By John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
A Study Guide
Study Guided Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Type of Work, Date of Publication, and Critical Reception
The Grapes of Wrath is a realistic novel depicting the grim struggle of impoverished sharecroppers to find work and maintain their dignity. Viking Press published the work on April 14, 1939. Many reviewers praised the novel, which went on to win a 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Others reviewers criticized it for sentimentality and frequent interruption of the main story with chapters providing general background information. Not a few politicians and businessmen criticized it as socialist propaganda that exaggerated the problems of migrant workers, and some religious groups objected to it for its profanity. Nevertheless, the book became a bestseller, and it remains popular today as a classic novel of social protest. It continues to generate controversy, however, when discussed solely on its literary merits. Whether it will ultimately merit inclusion in the list of great American literary works of the first half of the 20th Century remains to be seen.
The title alludes to the words "grapes of wrath" in Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Howe's words, in turn, allude to Chapter 63, Verses 1 to 6, of the book of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament of the Bible. In these verses, Isaiah, who lived in the Eighth Century B.C., envisions the Lord in the role of the Messiah coming forth from the lands of the wicked after punishing their inhabitants. Arrayed in bloodstained robes, He tells Isaiah that He has trampled the enemies of Israel as if they were grapes from a bad harvest, thereby venting His wrath. The juice of these bad grapes—that is, the blood of the enemies of the Lord—splatters his robes. In Steinbeck's book, the grapes of wrath are the harvests planted by landowners and growers. Here are the pertinent verses from Isaiah as presented in the Douay-Rheims Bible, Challoner Revision:
63:1. Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bosra, this beautiful one in his robe, walking in the greatness of his strength.The words of the first stanza of Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are as follows:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LordSettings
The action takes place in the middle of the Great Depression (1929-1939) in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Specific locales include the abandoned Joad home, John Joad's home, highways and towns along the route traveled by the Joads, and camps for migrant workers.
Tom Joad: Loyal son of Ma and Pa Joad. Tom becomes their strong right arm on the family's trip to California. In the early chapters of the novel, Tom rejoins the family after serving four years of a seven-year sentence at the Oklahoma state prison at McAlester for killing a man in self-defense. His apparently unjust imprisonment does not embitter him, however, and he carries on with his life without moping about the past. Because he is honest, caring, self-confident, and quick to stand up for his rights, his younger brother Al looks up to him and Ma Joad regards him with great affection. Tom is the novel's protagonist.
Ma Joad: A kind, loving, and strong woman who is the beating heart of the Joad family, pumping courage, hope, and moral values into the veins of each family member. She maintains a positive outlook despite the hardship her family faces. Her maiden name is Hazlett.
Pa Joad: A good and reliable man who cedes his position as head of the family to Ma after she undergirds and advises the family during the journey.
Grampa Joad: Feisty, foul-mouthed, mischievous member of the Joad family. He is the father of Pa Joad. Grampa is so attached to the land he worked in Oklahoma that his family has to trick him into leaving with them for California by drugging him. He dies on the road of a stroke apparently precipitated by homesickness.
Granma Joad: Deeply religious wife of Grampa Joad. She is just as feisty as he is, which makes them an ideal match. She too dies on the road.
Rose of Sharon Joad Rivers: Tom Joad's teenage sister, who is married to Connie Rivers and is pregnant with his child. She is immature and fanciful early in the novel but becomes a mature young woman through her experiences in the migrant camps. After her child is stillborn, she feeds a starving man with her breast milk. Her family generally pronounces her name indistinctly as Rosasharn.
Al Joad: Sixteen-year-old brother of Tom Joad. He has an eye for pretty girls and enjoys tinkering with cars. He becomes a valuable asset to the Joads as a driver and an auto mechanic. Near the end of the novel, he becomes engaged to a young girl, Agnes Wainwright.
Noah Joad: Older brother of Tom Joad. Noah is quiet, slow-moving, and even-tempered. Although he gives the impression that he is stupid and misshapen, he is neither. But he is strange. Pa thinks he knows why. When Ma went into labor with Noah, the midwife had not yet arrived. Frantic with worry and fright by Ma’s screaming, he pulled the baby out, twisting it this way and that. When the midwife arrived, she had to “mold” the boy. Because Pa has always felt guilty about the incident, he treats Noah kindly. Noah abandons the family in California, deciding to fish and live off the land.
