their struggles to survive with dignity after forces beyond their control destroy their former lives, Steinbeck celebrates the human spirit while condemning the corporate greed that created the Depression and its tragic consequences in the lives of millions of Americans like the Joads. 

A hardworking Oklahoma farm family, the Joads lose their land in the heart of the Dust Bowl when their crops fail, they are unable to pay their debt to the bank, and the bank takes possession of the farm, leaving the family homeless. Hoping to find work in the fertile valleys of California, the Joads pack up the few possessions they can take with them and head west on Route 66. The novel details their journey and their experiences in California where they find themselves living among scores of families like their own, displaced by the Depression and flung into a life of desperate poverty and deprivation. 

Throughout the novel, the Joads face a grueling series of challenges to their survival. Their surname is reminiscent of “Job,” and like the biblical character, they also endure terrible trials that test their faith. The family’s saving grace is their unfailing loyalty and devotion to one another. As Ma Joad reminds them, “What we got lef’ in the worl’? Nothin’ but us.” 

When the Joads reach the “promised land” of California, their dream of prosperity becomes a nightmare. Not only are there thousands of “Okies” like themselves looking for the few available jobs, the people of California resent and despise them, making the newcomers’ lives miserable. The Joads quickly learn the cruel, discriminatory nature of their new environment and try to adapt to the harsh reality of industrial farming as it is practiced in California. As they move from one migrant camp to another in search of work, they encounter the best and the worst of humanity. The lessons in poverty and oppression are not lost on Tom Joad, the oldest son; ultimately he makes it a personal mission to work on behalf of the oppressed everywhere: 

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build— why, I’ll be there.” 

Tom’s declaration toward the conclusion of the novel represents Steinbeck’s call for social justice. 

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California, not far from the fertile San Joaquin Valley, the novel’s California setting. Although he enjoyed a comfortable childhood, he worked on nearby farms in his youth, often laboring alongside migrant workers; their experiences would later shape his Dustbowl Trilogy of novels—In Dubious Battle (1936); Of Mice and Men (1937); and The Grapes of Wrath (1939)—as well as a later novel, East of Eden (1952). After attending Stanford University and leaving without a degree, Steinbeck worked in a number of jobs, always with an interest in writing about the world he witnessed. In 1936 he wrote “The Harvest Gypsies,” a series of articles on migrant workers published in the San Francisco News; he utilized the research for the articles in writing The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is an explicitly political novel, a damning critique of the forces of capitalism and industrial agriculture and of those who plunged the country into the Depression. In reference to his book, Steinbeck said, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression]. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” As he wrote it, Steinbeck knew The Grapes of Wrath would be controversial. He warned his publisher, “The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary.” When the novel was published, it created a firestorm and was banned in many localities across the United States. In the San Joaquin Valley, it was decried as “communist propaganda” and publicly burned. Some critics, even today, question the novel’s literary stature, but most agree with novelist Don DeLillo’s assertion that “Steinbeck shaped a geography of conscience, for it is a novel in which there is something at stake in every sentence.” 

In creating “a geography of conscience,” Steinbeck wanted to awaken the conscience of America; through the story of the Joad family, he sought to inspire moral outrage against injustice and to promote social reform. The title of the novel, taken from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reflects the gravity of his intentions and of the novel itself. “I like the title,” Steinbeck told his literary agent, “because it is a march and this book is a kind of a march—because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning.” The “large meaning” Steinbeck refers to can be interpreted in numerous ways, as America’s most solemn battle hymn that inspired the title of the novel is one of faith, courage, truth, and ultimate justice. 

The public outcry against The Grapes of Wrath that erupted in many parts of the country did not stop people from buying it. The novel was the bestselling book of the year and of the following decade. It remains one of the bestselling books in American history and has never gone out of print. The controversy at the time of its publication also did not influence the judgment of literary critics; in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. 

Steinbeck’s willingness to expose injustice in his own society was appreciated by the members of the Swedish Academy who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. As they remarked then, Steinbeck “holds his position as an independent expounder of the truth with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.” The Grapes of Wrath is widely considered to be Steinbeck’s masterpiece.

By the end of the unit the student will be able to: 

1. Identify and give examples of the main themes of the novel. 

2. Understand and explain the historical context of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. 

3. Identify and interpret at least three symbols in the novel. 

4. Provide specific examples of the way family and gender roles are challenged in the novel. 

5. Understand and explain the economic structures underlying the plight of the Joad family as migrant workers. 

6. Analyze and evaluate the decisions of certain characters and the events and circumstances that lead them to make these decisions. 

