The Grapes of Wrath

Dorothea Lange
Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of 7 children. Age 32. Nipomo, CA. February 1936

John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath tells the specific story of the Joad family in order to illustrate the hardship and oppression suffered by migrant laborers during the Great Depression. It is an explicitly political tract that champions collectivist action by the lower classes over expression of individualist self-interest and chastises corporate and banking elites for shortsighted policies meant to maximize profit even while forcing farmers into destitution and even starvation.

The novel begins with the description of the conditions in the Dust Bowl Oklahoma that ruined the crops and instigated massive foreclosures on farmland. No specific characters emerge initially, a technique that Steinbeck will return to several times in the book, juxtaposing descriptions of events in a larger social context with those more specific to the Joad family.

In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck employs "inter-chapters". The material for the inter-chapters arose from a series of articles Steinbeck wrote in 1936 (see Their Blood is Strong). He had worked alongside the migrants picking fruit, and at one time made the actual trek from Oklahoma to the California cotton fields. The living and working conditions of these exploited people had shaken him to the core. He came away with an admiration for the strength and resourcefulness of the workers. He realized the potential for a disastrous situation unless some drastic measures were taken. He feared something like a civil war in California. He is actually telling two stories: the story of the Depression and the story of the Joads. That he succeeded in interlacing the two motifs so that each enriches the other.

One function of the inter-chapter is to move from the specific to the general: the Joads' trials en route to California are heightened and enlarged by the overview of the nomadic life on the highway, while the inter-chapter detailing how the farmers are "tractored off" prepares the reader for the shock of finding Tom's people driven from their homes. The inter-chapter is also used to provide additional background material which might be clumsy and distracting if inserted into dialogue. The history of California, the development of migrant labor in the West, and the ecological and economic factors operating in California are all included clearly and fully without distracting from the narrative.

Finally, the inter-chapters show that the Joads, real and individual as they appear are not isolated cases, but one of many suffering families.

Character List
Tom Joad: The central character of the novel, he is a recently released inmate imprisoned for murder who returns home to find that his family has lost their farm and is moving west to California. Tom is a plainspoken, forthright and direct man, yet he retains some of his violent tendencies.

Ma Joad: The mother of Noah, Tom, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie and Winfield, Ma Joad is a woman accustomed to hardship and deprivation. She is a forceful woman who is determined to keep her family together at nearly all costs, yet remains kind toward all, even sparing what little the family has for those even less fortunate.

Pa Joad: Although Pa Joad is the head of the Joad household, he is not a forceful presence. Without the ability to provide for his family, he recedes into the background, playing little prominent role in deciding the fate of his family.

Uncle John: A morose man prone to depression and alcoholism, Uncle John believes himself to be the cause of the family's misfortune. He blames himself for the death of his wife several years ago, and has carried the guilt of that event with him.

Rose of Sharon: Tom Joad's younger sister, recently married to Connie Rivers and pregnant with his child, Rose of Sharon is the one adult who retains a sense of optimism in the future. She dreams of a middle-class life with her husband and child, but becomes paranoid and disillusioned once her husband abandons her when they reach California.

Connie Rivers: The shiftless husband of Rose of Sharon, Connie dreams of taking correspondence courses that will provide him with job opportunities and the possibility of a better life. When he reaches California and does not find work, he immediately becomes disillusioned and abandons his pregnant wife.

Noah Joad: Tom's older brother, he suffers from mental disabilities that likely occurred during childbirth. He leaves the family to remain an outsider from society, supporting himself by catching fish at the nearby river.

Al Joad: Tom's younger brother, at sixteen years old he is concerned with cars and girls, and remains combative and truculent toward the rest of the family. Out of the Joad family, he has that most knowledge of cars, and fears that the rest of the family will blame him if anything goes wrong.

Ruthie Joad: One of the two small children in the Joad family, it is Ruthie who reveals that Tom is responsible for the murder at Hooper Ranch, forcing him to leave his family and escape capture by the police.

Winfield Joad: The other small child in the Joad family, Winfield becomes severely ill during the course of the novel from deprivation, but survives his illness.

Grampa Joad: An energetic, feisty of man, Grampa refuses to leave Oklahoma with the rest of his family, but is forcibly taken on the journey. Once possessed of a cruel and violent temper, Grampa’s wickedness is now limited almost exclusively to his tongue. He delights in tormenting his wife and shocking others with sinful talk. Although his character serves largely to produce comical effect, he exhibits a very real and poignant connection to the land

Granma Joad: Granma is a pious Christian, who loves casting hellfire and damnation in her husband’s direction. Her health deteriorates quickly after Grandpa’s death.

Reverend Jim Casy: A fallen preacher who too often succumbed to temptation, Casy left the ministry when he realized that he did not believe in absolute ides of sin. He espouses the idea that all that is holy comes from collective society, a belief that he places in practical context when, after time in jail, he becomes involved in labor activists. Casy becomes a martyr for his beliefs in his symbolic death.

