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Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath.

Background Summary

Depression in the Dust Bowl: The novel opens with a description of the red and grey country of Oklahoma. It is high summer and the crops of corn are ruined by heat, draught, and dust. The tenant system ceases to be profitable for the landowners, who start evicting the croppers from their houses and replacing their labour by machinery. Most of the croppers have been living on the land for generations, they were being born, they were working, and they were dying there. Unlike the tractors, the unfeeling iron monsters, the croppers are deeply connected with the soil. The croppers would blame the landowners for their situation but the landowners blame the banks pressing for payments. The blame would be also put on the tractor drivers but they have no other choice of job to provide for their families. The question of guilt remains unsolved for the thousands of families of the now landless croppers.

Migration to California: Word is spreading about the fruitful and wealthy country of California where fruit pickers are wanted. The croppers fix their hopes on migration to California which to them becomes the promised country. Sellers of used cars are flourishing for migrants are in need of cars and are easily cheated into paying exaggerated prices for old wrecks. The families are selling their farming implements to cover the costs of the journey. Together with the tools, they are selling their lives and their past. What cannot be sold and cannot be packed must be burnt: "How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it." (p. 112). Small farms are deserted, the land becomes vacant, the live people are replaced by dead machinery. Cars of migrants are streaming on the highway leading to California, the country where oranges grow.

Creating Community: The migrants meet with frequent manifestations of hostility on their way. At petrol stations, the poor migrants in their mobile wrecks typically inspire suspicion. They are supposed to be stealing. An illustrative example shows the profit-oriented barmaid Mae who favours truck drivers because they bring in money. When an humble migrant man asks to buy a piece of bread worth the little money he has, Mae would have refused him, were it not for the sympathizing cook Al who makes Mae give the man the whole loaf. Eventually Mae becomes compassionate too and sells the man two pieces of sweets for his two young sons for a cent though they are actually more expensive than that. The migrant man is extremely humble but at the same time he is too proud to beg for help or even to steal food. The migrating families are brought together by a sense of shared fate, they create a community of their own which is based on mutual sharing, helping, and protecting.

Crisis in California: California is dominated by a handful of rich farmers who are in love with money rather than with land. The dispossessed migrants replace immigrants as cheap labour force. There are only seasonal jobs available, it is impossible for the migrants to get any permanent occupation. Prices remain high but wages are too low to cover the costs of living so that the migrants flood the Hooverville shanty towns. Government fears the threat of socialist ideology, they struggle to prevent people from organizing. Hoovervilles are regularly burnt down but new ones immediately emerge. A large class of the poor is literally dying of starvation. They gradually turn to begging and then to stealing. At the beginning, their suffering evokes pity but it soon turns into hatred and then into fear: "And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder. And in the little towns pity for the sodden men changed to anger, and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them." (p. 552).

Struggle within Society: There are changes in society whose precarious stability now depends on the wealthy entrepreneurs and their organized exploitation of the poor. When there is overproduction of fruit or when labourers refuse to pick it for the mean wage offered, the fruit is simply left to rot so that its prize would remain high. The poor are not allowed to feed themselves even on the rotten fruit. The fruit is sprayed with kerosene or dumped into rivers which are guarded by armed men so as to prevent the hungry people from fishing it out: "And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." (p. 445). When the hungry receive any charity, it is not from the wealthy but from those similarly stricken: "If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones." (p. 479).

Plot Summary

Tom's Release from Prison: Tom Joad, a man in his thirties, is coming home on his release from prison on parole. He wears brand new though cheap clothes and shoes, which makes him suspicious to the truck driver who gives him a lift. Tom spent four years in the McAlester prison for homicide, he killed a man with a spade in a pub fight. Tom is sorry that the man died but he would do the same if he were in such situation again. It is apparent that his punishment was meaningless. In comparison with the life of Oklahoma croppers, the stay in prison was more comfortable, there were all the conveniences, so that some men deliberately committed crime again in order to get back to jail. On the Joad grounds Tom meets Revered Jim Casy and learns that the once fervent priest gave up preaching. Casy explains that he no more feels the spirit, that there is no more a place to lead to, that he lost faith in sin and virtue.

The Abandoned Joad Place: When Tom and Casy arrive at the Joad house, they find the place abandoned and destroyed. The house was pulled down and cotton is planted at the yard. There comes Muley Graves, one of the evicted croppers, whose family left for California but who stubbornly decided to stay at the land. He informs Tom that the Joads are at Uncle John's and are preparing to leave for California too. Muley provides a rabbit for dinner, the three build a fire and spend the evening with pleasant reminiscing. Their idyll is put an end to by the arrival of a deputy sheriff who saw the fire. It is unlawful to dwell at the fields, the men are trespassing. They manage to hide themselves in the cotton field and they see that the deputy sheriff is their former fellow cropper, one Willy Feeley, whom Muley knows to be also a tractor driver now.