7. Identify and analyze the author’s literary perspective and narrative style as they change from chapter to chapter. 

8. Relate and compare the experience of migrant workers as depicted in the novel to the experience of migrant workers today. 

9. Define and discuss the concept of organized labor and collective action. 

10. Understand and explain the concept of social justice and relate it to our contemporary society.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Lesson Guide

• The Lesson Guide is organized for studying the book in chronological sections, each section covering numerous chapters:

  • Section One: Leaving Oklahoma (Chapters 1-11)
  • Section Two: The Journey West (Chapters 12-21)
  • Section Three: Life in California (Chapters 22-30)

• Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. The structure of The Grapes of Wrath is notable for its intercalary chapters, the chapters devoted to setting, politics, and economics that provide a broader view of the era and the hardships facing the Joads. How did this structure affect your reading experience? What did you learn from the chapters that interrupt the narrative?

2. The lapsed preacher, Jim Casy, has been interpreted as a martyr who sacrifices himself for a cause in which he believes. Is Casy a martyr? If so, what is the cause he fights and dies for?

3. Consider what Ma says when Pa has doubts about taking Jim Casy with them when they leave for California. What does Ma’s response to Pa’s concerns say about her...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Section One: Leaving Oklahoma (Chapters 1-11), Chapter 1


bemused: puzzled, confused, bewildered

rain-heads: clouds bringing rain

threshed: separated seeds of grain from husks by beating

Study Questions

1. As the novel begins, it is narrated from a remote, third-person perspective. None of the people are identified as individuals. What is the effect of this point of view? What does it achieve in introducing the novel?

The narration provides an overview of the circumstances in which Steinbeck’s characters’ lives will unfold. It also gives a sense of the enormous forces brought to bear on the farmers of this era and how powerless they are in the face of them. They are at the mercy of nature, and...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Chapters 2 and 3


anlage: the foundation of a subsequent development

burr: a prickly seed case or flower head that clings to clothing and fur

cat’ (Caterpillar): an industrial truck/machine with roller belt “caterpillar” tread for use on rough terrain

cropper: a sharecropper, a tenant farmer who pays part of each crop as rent

fetlocks: the joint of a horse’s leg just above the hoof

hasp: a slotted hinged metal plate forming part of the fastener for a door

parapet: a low protective wall

raveling: fraying, disintegrating

spatted: slapped

telegraphed: communicated

truck skinners: truck drivers

Study Questions


(The entire section is 535 words.)

Chapter 4


declivity: a downward slope

fallow: farmland that is plowed and harrowed but left unsown to replenish the nutrients in the soil

freshet scars: flooding marks, rivulets

molting: shedding, dropping

mosey: to walk leisurely

prodigal: a reference to the biblical parable of the prodigal son, who is greeted with love and a feast upon returning from his irresponsible and wasteful time away

shoat: a young pig

swale: a low or hollow place

zenith: the highest point

Study Questions

1. Whom does Tom Joad meet as he is walking the rest of the way home? What is this person’s relationship with the Joad family? What ideas does...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 5


augers: tools for boring holes into the ground

dooryard: a yard or garden by the door of a house

germinate: to begin to grow and put out shoots

side-meat: especially tasty meat from the side of a pig, specifically bacon or salt pork

Study Questions

1. What does “something larger than themselves” refer to? How does it relate to the farmers’ lives? In what way are they “caught” in it?

The “something larger than themselves” refers to the bank that holds an interest in the owners’ land and expects a profit from its investment. The owners then turn the land over to tenant farmers who sharecrop the land. The “themselves”...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Chapter 6


cotton bolls: rounded seed capsules of a cotton plant—the boll is the part that is harvested

gunny sack: a large bag made of burlap

Hatfield: an allusion to the Hatfield and McCoy feud (1863-1891), a bitter and violent dispute between two families that became a symbol of an angry and lasting quarrel

trough: a long, narrow container from which animals can drink

truculent: eager to fight or argue

Study Questions

1. When Tom and Casy arrive at the Joad farm, what signs indicate that something is wrong?

Tom immediately senses something is wrong, though he can’t put his finger on it. He figures that his family has left the farm or...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Chapter 7


jalopy: an old, dilapidated car

lemon: a defective product that fails soon after purchase

overhead: operating costs that drive up the price of goods for sale

piker: a stingy person

sheaf: a bundle

Study Questions

1. How is capitalism with its emphasis on profit, specifically as illustrated in the pressures of salesmanship, presented in chapter 7? Provide examples to support your answer.

