The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Steinbeck's graphic tale of the plight of migrant workers in the paradisal climes of California stirred controversy when it was originally published, and continues to generate heated debate among literary critics, historians, and sociologists. Although Steinbeck clearly sides with the Joads and their fellow Oklahomans, the conflicts of rights — those of the landowners vs. those of the people who come to California to eke out a living — serves as a catalyst for discussion on the hierarchy of legal and moral values which the novelist is careful to dramatize.

1. Tom Joad commits a number of minor crimes, and he is pursued by the authorities as an outlaw; nevertheless, Steinbeck treats him with great sympathy. What does this reveal about the author's attitude toward the law? What does this suggest about the conflict between law and morality?

2. Steinbeck takes his title from the Civil War anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Why has he done so?

3. The Joads find themselves in California with thousands of others who have felt the effects of the Great Depression. What does Steinbeck reveal about the nature of people who find themselves in extreme poverty?

4. A number of critics have accused Steinbeck of being a propagandist for socialist values. Do you agree? What evidence in the novel supports your opinion?

5. In Steinbeck's novel, In Dubious Battle, written shortly before he began work on the Joads' story, he deals with themes similar to those illuminated in The Grapes of Wrath. In what ways does he show a more developed sophistication in the latter novel?

6. The Grapes of Wrath contains some vivid descriptions of natural scenery. How does Steinbeck use his settings to illuminate themes? How does setting contribute to the bitter irony evoked by the story?