The Grapes of Wrath Themes

The main themes in The Grapes of Wrath are family, community, perseverance, and religion..

  • Family and community: The Joad family begins their journey as a closely-knit unit. However, as they travel west, they begin to view themselves as part of a broader migrant community and embrace both the land and their fellow humans.
  • Perseverance: The Joads face many hardship during their travels, but they persevere and maintain the hope that the future will be better.
  • Religion: Former preacher Jim Casy rejects Christianity, instead deciding that loving and helping other humans, especially those in need, is more important than obeying God.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1830

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family on their journey from dust-bowl stricken Oklahoma to California as they strive to find work, a home, and stability. The Grapes of Wrath explores themes surrounding family and perseverance, the nature of religion, and the relationship between compassion and class conflict. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses these themes to emphasize the need for people to treat each other and the land they live on with dignity.

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Family, Community, and Perseverance

One of the major themes of The Grapes of Wrath is how familial and community support can help someone persevere in hard times. Steinbeck uses the Joad family’s travels and general suffering as a way to dramatize the need for family and community. The migrant laborers within the novel all face hardship, and many lose their families, friends, and homes. Despite this shared suffering, the migrant laborers are able to work together and become a strong community:

“In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.”

Steinbeck reinforces this theme through the experiences of several characters: Jim Casy, Tom Joad, Ma, and Rosasharn all come to understand the need for building community and supporting others.

  • Jim Casy advocates for and supports the community around him. Casy says that although the wilderness couldn’t sustain him spiritually, people could. His words and actions on the need for working together in order to persevere inspire other characters. His final actions result in his death, but his sacrifice helps others.
  • Tom Joad is encouraged and inspired by Casy to actively help others rather than only take care of himself. By the end of the novel, Tom has witnessed Casy’s death, the migrant laborers’ efforts and struggles, and his own family’s suffering. Tom comes to understand Casy's musing on the shared nature of the soul and begins to see himself as part of a greater whole: “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one.” Tom leaves his family to go help his community of migrant workers, reassuring his mother by telling her that he is a part of everything.
  • Ma Joad at first believes her family is the only important thing and strives to help them. However, as the novel progresses, she becomes a mother and caretaker nearly everyone she meets and befriends other families along their journey. Ma claims near the end of the novel, “Use ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” Ma comes to realize that working together with others and building a strong community is the only way to survive.
  • Rosasharn comes to understand the value of family, community, and helping others when she saves a starving man by feeding him her breast milk. Having lost her baby Rosasharn does not allow the tragedy to stop her from saving another life. Throughout the majority of the novel, Rosasharn had been focused on only herself, her child, and her husband, Connie. Feeding the starving man at the end of novel not only shows a change in her character but also an emphasis on the importance of helping others who are in need. Despite having lost many things by the end of the novel, Rosasharn learns to see herself as a part of a greater community and family instead of as an individual.

With these characters, Steinbeck suggests that family and community are the driving forces for not only survival, but also for the human soul.

Guilt, Hypocrisy, and Reformed Faith

John Steinbeck uses religion within Grapes of Wrath to explore guilt, hypocrisy, and reformed faith. This theme is first introduced through Jim Casy, an ex-preacher. Casy feels guilty for no longer feeling love for Christianity or for Jesus. He feels he has been a hypocrite in his religious practices in that he would often have sex with random women when possessed with the “Holy Sperit.” After reflecting on his actions and on the actions of people in general, Casy chooses to believe there is no sin or virtue, and that actions are just “stuff people do.” Further, he finds he doesn’t love Jesus, but he does love people; for Casy, humans are divine.

Casy’s religious reformation shares similarities with transcendentalism, the tenets of which were espoused by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Casy's religious belief revolves around a love for all people, and a belief in the existence of a singular soul of which all humans possess a small piece. Transcendentalism similarly holds a belief of something called the “Oversoul,” which is a divine spirit or soul that encompasses all humans.