Muley Graves: Muley is a crazy elderly man who reveals to Tom Joad the fate of his family. Having lost his home and farmland, his wife and children left Oklahoma for California, but Muley decided to remain, where he attempts to elude the police for his constant trespassing and live outside of society.

Sairy Wilson: She and her family aid the Joads when Grampa Joad has a stroke, and decides to continue with the Joads on the way to California, for the two families can help each other on the way. She falls ill at the first camp where the two families stay, and remains there with the rest of her family, facing the possibility of arrest for trespassing.

Timothy and Wilkie Wallace: These two brothers are Weedpatch camp residents who take Tom to find work when they arrive at the government camp.

Mr. Thomas: The contractor who hires Tom and the Wallaces, he warns the men about the intruders who will interrupt the dance at the government camp.

Jessie Bullitt: She is the head of the Ladies Committee at Weedpatch who gives Ma Joad a tour of the facilities.

Ella Summers: She is the assistant to Jessie Bullitt and formerly the head of the Ladies Committee who frequently bickers with Jessie over insignificant details.

Jim Rawley: He is the manager of the camp at Weedpatch who treats the Joads with an unexpected respect.

Lisbeth Sandry: She is a fundamentalist zealot who complains about the alleged sin that takes place at the government camp, including dancing, and frightens Rose of Sharon with her admonitions about sin.

Ezra Huston: He is the elected head of the Central Committee at Weedpatch who advises Tom and the other men on how to deal with the situation at the Saturday dance.

Willie Eaton: He is the head of the Weedpatch entertainment committee who defuses the problem of the intruders and the police during the dance.

Aggie Wainwright: She is the young woman to whom Al Joad becomes engaged.

The territory of The Grapes of Wrath is of epic proportions and is describe in great detail. The setting includes a large part of Oklahoma, portions of other states, and a large area of California. The early narrative chapters focus on land near Sallisaw, in the east-central part of Oklahoma. The westward journey of the Joad family covers some eighteen hundred miles through portions of seven states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and California. The huge territory covered in chapters twelve to eighteen is described in great detail. Steinbeck lists names of places, state roads, and highways, as well as describing the national Highway 66, "the path of a people in flight," and the main route westward. The poetic descriptions of the land through which Highway 66 passes create a sense of expansiveness and spaciousness.

Conflict: Protagonist
Tom Joad, as a representative of all migrant workers, is the protagonist of the novel. He is the rootless man, the individual who must learn responsibility for what capitalism has done to people and to the earth. Along with Tom, the Joads and the other migrants are sent on the road on a quest to rethink their relationship with both humanity and the land itself. This process has been called "education of the heart." By the end of the novel, Tom relinquishes his self-absorption and embraces Casy's mixture of Emersonian idealism and a particular form of American communalism. He plans to translate Casy's dream of organizing people to improve their living conditions into action.

Poverty is the antagonist of Tom Joad and all migrant workers. Poverty throws people into an intense relationship with nature and its contingencies. Steinbeck, a naturalist, believed that people were the helpless victims of an indifferent environment. The Oklahoma land companies and the Californian landowners are the forces that inflict the poverty in the context of the novel.

Major and Minor Themes
The outcry against the ill treatment of all migrant workers. Steinbeck pleads for an end to man's inhumanity to man.

Tom Joad's growth symbolizes the Biblical theme of growth. All people have the potential for growth and rebirth.

Humanity must adapt to the changing environment in order to survive.

Love of the earth. This is personified in Ma Joad, signifying love and endurance.

Family (familial) survival. Ma Joad is the cohesive force who keeps her family together.

Human dignity-The Joads maintain their dignity throughout their many ordeals.

The Grapes of Wrath is a tragic story of the dispossession of the Joads, and the predominant mood is dark and gloomy. But there are also moments of light-hearted humor, which provides relief and restores faith in the human ability to survive against all odds.

Literary/Historical Information
The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's most famous novel and won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. The novel tells the story of the Joads, who migrate to California in search of a better life during the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties. Steinbeck effectively portrays how the struggle of the Joads mirrors the hardship of the entire nation. The Joads learn, through the inspiration of Jim Casy, that the poor must work together to survive.