The pressure to sell cars turns the salesmen against their customers. The salesmen have “neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses.” The relationship between salesman and buyer is likened to predator and prey. The salesmen lie...

(The entire section is 243 words.)

Chapter 8


lecherously: with an offensive level of sexual desire

lobo: Spanish wolf

McCoy: an allusion to the Hatfield and McCoy feud (1863-1891), a bitter and violent dispute between two families that became a symbol of an angry and lasting quarrel

meerschaum: mineral used to make pipes which turns brown with age and use

mincing: dainty

randy: sexually aggressive

rangy: slim with long limbs

slavishness: the quality of acting in an overly servile manner

veneration: respect, reverence

Study Questions

1. Where are Tom and Casy going as the chapter begins? Why?

Tom and Casy are making their way to...

(The entire section is 758 words.)

Chapter 9


gelding: a castrated horse

harrow: a farming tool dragged over the soil to break up dirt clods and remove weeds

Study Questions

1. What is the purpose of chapter 9? What does it contribute to the novel?

Chapter 9 interrupts the narrative of the Joad family to present an overview of what is happening in the lives of thousands of families like theirs. Having lost their farms during the Depression, families must sell all but a few of their possessions, abandon their homes, and leave behind the lives they have always known as they are forced off their land. The chapter shows the suffering of lives being dismantled and emphasizes the scope of the human...

(The entire section is 627 words.)

Chapter 10


benediction: a bestowing of a blessing

carborundum stone: hard, abrasive black stone

celibate: abstaining from sexual relations

complacent: smug, satisfied with oneself

fatuously: in a silly way, pointlessly

hoyden: a boisterous girl

inveterate: long-established and unlikely to change

lucent: glowing

Rose of Sharon: a beautiful flower mentioned in the Bible

shoats: young, newly weaned pigs

snipes: partially smoked and discarded cigarettes

stereopticon: a slide projector popular in the late nineteenth century that combined two slides in a viewer to achieve a 3-D effect

voluptuous: curvaceous and attractive


(The entire section is 1809 words.)

Chapter 11


nitrates: minerals required for healthy growth in plants

phosphates: minerals essential to plant life

Study Questions

1. Explain the difference between “the man who is more than chemistry” and “the machine man.”

“The man who is more than his chemistry” is the farmer who has lived and worked on the land and put his heart and soul into cultivating it and caring for it, “walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his [plow] handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch.” The farmer feels emotionally connected to the land; the farmer knows “the land is so much more than its...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Section Two: The Journey West (Chapters 12-21), Chapter 12


tappet: a moving part in an internal combustion engine of a car, connecting to the cam

Study Questions

1. This is another of the chapters that interrupts the story of the Joad family to present an overview of the Depression and the experiences of many families like the Joads. What aspect of the Depression is presented in this chapter?

The chapter creates an impression of the many difficulties experienced by those displaced during the Depression who headed to California on Route 66 in search of work. It depicts their fears, their poverty, the dangers they confronted, and the hatred and discrimination they encountered in towns along the way; it also shows how...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Chapter 13


cowl: a large loose hood, as on a monk’s robe

culvert: a tunnel or drain carrying water under a road

mattock: a tool shaped like a pickaxe

restively: restlessly, in a manner of being unable to keep silent or still

truculent: aggressively defiant

Study Questions

1. According to Ma, why is she not thinking about life in California and what it might turn out to be?

Ma told Tom in a previous chapter that she does not want to think about life in California because it all seems “too nice.” Here, she adopts what Tom told her he learned in prison, which is that the only thing worth thinking about is the present.


(The entire section is 905 words.)

Chapter 14


organic: related to living matter

Study Questions

1. Explain the economic cause/effect relationship between corporations and labor as it is described in the text.

The “great owners” (big banks and large corporations) are described as fighting against “growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing that these things are results, not causes.” These new threats to corporate profit are the natural result of “hunger in the stomach . . . a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times.” If workers had been treated fairly and humanely, the “great owners” would not be fighting efforts to...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Chapter 15


accouterments: additional items and equipment

phials: vials, small glass containers used to store liquids

Route 66: one of the original US highways, connecting Chicago with Los Angeles via Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; the main artery for people migrating west from the Dust Bowl

Study Questions

1. Chapter 15 is set in a diner on Route 66 and doesn’t feature the Joads. Mae, a waitress in the diner, is a principal character, among others. What is the effect of changing the focus of the narrative?