Ruthie Joad: Twelve-year-old sister of Tom Joad.
Winfield Joad: Ten-year-old brother of Tom Joad.
John Joad: Uncle of Tom Joad. Ma and Pa Joad and the rest of their family stay with John after their eviction from their farm.
Jim Casy: Former preacher who rejects organized religion and its rigid moral dictates in favor of simply loving his fellow human beings and working on their behalf. Ironically, Casy devotes himself to a cause that depends on organization and moral dictates: uniting workers to agitate for their rights, including the right to a just wage. He and his compatriots maintain that society has a moral obligation to treat and pay workers fairly. Casey dies at the hands of his opponents, but Tom Joad takes up his cause.
Connie Rivers: Husband of Rose of Sharon. He continually talks of improving himself through independent study. However, unable to endure the migratory existence of the Joads, he abandons Connie.
Muley Graves: Member of an evicted sharecropper family who remains in Oklahoma while his wife and children go to California. He becomes mentally unstable. He lives from day to day, wandering the region where he worked the land. After Tom Joad returns from prison, he informs Tom of the whereabouts of his family.
Jim Rawley: Operator of Weedpatch, a U.S. government migrant camp. He treats the Joads and others in the camp fairly and respectfully. Steinbeck modeled the fictional Weedpatch facility on the real-life Arvin Sanitary Camp founded in Kern County, California, in 1936.
Ivy and Sairy Wilson: Husband and wife from Galena, Kansas, who meet the Joads on Route 66 after the Wilson car breaks down. When Grampa Joad is dying, they open their tent to him and treat the Joads kindly. The Wilsons then join up with the Joads after Al and Tom repair their car.
Will Wilson: Older brother of Ivy Wilson. He planned to go to California with Ivy but decided to stay behind after crashing a car he bought.
Aunt Minnie: Relation of the Wilsons.
Willy Feeley: Deputy sheriff who patrols lands of evicted sharecroppers to look for trespassers.
Migrants in the Camps and on the Road: These include workers returning from California who warn Tom Joad that California is not the promised land that handbills depict it to be.
Jehovite woman: Member of a religious group who insists on saying prayers over Granma when she is sick.
Dagget Inspection Agents: Agricultural agents who inspect migrant vehicles entering California.
California Law Officers: Policemen siding with Californians who object to the presence of so many migrant workers in their communities. They attempt to break up the camps and run the migrants out of their districts. One deputy kills Jim Casy, and Tom kills the deputy, a deed that forces him to live in hiding.
Floyd Knowles: Worker who agitates for better pay.
Contractor From Tulare County, Calif.: Man who attempts to recruit men for field work but intends to pay very low wages. He accuses Floyd Knowles of being a community agitator.
Joe: Deputy sheriff who closes a migrant camp.
Mr. Thomas: Farmer who employs Tom temporarily to work on a pipeline after Tom arrives at the Weedpatch camp. He warns Tom that police plan to execute a scheme designed to close Weedpatch.
Timothy and Wilkie Wallace: Brothers who help Tom get his job with Mr. Thomas.
Ezra Huston: Chairman of the Central Committee at Weedpatch.
Jessie Bullitt: Chairwoman of the ladies committee at Weedpatch. She takes Ma Joad on a tour of the camp.
Ella Summers: Former chairwoman of the ladies committee at Weedpatch.
Lisbeth Sandry: Religious fanatic who bemoans the sin committed at Weedpatch, including dancing.
Aggie Wainwright: Al's fiancée. She meets him after the Joads camp in a boxcar.
Tobin and Agnes Wainright: Parents of Aggie.
Starving Man in Barn: Man whom Rose of Sharon feeds with breast milk.
Boy: Son of starving man. When he asks the Joads whether they have any milk for him, Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the man.
Herb Turnbull: The man Tom Joad killed with a shovel at a dance.
Truck Driver: Employee of Oklahoma City Transport who eats at a restaurant near Shawnee, Oklahoma, and gives Tom Joad a ride while the latter is hitchhiking home from prison. The driver's questions help to reveal the character of Tom.
Waitress: Woman who serves the truck driver at the restaurant.
Bulldozer Operator: Young man hired by the banks to knock down the homes of evicted tenant farmers. The driver is himself the son of a tenant farmer, Joe Davis. But because he has a wife and children to feed, the young man says, he had no choice but to take the bulldozing job.