The Joad Family Members: Tom, Casy, and Muley set off for Uncle John's where they are heartily welcome. Uncle John is a lonely man whose wife died of appendix soon after marriage. Uncle John blames himself for having underestimated her sickness and not having called a doctor. He tries to make up for his guilty feelings by distributing sweets among children but also by getting himself occasionally drunk. The Joad family includes the old parents, that is the authoritative Grandma and the slightly mischievous Grandpa. The eldest Joad son, Noah, is considered misshapen by Ma and Pa, he is a little backward but still much beloved by the parents. The father puts the blame for Noah on himself because there was no midwife available at his birth and so he amateurishly assisted the delivery himself. Next comes Al, a young man not yet twenty, who naively admires his elder brother Tom because he had been to prison. The two youngest children are the daughter Ruthie and the son Winfield. The adult daughter Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie also stay with the family. Rose is expecting her first child and is very self-conscious and apprehensive about her condition.

The Joads on the Road: The Joads are packing to leave and show their hospitality by offering the priest to go with them. They would have taken also Muley but he does not want to leave. Pigs are slaughtered and processed for meat. Only one of the three dogs can be taken, the other two dogs and the chicken are left to Muley. Grandpa refuses to be removed from the land: "I ain't a-goin'. This country ain't no good, but it's my country." (p. 142). The family cannot leave the old man behind so they get him drunk and carry him to the truck. The Joads are repeatedly plagued by breakdowns of the old truck which they must fix on their own. Their dog is overrun by a car when they are stopping at a petrol station. The station attendant also acutely feels the impact of the economic crisis and he keeps on wondering "what the country's comin' to" (p. 160).

Communion with the Wilsons: On their way the Joads meet a couple coming from Kansas, Ivy Wilson and his sickly wife Sairy, and the two families establish a close communion. The Wilsons offer their tent to Grandpa Joad so that the sick man could lay down and rest. Grandpa suffers a stroke and dies in the tent. His family buries him on their own because they do not have money enough for the funeral. The old man was so deeply connected with the old place that he was mentally dead already the moment he was removed from the land. The Wilsons join the Joads on their way. Both families put their hopes on the same leaflet advertising that in California there are hundreds of peach pickers wanted and good wages offered.

The Value of Sticking Together: Rose dreams of purchasing a little white house and settling in a town. Connie intends to educate himself through radio courses so that he could get a better job. Ma objects to Rose's idea of living separately from the family. The truck breaks down and a spare part must be purchased. It is suggested that the company splits and the group that will stay until the car is fixed would catch up with the rest later. Ma revolts, she picks a jack handle and threatens to strike anyone who would have the family divided: "All we got is the family unbroke." (p. 217). Tom and Al take the good car and set off to get the spare part. They succeed at a petrol station which is attended by an unkempt one-eyed man. The attendant keeps on pitying himself and complaining about his life but as Tom observes, he is too lazy to change anything. When the two families stop at a camp-site for the night, they meet there a ragged man who is on his way back from California. He talks about the harsh conditions and the exploitation of labourers. His wife and two children died of starvation and so he is returning to die at home.

Arriving in California: The Joads and the Wilsons arrive at the borders of California. They have the most difficult part of their journey before them, crossing the vast desert. They are not welcome in California, the locals call them pejoratively Okies: "Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas." (p. 282-3). A hostile cop approaches the family in a camp and recommends them to move away for he wants no dirty migrants settling in his district. There is a refreshing river running through the camp and Noah refuses to move from it. He asks Tom to tell Ma that he is not going on and then he simply disappears along the stream. Grandma's health is deteriorating, she is losing her mind and keeps on talking to Grandpa as if he were alive and with her. Also Sairy's health is failing, she is dying. She is unable to move further, so she and her husband stay behind. The Joads cross the desert. Ma saves the family from inspection when she shows the officials the pale and sick face of Grandma. When they arrive at the California valley, Ma reveals that Grandma died when they were at the desert, only she concealed it because she feared that the inspecting officials would make them troubles.

The Realities of Hoovervilles: The Joads pitch up their tent in one of the Hooverville shanty towns. The men are trying in vain to get some work, though they are willing to do any work for any wage. A work contractor and a deputy sheriff in one person appears in the camp and tries to draft men for a suspiciously looking job. There is a confrontation between him and one Floyd Knowles, a migrant and a new friend of Tom. The deputy sheriff charges Floyd with spreading communist ideology and Floyd starts running away. The deputy fires and accidentally hits a woman whose fingers are separated from her palm by the bullet. Tom puts out his foot for the deputy to trip over and Casy kicks the deputy to prevent him from pursuing Floyd. When the deputy regains consciousness, Casy takes the responsibility on himself in order to protect Tom. Uncle John can no more bear the situation, he procures some spare money that he was saving for the occasion and gets himself drunk. The cowardly Connie fails to face the situation as well, he runs away from his wife to become a tractor driver back home. In the night the Hooverville is burnt down but the Joads were warned by Floyd so that they manage to get away in time.

