The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What happens in The Grapes of Wrath?

  • Tom Joad is released from prison at the beginning of Steinbeck's classic novel about the Great Depression. Tom meets a former preacher named Jim, who joins the Joad family on their journey to California.
  • The Grapes of Wrath begins when Tom Joad is released from prison. He then joins his family on their journey to California, where they hope to find a better life.

  • This journey to California is a perilous one, and the Joads face death, heat, and poverty while traveling West. Upon reaching California, they're disappointed to find that life is no better there.
  • After a flood, the Joads seek refuge in a barn where they find a starving man and his son. Rose of Sharon, who has recently lost her baby, feeds the starving man from her breast.

Download The Grapes of Wrath Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

Introduction

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) chronicles the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California after industrial farming pushes them off their land. Though poor and possessing few resources to ease their journey, they are hopeful, having heard rumors that California is a promised land for migrant families looking to start afresh.

During their journey, the Joads persist through sickness, harassment from border guards, and the deaths of family members. Upon reaching California, they find it less magical than they expected: work is hard to find and wages are low, making mere survival difficult. Morale is low because workers are not respected and considered expendable. Nonetheless, the family remains resourceful and persistent, largely because they have no other options.

The Grapes of Wrath is interspersed with shorter chapters examining American culture, Depression-era economics, and hardships faced by migrants. These hardships include the acquisition of farmland by rich owners and banks, as well as the desperation, crime, starvation, and death caused by poverty. Steinbeck also explores the loss of authenticity suffered when people long connected to the land are forced to stop farming it. Last, Steinbeck delves into the destructive consequences of a culture that places self-interest and industry above compassion.

Though the novel is fictional, the Joads’ journey is based on real-life events during the Dust Bowl Migration of the 1930s. Fueled by the Great Depression, dust storms, and the rise of industrial farming, blue-collar, primarily white families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas traveled west in search of better opportunities. Like the Joads, many of the working-class families were poor and faced low wages and infrequent work upon reaching California. This situation was largely due to the surplus of migrants and the scarcity of jobs.

Plot Summary

Tom Joad Jr., who has just been released from jail and is on parole, hitchhikes back to his family’s farm in Oklahoma. He hasn’t been home in four years, having served a four-year sentence for killing another man in self-defense.

After getting dropped off, Tom walks the rest of the way. He comes upon Jim Casy, a former preacher, whose sermons his family attended when Tom was young. Casy says he has lost his sense of faith and has been having sinful thoughts, so he stopped preaching and now lives in solitude.

Tom and Casy reach the Joad house and find it empty and dilapidated. Due to a lack of farming profits, the tenants living on the farmland have been forced out by landowners and large banks. Tom’s family’s farm has been consolidated and is now a cotton farm. A neighbor, Muley Graves, shows up and explains that the Joads are staying nearby with Uncle John and plan to go west soon to look for work. Muley, however, doesn’t plan on leaving. He confesses that he wants to kill the people responsible for forcing out not just the Joads, but all the local families. The three men hide when the landowner’s patrollers come to check the land for trespassers.

Tom and Casy walk to Uncle John’s, where Tom reunites with his parents, Ma and Pa, and grandparents, Granma and Grampa Joad. His brothers,...

(The entire section is 1,802 words.)