This idea of the “Oversoul” is a theme that evolves in Grapes of Wrath. When Tom Joad realizes he must help others, he remembers Casy’s musings about how humans were all part of just one soul. Tom takes this belief and uses it to reinforce his decisions to help those in need; he also shares this with Ma Joad in an effort to comfort her. Furthermore, a core belief of transcendentalism is the acceptance of all humans as inherently good. Casy mirrors this by choosing to love all humans and rejecting sin as a viable concept. Casy’s belief and effort to love all humans is reflected in not only his character but in other main characters as well:

  • Ma Joad, Tom Joad, and Rosasharn all freely give love to others, and in doing so they heighten the quality of life for themselves and those surrounding them.

Steinbeck uses Casy’s reformed religious beliefs as an alternative to strict religious doctrine. In doing so, The Grapes of Wrath reflects a love for everyone, especially for those who are in need.

When Steinbeck explores Christianity within The Grapes of Wrath, readers are introduced to it through characters such as Granma or the religious fanatic at the Weedpatch camp. These characters show the downside and overall hypocrisy of a strict, uncompromising approach to Christian doctrine. Granma’s belief is described as nearly violent; yet, when listening to the rambling and fairly un-Christian prayer of Casy over breakfast, she does not hear him, and blindly follows with “amen” and “pu-raise God!” at any pause in Casy’s speech. Granma’s religious belief has degraded to the point that she is unable to truly listen, ask questions, or change—yet, she still believes herself to be devoutly religious, despite her lack of effort or understanding.

Similarly, the religiously fanatic woman that Rosasharn meets at the Weedpatch camp only works to spread misery with her beliefs. She hypocritically claims that other actions are sinful, all the while spreading misery and fear with her religious proclamations.

  • For example, the religious woman views dancing as sinful and tells Rosasharn that she’ll have a miscarriage if she goes to the camp’s Saturday dance.

Steinbeck portrays the heavily religious, hypocritical characters as more damaging to themselves or other people’s happiness than those who are unsure, guilty, or express unorthodox  beliefs, like Casy.

Pride, Privilege, and Possessions

The Grapes of Wrath encompasses the struggle between poor, migrant laborers—once tenant farmers—and “The Bank,” or rich land-owners. This struggle is an example of conflict between those who have plenty and those who have little. Steinbeck also weaves into the novel an underlying current of Agrarian philosophy: the land is considered an important part of human life and survival on many levels. Land is, under agrarianism, dealt with so that it may last for a long time, as the health of humans is dependent on the health of the land. The Grapes of Wrath looks at how the land has been destroyed by greedy over-farming, drought, and the Dust Bowl. Because of the destroyed land, the landowners, who are controlled by banks—dehumanized as “monsters” in the novel—are forced to kick the tenant farmers off the land in order to glean a larger profit to pay the banks. This pushes many families to migrate from Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Texas to California, which is rumored to be a land of opportunity and promise.

The first clash between the poorer migrants and the wealthy landowners  is at the beginning of the novel. Landowners hide behind the banks they rely on to force the tenant families out. There is little understanding between the tenant farmers and landowners, and Steinbeck creates stark barriers, such as the nice cars the landowners drive and the ragged clothes the tenant farmers and their families wear. Characters like Jim Casy, Tom Joad, and Floyd Knowles actively fight against the wealthy landowners:

  • Floyd and Casy fight at various points in the novel for the now migrant farmers and laborers to unionize for higher wages. Steinbeck shows the conflict through not only cruel exchanges of words but also through violence.
  • Tom and Casy end up hurting the Deputy sheriff, and Casy eventually dies at the hands of men who are against unionizing.

Further barriers are created with labels; the landowners see the migrant laborers as “dirty Okies,” and if laborers are troublesome they are called “reds.” Much of the conflict Steinbeck creates has roots in American attitudes toward Communism. At one point, Tom even playfully claims, “Damn right, I’m Bolshevisky,” in response to being called a troublemaker. Although the names “red” and “Bolshevisky” have negative correlations, both Tom and Floyd seem to take pride in being “troublemakers” to the wealthy.