By shifting the focus from the Joads to Mae and the other people in the diner, we see the migrant families traveling to...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Chapter 16


sharecropping: an arrangement in which a tenant farmer works land belonging to a landlord and pays part of each crop as rent for living on the land

bolshevisky: slang acting in a politically subversive or radical way; a reference to the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia in 1917 and were later renamed Communists

Study Questions

1. What is the “new technique of living” adopted by the Joads? How does it differ from the way they used to live?

The Joads adjust to living on the road: “The highway became their home and movement their medium of expression.” This is a huge shift from how they previously lived when their lives were...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Chapter 17


migrant: one who moves from place to place in search of work

Study Questions

1. What is the focus of this chapter? What does it explain and emphasize about the displaced families as they journey west?

The chapter focuses on how and why the displaced families form communities at the end of each day when they find a place to stop for the night:

Thus it might be that one family camped near a spring, and another camped for the spring and for company, and a third because two families had pioneered the place and found it good. And when the sun went down, perhaps twenty families and twenty cars were there.


(The entire section is 396 words.)

Chapter 18


exhortation: an address or announcement emphatically urging someone to do something

feral: in a wild, untamed, state

listlessly: in a manner lacking energy and enthusiasm

Okie: slang native of Oklahoma

tarpaulin: a waterproof cloth

Study Questions

1. When Tom talks with a man and his son returning from California, what does the man warn Tom about? How does the man describe conditions in California and the plight of the homeless, such as the Joads?

The man warns Tom that trouble lies ahead; the Joads will face resentment and anger. In California, “Okies” are “scum”; they are hated, pushed...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Chapter 19


batteries: impressive or imposing groups; arrays

fallow: plowed and harrowed (of farmland) but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production

Hooverville: a reference to shanty towns built by the homeless in the early 1930s and named (ironically) after US President Herbert Hoover, whom many Americans believed did not act decisively to ease the suffering of the Depression

nebulous: unclear, vague

penitent: a person repenting sins

proved: a reference to the US Homestead Act of 1862 which stipulated that those claiming land must inhabit and farm the land for five years before they could “prove up” their...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Chapter 20


blacklist: a list of people viewed with suspicion or disapproval who are excluded in some particular activity

Sam Browne belt: a leather belt with a supporting strap passing over the right shoulder

self-abasement: humiliation of oneself

slovenly: messily, carelessly

“talkin’ red”: slang discussing ideas that might be construed as socialist or communist, such as organizing collectively, forming labor unions, etc.

vagrant: a person without a settled home or job who wanders from place to place

Study Questions

1. How do the Joads deal with Granma’s dead body? Why is it so upsetting to them? How does Pa try to comfort...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)

Chapter 21


paradox: a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement that may nevertheless be true

pellagra: a disease caused by lack of nicotinic acid often resulting from a diet overly dependent on corn

rachitic: suffering from rickets, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin D

rove: to wander, to travel aimlessly

serfs: in feudal systems, laborers obligated to work on behalf of a lord, essentially a form of slavery

Study Questions

1. How does Steinbeck describe the consolidation of farms and food production? What is the end result?

Steinbeck describes a process in which farms are bought up by just a few wealthy owners. While the...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Section Three: Life in California (Chapters 22-30), Chapter 22


clout: a heavy blow

contrite: expressing remorse

dray-horse: a large, powerful horse used to pull wagons

hock: leg part of animals such as horses and pigs analogous to the human ankle

hymnody: singing of hymns

“paper”: a reference to a bank’s ownership interest in a property or business

pauper: a very poor person

pone: unleavened cornbread

shied: attempted to startle

skitters: diarrhea

subsided: became less intense

tow head: a person with very light-colored blond hair

Study Questions

1. What are some of the signs that life is different in Weedpatch than it is in Hooverville?


(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Chapter 23


grovel: to lie or move abjectly on the ground with one’s face downward; to act in an obsequious manner in order to gain another’s approval.

haycock: a conical heap of hay

newsreel: a short film showing news and current affairs broadcast before or after a feature film, common in the early- to mid-twentieth century

radical meeting: a meeting of people with distinct political views; socialist (in context)

reel: a lively song or dance, sometimes Scottish or Irish

rosin: resin used to treat the strings of instruments such as the violin

Study Questions

1. What are some of the forms of entertainment and pleasure enjoyed by the people in...

(The entire section is 158 words.)