Government Relief Camps: The Joads get a place in one of the government camps, an establishment which is managed by a board of the campers themselves and which provides housing, sanitary facilities, and assistance for everyone. Cops are not allowed to enter the camp so that the campers may enjoy undisturbed peace without fear of being shifted around as is the case in Hoovervilles. The officials defending the interests of the rich disapprove of the camps because they fear that the poor will organize a communist revolution if they are allowed to gather together. There is a rumour that a takeover of the camp is planned during one of the regular Saturday dancing entertainments. The camp inhabitants manage to handle the provocation successfully and the takeover is spoilt.

Involvement with the Reds: The Joads enjoy the communal way of life in the government camp but there is no work to be had, so after a month in the Weedpatch Camp, they must move. They are recruited as peach pickers and the whole family, including the children, work under harsh conditions for such a low wage that they can hardly afford to buy food. The ranch where they are working is fenced by barbed wire, outside there is a gathering of red pickets. Tom manages to slip around the men with guns who guard the ranch and to get into the communist camp in the night. Accidentally he comes across Casy who is one of the pickets and who tries to persuade Tom to join the picketing. The camp is stormed by police and Casy and Tom are running away. There is a confrontation during which Casy is hit in his head and looks like dead. Tom returns the blow to the attacker who drops to the ground, looking like he is dead too. Tom is hit hard in his face.

Cotton Picking: Tom's face is badly hurt and he is being searched for, so the Joads leave the ranch quickly. They manage to get another seasonal job as cotton pickers. They live in a boxcar camp at the working site. Each boxcar is divided into two compartments and occupied by two families. Tom's face is still swollen and a bad scar is likely to remain, so he is hiding out in a culvert to which Ma carries him food regularly. Little Ruthie is boasting off in the camp and happens to betray that her brother is a criminal who is hiding out in the cave. Ma warns Tom and he explains to her that he is going to follow the example of Casy in struggling for better life. Tom parts from his mother. The Joads get their last job as cotton pickers in a small field which is so crowded with people anxious to work that the field is cleared within few hours. After this, the season is over, there is no work to be had, and the Joads are starving.

Human Tragedy and Charity: A long period of rain sets in and many places are flooded. The boxcar camp is threatened too, so Pa suggests to the fellow campers to build a bank to stop the water. He manges to persuade them and the men start digging in the heavy rain. Rose falls in labour prematurely and her child is born dead. An empty apple box is used as a coffin and Uncle John sends the box floating down the river as a testament of their suffering for anyone who might find it. The work of the men was useless, the camp is flooded anyway and the water runs into the engines of the cars so that they will not start. The Joads are fleeing on foot to find a dry place. Al stays behind with Aggie Wainwright, the daughter of the family with whom the Joads share their boxcar and whom Al plans to marry. Ma does not protest. The Joads hide in a barn where they find a man dying of starvation and his little son. Rose breastfeeds the man to save him from death, which concludes the novel: "Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanked and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There.' Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously." (p. 578).


Form, Language, Style: Besides its being a deeply moving account of the human suffering during the Great Depression, the novel is a remarkable achievement also from the formal point of view. In alternating chapters, the author follows the fate of an individual family and provides a general background showing that the suffering of the Joads is by no means unique. The language of the narrative is rich, almost poetic; the dialogues of the migrants capture the distinctive Midwestern dialect. The author often uses animal imagery, the novel is crowded with land turtles, jackrabbits, snakes, etc. A whole chapter near the beginning of the novel is devoted to the description of a land turtle crossing the highway: a considerate woman driver swerves her car to avoid it, while a mischievous male driver swerves to hit it. The turtle survives and is later picked by Tom as a present for his younger siblings, but he then lets it go on finding his family gone.

Themes, Motifs: The novel is written in the vein of social realism, the author portrays the ruthless capitalistic society and shows the implementation of socialistic ideas as a way to improvement. The arguments for socialism become increasingly vehement as the tragedy of the Joads deepens. The ideology is however not used obtrusively, it is rather a natural outcome to which the characters gradually arrive. Emphasis is put on the value of a family sticking together. Back at home, men are the heads of their families. They hold discussion sessions when they squat on their haunches, draw with a stick in dust and figure. During the migration and in California, the leading roles are taken over by women because they prove to be more adaptable and more ready to face extreme difficulties. Emphasis is also put on education as a way to better life: the migrating farmers are barely literate, but for instance Connie intends to start radio lessons, also the truck driver who gives Tom a lift plans to start lessons.


  • Author

    Steinbeck, John. (1902 - 1968).
  • Full Title

    The Grapes of Wrath.
  • First Published

    New York: Viking Press, 1939.
  • Form


Works Cited

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939. London: David Campbell Publishers, 1993.


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