The biggest barrier that Steinbeck creates, however, is the relative mistreatment of the migrant laborers by the wealthy. Privileged store owners who have more means and money than the Joad family still overcharge, and landowners and contractors only see the migrant laborers and their families as a nuisance. Steinbeck's work suggests that the poor will help the poor, and the rich care little for the poor. As said by Ma, “If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones.” Ma's claim shows the general knowledge of difference: she understands that those who are similar to her and the Joads will help, whereas those who are different won’t understand and will likely clash with them. It follows that those who are struggling and in need are more willing and able to help and show generosity.

Steinbeck separates those who are rich—the banks and landowners—as monstrous or inhuman in their privilege. Portraying the financially sound upper-class in this way directs all sympathy toward the migrant laborers, who are depicted as the only truly human characters. Here, the largest difference is drawn: the migrant laborers are human in their loss and suffering, and the landowners and banks, who in their wealth and pride no longer feel loss or suffering through poverty, have become inhuman.

Themes

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The overriding theme of The Grapes of Wrath is the story of man's inhumanity to man. The sympathetic Joad family are repeatedly beaten down by others who have more than they, or who are in positions of authority and power and hence can take advantage of them. Not only the Joads, but all the other migrants fall victim at one time or another to unscrupulous storekeepers, unconcerned employers or their hired hands, and others who already have secure means of livelihood. The growing tendency of the Joads to recognize that they must rely not only on their own family members but on all others in the same plight underscores Steinbeck's message that all men are brothers, and all deserve to be treated with dignity.

Steinbeck is able to add significant force to his exploration of this theme by presenting the journey of the Joads and their fellow migrants as similar to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt into the Promised Land. California is imagined as a paradise by those who abandon their homes in the Midwest. Indeed, the valley in which the Joads and their fellow migrants seek work looks like paradise; but instead of living on milk and honey, and eating the grapes that they imagined would be there for the picking, these unfortunate families find only hardship and bitterness. While trees laden with fruit stand all around them, they are forbidden from eating any of it. They cannot partake in this land which God has created — not because God has forbidden them to do so, but because other men have denied them that opportunity. In this way, Steinbeck shows the reverse side of the coin: When men do not work together, when they consciously discriminate against each other, life becomes hell on Earth.

Themes

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Hope

The Joads experience many hardships, deprivations, and deaths, and at the end of the novel are barely surviving. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel is optimistic. This positive feeling is derived from the growth of the Joad family as they begin to realize a larger group consciousness at the end of the novel. The development of this theme can be seen particularly in Ma Joad, from her focus on keeping the family together to her recognition of the necessity of identifying with the group. “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do,” Ma says in the final chapter.

Hope comes from the journey that educates and enlightens some of the Joads, including Ma, Tom, Pa, John, Rose of Sharon, and also Jim Casy. On the surface, the family’s long journey is an attempt at the “good life,” the American dream. Yet this is not the only motive. In fact, the members of the family who cannot see beyond this materialistic goal leave the family along the way: Noah, Connie, and Al. The Joads travel from their traditional life that offered security, through chaos on the road and on into California. There, they look for a new way of life, and a larger understanding of the world. And whether or not the remaining Joads live or die in California, their journey has been successful. Hope survives, as the people survive, because they want to understand and master their lives in the face of continual discouragement.

Class Conflict

The conflict in the novel between the impoverished migrants and the established, secure business people and Californians serves as a strong criticism of economic injustice. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a social comment on the economic disasters of the time. The migrants’ agrarian way of life has all but disappeared, threatened not only by nature’s drought and dust storms, but also by big farms and financial establishments, called “the Bank.” At the beginning of the novel, the owners and the banks push the tenants off of their land. Later the arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor people causes conflict in California.

The migrants represent trouble for businessmen in the form of higher taxes, labor unions, and possible government interference. The potential for future conflict is understood by all the business owners: if the migrants ever organize, they will seriously threaten the financial establishment. The Joads’ travails dramatize such economic and social conflicts. In California, the conflict between the two sides grows violent as the migrants’ desperation increases. The government camps are harassed or even burned down by angry state residents with financial interests.