Others: Joad Neighbors in Oklahoma, restaurant and gas-station employees, acquaintances at migrant camps, members of camp committees, field workers.
After the First World War turned European farmlands into battlefields, American agriculture prospered. To improve productivity, the U.S. agricultural industry borrowed money for machinery and more land. When Europe resumed production after the war, American farm owners received far less for wheat, corn, and other crops. Consequently, they had to struggle to repay loans. Banks began to seize the property of defaulting landowners and evict sharecroppers living and working on the farms. After the stock market crashed in 1929, the world economy entered a deep depression. On farms that escaped foreclosure, financial prolems worsened. Meanwhile, parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado experienced widespread soil erosion as a result of overplanting that stripped away grasses needed to hold the soil in place. Then, between 1934 and 1937, drought and wind turned these agricultural heartlands into what a newspaper called a "dust bowl." Banks seized more farms, leaving hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and other farm laborers without work. Because these workers had little or no training in other occupations, their prospects for new employment were severely limited. As a result, many of them moved west, to California, responding to handbills advertising for field workers. Farm jobs in California were thought to be plentiful partly because of its favorable climate year round. The fictional Joad family, on whom Steinbeck’s novel centers, enters the stream of job seekers bound for California full of hope—and little else.
Drought settles in near the end of May in Oklahoma. Day after day, the sun scorches the crops, and soon the earth crusts over and turns to powder. By June, road traffic and wind carry the dust high into the air, and the sun becomes a “dim red circle,” the narrator says.
“They ain’t nobody there.”
I like to think how nice it's gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An' fruit ever'place, an' people just bein' in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees. I wonder—that is, if we all get job an' all work—maybe we can get one of them little white houses. An' the little fellas go out an' pick oranges right off the tree.But Tom is wary. "I knowed a fella from California. . . . . He says they's too many folks lookin' for work right there now. An' he says the folks that pick the fruit live in dirty ol' camps an' don't hardly get enough to eat. He says wages is low an' hard to get any."
Ma says she heard otherwise. "Your father got a han'bill on yella paper, tellin' how they need folks to work. They wouldn' go to that trouble if they wasn't plenty of work. Costs 'em good money to get them han'bills out."
After the Joads sell other belongings, they accept Tom's recommendation to leave the following morning. The group will include all of the Joads, Rose of Sharon's husband, and Jim Casy, as well as the family dog. As a final preparation, the Joads slaughter pigs and make salt pork for the journey. In the morning, after the family loads the Hudson—now a truck with pine-wood sideboards—Grampa refuses to leave, saying, “This here’s my country. I b’long here.” After they fail to persuade him to go, they drug his coffee with “soothin’ syrup” that Ma gave Winfield for earaches. When Grampa falls asleep, they carry him onto the truck.
Al takes the wheel and the truck chugs along at thirty-five miles an hour as it passes through a string of small towns—Sallisaw, Gore, Warner, Checotah, Henrietta (Henryetta), and Castle. Near Paden, they pull over for gas and a drink of water. The dog gets off and sniffs around. Rose of Sharon screams when the dog, wandering onto the highway, gets hit by a big car. The car slows momentarily, then speeds away from the mess of blood and intestines on the highway. After Tom drags the dog off the road, Rose of Sharon discovers that Granma is missing and goes to a restroom to look for her. She comes back with the old woman, who had fallen asleep in the toilet.
“It’s nice in there,” she says.
When they resume their journey, Tom takes over the driving. After traveling through Meeker and Harrah, they pass through Oklahoma City.
“It was so big and strange it frightened them,” the narrator says.
On the outskirts of the city, they pick up Route 66, the famous concrete highway that goes all the way to Bakersfield, California, via Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Ma begins to worry about Tom, saying Pa told her that parolees are not supposed to leave the state. But Tom assures her that he will be all right as long as he stays out of trouble. After going through Bethany, they see an old touring car in a ditch and a tent next to it and decide to stop there to eat. They make friends with the couple traveling in the car, Ivy Wilson and his wife, Sairy, from Galena, Kansas. Their Dodge touring car has broken down, but Al says he can fix it with Tom’s help. While the children fetch water from a nearby gas station, Noah, Uncle John, and Jim Casy help Grampa down from the truck. When he says he is sick and begins to cry, Sairy invites him into her tent to rest. After lying down on a mattress, Grampa's legs and hands move about and his face turns red. Casy thinks he is having a stroke. Sairy agrees, saying she has witnessed strokes on three other occasions. A short while later, Grampa dies.
