At a Glance
The Grapes of Wrath key themes:
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads continue to express hope for the future despite the hardships they encounter.
Class conflict between agrarian migrants and business interests leads to tensions in California and within the Joad family.
The novel condemns religious fanaticism and the fear and distrust that led to the tragic events in 1930s California.
The Joads learn to transcend their own individual interests to see themselves as part of larger groups.
Social commitment is developed through Jim Casy’s self-sacrifice and Tom’s identification with the people.
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.
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.”
- 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...
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