There are also conflicts within the family that reflect the materialistic concerns of this class conflict. Rose of Sharon is preoccupied with her pregnancy and daydreams of the future. Her husband, Connie, wanted to stay in Oklahoma, and he does little to help the family on the road. Finally he disappears. Uncle John is consumed with worry and frustration. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, are selfish and restless. The hardships of dispossessed families are made personal and individual in the account of the Joads.

Fanaticism

Fanaticism—both as a religious fundamentalism and as a social phenomenon—is condemned in the novel. During Tom’s first meeting with Jim Casy, the former preacher talks about his discovery that organized religion denies life, particularly sexuality. He in fact had found a connection between the “Holy Spirit” and sexuality when he was a preacher. Later, in the government camp, Rose of Sharon is frightened by a fanatic religious woman’s warning that dancing is sinful and that it means that Rose of Sharon will lose her baby. In addition, the religious fanatic tells Ma that religion approves of an economic class system that incorporates poverty. She tells Ma: “(A preacher) says they’s wicketness in that camp. He says, ‘The poor is tryin’ to be rich.’ He says, ‘They’s dancin’ an’ huggin’ when they should be wailin’ an’ moanin’ in sin.’” This type of religious fanaticism is shown to be a denial of life and is associated with business in its economic deprivation and denial.

One of the most profound lessons from the story of the Joads and their real-life American counterparts is that one of the causes of the crises of the 1930s in California was social fanaticism and prejudice shown to the “Okies.” The fear of the migrants, combined with the lack of faith in the government’s ability to solve the temporary problems, often caused violence. It also led to such shameful events as starvation, malnutrition, and homelessness. In retrospect, it is obvious that World War II “solved” the migrant problem by absorbing the manpower into the war effort. How much better it would have been if California had developed emergency solutions for this period of great social transition that could have served as an historical example.

Individual vs. Society

The novel demonstrates the individual’s instinct to organize communities within the groups of migrants in roadside camps. “In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” The people cooperate because it is beneficial to their welfare in order to survive. Yet Steinbeck develops the concept of the group beyond the political, social, and moral level to include the mystical and transcendental. Jim Casy reflects this when he says: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.” The conversion of Tom, Ma, Rose of Sharon, and Casy to a “we” state of mind occurs over the course of the novel. As they gradually undergo suffering, they learn to transcend their own pain and individual needs. At the end, all four are able to recognize the nature and needs of others. The process of transcendence that occurs in these characters illustrates Steinbeck’s belief in the capacity of humanity to move from what he calls an “I” to a “We” consciousness.

The Joads are also on an inward journey. For them, suffering and homelessness become the means for spiritual growth and a new consciousness. Ma sums up this new consciousness and what it means to her when she says: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” Yet although each of the four characters undergoes a spiritual transformation, each also finds an individual way to help others in the world and to take action. At the end, Tom has decided to become a leader in the militant organizing of the migrants. Ma accepts her commitments to people other than her family. Rose of Sharon loses her baby but comes to understand the “we” of the starving man to whom she blissfully gives life as if he were her child. Casy, who has been jailed, reappears as a strike leader and union organizer, having discovered that he must work to translate his understanding of the holiness of life into social action. Casy dies when vigilantes attack the strikers and kill him first.

Steinbeck makes clear that this potential for transcendental consciousness is what makes human beings different from other creatures in nature. In Chapter 14, Steinbeck describes humanity’s willingness to “die for a concept” as the “one quality [that] is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

Commitment

Steinbeck develops extensively the theme of social commitment. Both Casy and Tom were inspired to make Christ-like sacrifices. When Jim Casy surrenders to the deputies in place of Tom and Floyd, Jim is acting on his commitment to love all people. He later becomes a labor organizer and dies in his efforts. His statement to Tom, “An’ sometimes I love ’em fit to bust. . . ,” exemplifies his commitment. In Tom, the development of commitment is even more striking. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is determined to avoid involvement with people. After his experiences on the journey and through his friendship with Casy, Tom becomes committed to social justice. His commitment extends to a mystical identification with the people. When Ma worries that Tom may also be killed like Casy, Tom tells her: “Then I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever there’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. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ 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.”

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