Because the Joads lack the money for a funeral and legal burial, they decide bury him there, next to the road. Ma washes the body, and Sairy provides a quilt in which to wrap it. When they bury Grampa, Casy says words over the body. Then they eat. The Joads and Wilsons decide to travel together, enabling some of the Joads to ride with the Wilsons. Meanwhile, if their car breaks down again, Al will be around to fix it.
“Each’ll help each, an’ we’ll all git to California,” Ma says.
On the road again, the Joads and the Wilsons pass through Bridgeport, Clinton, Elk City, Sayre, and Texola, then enter the Texas panhandle and continue to push on without a major incident. Finally, they enter New Mexico and cross the Pecos River at Santa Rosa. Tom is driving the truck. Behind him, Al is at the wheel of the touring car. In the front seat with Al are Ma and Rose of Sharon. Rose tells Ma that she and Connie eventually want to live in a city, where he can get a job while studying at home to better himself. Maybe one day he will be able to open his own store. But Ma says, “It ain’t good for folks to break up.”
Al hears rattling in the engine. Worried, he pulls over and blows his horn for Tom to stop. Tom brings the truck to a halt and backs up to the car. He and Al listen to the car engine and agree that the problem is a con-rod bearing. Fortunately, Tom and Al manage to get the right part at a junkyard and fix the car.
Later, the group stops at a camp to stay the night, but the owner refuses to accommodate them. While there, they hear that California is not the utopia it is advertised to be. There, migrant workers are looked down upon, jobs are hard to come by, and labor problems create unrest. One man says he lost his wife and two children in California and is now on his way back home. Better to starve in familiar surroundings, he believes.
Nevertheless, the Joads press on, through the mountains of New Mexico and through Arizona via the Painted Desert and the towns of Holbrook, Joseph City, Winslow, and Flagstaff. After crossing the Colorado River, they arrive early one morning in California. They stop at Needles to bathe and swim in the Colorado River. There, they meet two men on their way back to their home in Texas. One of them tells Tom and Pa about the problems they can expect to encounter.
“Gonna be deputy sheriffs, an’ they’ll push you aroun.’ You camp on the roadside, an’ they’ll move you on."
Californians call workers from Oklahoma Okies.
“Okie means you’re scum,” the man says.
The man then says he heard that there are 300,000 migrants in California “livin’ like hogs.”
Later, Noah informs Tom that he’s not going on with the rest of the family. Instead, he says, he’s going to live by the river.
“I’ll catch fish,” he says. “Fella can’t starve beside a nice river.”
Tom says he’s crazy, but Noah stubbornly sticks to his plan and goes off on his own.
Meanwhile, in the oppressive heat, Granma becomes gravely ill. She is lying on a mattress in their tarpaulin tent, and Ma sits by her fanning her with a piece of cardboard while talking with Rose of Sharon. A woman in a black dress—a member of a religious group called the Jehovites—pokes into the tent and says she heard that there was a soul in the tent ready to meet the Lord. She says she and her friends will come in and say prayers over her. Ma refuses the offer, but the woman is insistent. She puts a hand on Granma’s forehead and says it is clear she is about to die and needs prayers. But Ma again refuses her, and the woman leaves, promising her group will pray for Granma.
Ma tells Rose of Sharon that the Jehovites are good people but that she doesn’t like the idea of “howlers an’ jumpers” in the tent. A short while later, a man with a gun and a badge on his shirt enters the tent and tells Ma everyone has to leave by morning or “I’ll run you in.” Ma threatens him with a skillet and scolds him for his harsh manner. He backs up and tells her that people in California “don’t want Okies settlin’ down.”
After Tom returns and informs Ma of Noah’s decision, Mr. Wilson comes by and says he and his wife can’t continue on. “Sairy’s done up,” he says. “She got to res’. She ain’t gonna git across that desert alive.”