Chapter 24


contemptuous: showing contempt; scornful

gingham: a lightweight cotton cloth with a checked pattern

intently: with earnest and eager attention

pinioned: having one’s arms and legs held down

Study Questions

1. Describe how the people of Weedpatch prepare for the dance.

In preparation for the evening, women wash their dresses, children are scrubbed clean, and electric wire and friction tape is found and used to string lights up around the dance floor. Around dinnertime, men return from work and scrub themselves clean, then put on clean overalls or their “best blacks” for the festivities.

2. Why does Ezra Huston...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Chapter 25


blights: plant diseases

graft: a shoot of one tree inserted into a second tree that determines the fruit the second tree will bear

putrefying: rotting, decaying

putrescence: decay, rot

quarantine: a state of isolation to limit the spread of disease

quicklime: lime; a white alkaline substance made of calcium oxide

rusts: fungal diseases in plants

wrath: extreme anger

Study Questions

1. This chapter is filled with descriptions of luscious fruit, growing, ripening, and then rotting. Why isn’t the fruit being harvested? What unspoken messages are communicated through the rotting fruit?

The fruit isn’t being...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Chapters 26 and 27


axle: a rod passing through the center of a wheel and connecting to another wheel

bale: bundle, as in a bale of hay

baling wire: wire used to hold a bale of hay together

blab: to gossip

contemptuously: scornfully

coupé: two-door car

croquet: a game played on grass by hitting wooden balls through wickets with a mallet

cultivated: farmed

disconsolately: unhappily, without consolation or comfort

gallows: a wooden structure from which people are hanged

gin: a machine that separates seeds, hulls, and foreign material from cotton

hysteria: uncontrollable emotion or excitement

J.P. Morgan (1837-1913): American industrialist...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)

Chapter 28


aristocrats: people holding a hereditary title; members of the upper class

chiseled: strong and clearly defined

cleated: ridged

effluvium: unpleasant odor

embassy: the function or position of an ambassador

grapevine: a reference to the circulation of rumors

tare: an allowance made for the weight of the packaging in order to determine the net weight of goods

Study Questions

1. What makes the Joads “aristocrats” in their new boxcar home? How are their living conditions better than those of many of the other migrant workers?

The Joads were able to claim one half of a boxcar for their home because they...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Chapter 29


coroner: an official who investigates suspicious deaths

dikes: embankments built to prevent flooding

distaste: dislike, aversion

mastoids: bones behind the ear, connected to the sinuses

Study Questions

1. The rainy season brings many hardships. What is described as the “greatest terror of all”?

The “greatest terror” is the lack of work during the winter rainy season. “No work till spring. No work. And if no work—no money, no food.” When people lose all income, they begin to starve and get deathly ill.

2. Describe the process by which the rain and flooding eventually lead to “hatred for the migrant...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Chapter 30


brooding: showing deep unhappiness, darkly menacing

compassion: sympathy and concern for the suffering of others

dank: disagreeably damp and cold

hoarded: amassed and stored away

intermittent: occurring at irregular intervals

reluctantly: unwillingly; with hesitance

sorra (sorrow): deep sadness

squalls: sudden violent winds or storms

sullen: sulky, gloomy

Study Questions

1. As the chapter begins, why is the continuing rain becoming increasingly dangerous? What does Pa think he and the other men should do?

The rain is flooding the nearby stream. Pa thinks it is possible to build an embankment that...

(The entire section is 1088 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. Where are the Joads from?

A. Amarillo, Texas

B. Fayetteville, Arkansas

C. Sallisaw, Oklahoma

D. Omaha, Nebraska

E. Independence, Missouri

2. Tom Joad went to prison for committing which of these crimes?

A. trespassing

B. shoplifting

C. homicide

D. bank robbery

E. patricide

3. Why did Jim Casy stop being a preacher?

A. He quit because he felt it was more important to love the human spirit than to love the Holy Spirit.

B. He was forced to leave the church...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. In chapter 10, Ma Joad goes through a stationery box full of personal mementos that mean a lot to her. Describe the scene in the context of the novel, and explain what it reveals about Ma. Support your discussion with examples from the text.

This scene occurs as the Joads are packing their belongings and leaving their farm for the last time. Up to this point, Ma has been focused on the needs of the family, but now she walks into her bedroom, which has been “stripped.” Only trash seems to remain in her room, but there is treasure here, too. In her bedroom, Ma has hidden a small stationery box, “old and soiled and cracked at the corners.” Inside the box are a few pieces of jewelry, along with letters,...

(The entire section is 3659 words.)