Two great historical and social phenomena merged in the thirties to create The Grapes of Wrath. The first was a growing interest among the American intellectuals in the philosophy of Marxism, or Socialism as a means of helping the laboring classes. Casy's thinking in the novel is based upon these philosophies. The second phenomenon was the natural disaster of the Dust Bowl. In November of 1933, a huge dust cloud rose over an area of the U.S. stretching from Texas to South Dakota. The dust storm eroded the topsoil of the region and blew it away. Crops were destroyed, and many small farmers lost their lands to the banks that held mortgages on their farms. Corporations were forced to farm under intensive large-scale corporations, using tractors to replace the horse-drawn plows of the small farmer. Thousands of sharecroppers were evicted from their lands that had been settled by their forefathers. About 4,000 people were, therefore, forced by circumstances to travel in unreliable cars to California in search of work. With deteriorating conditions for the farm workers in the West, there were innumerable strikes during the years of 1933 and 1934. Steinbeck, as a newspaper reporter, saw first hand the difficult life of the migrants during his visits to the labor camps.

He resolved to write a "big book" chronicling the suffering and oppression of the migrants. The outcome of his efforts was The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath sold out an advance edition of 19,804 by mid-April, 1939 and was selling 10,000 a week by early May. It was praised by many critics as a masterpiece but criticized by others for its sentimentality and lack of complexity. An Oklahoma Congressman called the story a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript” because of the depiction of the Joads and the book’s language
and its characters’ earthy behavior. In addition, Californians were indignant over their portrayal as oppressors, and Kern County banned the book well into the 1940’s. Nevertheless, the novel continues to sell well (about 200,000 copies a year by some estimates), and it has been estimated to have been translated into between 40 and 60 languages.

Religious Symbolism
John Steinbeck was NOT a religious man. He did not believe that organized religion was relevant to the needs of people. He believed that the Savior they needed must be found within themselves. Why did he use so much religious symbolism throughout this text?

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" - an allusion to "...the vintage where the Grapes of Wrath are stored." The words carry the strident, martial mood of rebellion that marked the popular Civil War song. Now there are new slaves storing of their own anger in these "grapes of wrath." The allusion is further strengthened by the mixture of memorable lines and pertinent passages from the Book of Revelations. "...the wine of the wrath of God poured out without mixture into the cup of indignation..." "...and another angel [said], Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather thee clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe." "And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of earth, and cast it into the great wine press of the wrath of God."

Jim Casey - a Christ-figure (JC). He spent time alone in the wilderness to try and figure things out. He emerges with a philosophy that denies the existence of sin or virtue, and refuses to judge the conduct of others. He believes that love and cooperation are the only way to make life meaningful on earth. His new religion is a completely earthly one. His death and dying words will be symbolic of Jesus Christ.

Tom Joad - The prodigal son. With the example of Casy before him, he develops a new kind of faith. He is eager to work for a new society based on a natural law of unity and the brotherhood of man.

Rose-of-Sharon - She begins the story selfish and unrealistic. She ends with the image of the Madonna-like stature offering hope.

The Journey to California - parallels the exodus of the Israelites' from Egypt to travel across a desert to what had been promised to them as a land of milk and honey. This is handled in three parts: the oppression in Egypt and the oppression by the bankers; the exodus; and the sojourn in the land of Canaan or California. The plagues and erosion; the bankers and the Egyptians; and the hostile tribes of Canaan are the Californians.

The baby's birth and journey down the river - Moses

The Colorado River - The Red Sea The separation of the old life and new life.

Important Terms

Rose of Sharon: A showy flowering plant mentioned in the Bible and commonly considered to have been a tulip, narcissus, or meadow saffron.

Socialism: 1) Any of the various theories of social and political movements advocating or aiming at collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of productive and control of the distribution of goods. 2) A system or condition of society or group living in which there is no private property (individualism). 3) A stage of society that in Marxist theory is a transitional between capitalism and communism.

Communalism: A principle or system of organization in which the major social or political units of the society are communes or local self-governing communities.

Individualist: One that pursues a markedly independent course in thought of action. One that speaks or acts with marked individuality. Independent of excess; in conflict with society.

Collectivism: System characterized by collective control especially over production and distribution of goods and services in contrast to free enterprise.

Emersonian/Transcendentalism: A philosophy of going beyond or exceeding usual limits. Proceeding beyond or lying outside of what is perceived or presented in experience.

Sharecropper: A tenant farmer who works the land, receives from the landlord seeds, stock, and usually living quarters and credit for food and other necessities consumed prior to harvesting and is paid a specific share of the crop from which deductions are taken for goods received beforehand.

Dust Bowl: A region that suffers from prolonged drought and dust storms.

Dialect and Idiomatic Expressions
Sometimes an author has his/her characters speak in a dialect that is particular to the region of the country they live in. Here is a list of words and phrases used by the Joads and other Okies. Why do you think Steinbeck has his characters use these words? Does it help them seem true to life? Why or why not?

Meetin’ (as in a meetin’ held by a preacher)
Burning Busher
Talkin’ in tongues
Touched (as “in the head”)
Jack (as in some jack in my pocket)
Whole shebang
Get shut of this
Booted off
Pitchers (as in “go to the pitchers”)
Bull simple
Git sholt on yaself