The Joads resume their journey. About midnight, they arrive at the agricultural-inspection station at Dagget, where an officer asks whether they are carrying any vegetables and seeds. Tom says no, but the officer says he must look through everything on their truck. Ma then tells the officer that the truck must move on immediately because it is carrying a very sick woman who needs a doctor. When the officer sees Grandma’s shrunken face, he lets them pass. In the morning, when they arrive at a beautiful valley with vineyards and orchards, Ma tells everyone that Granma is dead. She was already dead back at the inspection station. If the officers had found that out, Ma says, they might not have let the family pass. When they reach Bakersfield, they turn the body over to the coroner’s office for burial by the county. There was nothing else to do, Pa assures Ma, who is feeling bad about the arrangement. They couldn’t afford the kind of funeral Granma would have wanted.
When they drive out of the city and into the countryside, they find a migrants’ camp and stop there. A young man tells Tom about the unfair labor conditions in California. Suppose a job is available, he says, but a hundred men want it.
“Jus’ offer ‘em a nickel [an hour]—while they’ll kill each other fightin’ for that nickel.”
What the landowners do is circulate handbills in many states that exaggerate the job opportunities, the young man says. Such a strategy attracts thousands more laborers than needed. The resulting competition for the jobs among the desperate migrants enables the landowners to pay the lowest wage possible. When workers organize and choose a leader to negotiate for better wages, the young man says, “well, first time this fella opens his mouth they grab ‘im and stick ‘im in jail.” Anyone who even talks about organizing gets blacklisted. After his picture circulates among the landowners, he can’t get work anywhere.
Meanwhile, in the Joads’ tarpaulin tent, Connie tells Rose of Sharon, “If I’d of knowed it would be like this, I wouldn’ of came. I’d a studied nights ’bout tractors back home an’ got me a three-dollar job. Fella can live awful nice on three dollars a day, an’ go to the pitcher show ever’ night, too.”
Outside, Ma gives stew to hungry children even though the Joads have hardly enough for themselves. Al strikes up a conversation with a man working on an engine block. His name is Floyd Knowles. After they talk cars for a while, Knowles says that he, his wife, and children have been trying for six months to make a go of it in California. However, he’s still having trouble earning enough money to put food on the table. Al calls Tom over and introduces him, but it turns out that Knowles was the man Tom was talking with before.
Knowles tells Tom there might be work up north in Santa Clara Valley picking prunes and pears. But that’s two hundreed miles away. Another man says there will be jobs locally in about a month, when cotton will be ready to pick.
Just then, a man drives up in a new Chevrolet, gets out, and announces that he needs fruit pickers in Tulare County. When Knowles asks about the pay, the man—a contractor—says it might be thirty cents but he can’t be sure. Knowles, suspicious, asks the man to show his license and give the men a work order specifying when and where they will work and for how much. Becoming angry, the man says he will run his business the way he wants to. After Knowles tells the other migrants that they will end up with poor wages if they agree to the man’s terms, the man turns and calls “Joe!” to a passenger in the Chevrolet. A deputy sheriff with a pistol gets out, and the contractor tells him that Knowles is “talkin’ red, agitating trouble.” The deputy then says the camp must close, by order of the Board of Health, and it would be best if the migrants accepted work in Tulare County.
“An’ if it gets around that you got reds out here—why, somebody might git hurt,” the deputy warns.
When he attempts to arrest the agitator, Knowles hits him in the face and runs. The deputy staggers, and Tom trips him. The deputy falls, reaches for his gun, and fires wildly. He strikes a woman in her hand, ripping away her knuckles. When he poises his gun once more to shoot at Knowles, Jim Casy kicks the deputy, who lapses into unconsciousness. Tom throws the gun into brush.
More police arrive. Aware that the deputy saw Tom stick out his foot to trip him, Casy takes full blame for the incident, and the police take him away. Meanwhile, Connie, unable to endure the migrant life any longer, abandons Rose of Sharon.
The Joads take to the road again after hearing that the camp will be burned to the ground. The next stop is Weedpatch, a government camp that treats migrants humanely and allows them to govern themselves, electing leaders and establishing rules. The camp has running water and housing—and even dances—and Tom gets a temporary job installing pipeline. One day while Tom is working on the pipeline, Mr. Thomas, the farmer who hired Tom, warns him that police plan to provoke the migrants into violent behavior at a Saturday-night dance. After the disturbance begins, the police will blame the migrants for starting it and close the camp. Tom alerts others in the camp to beware of the scheme, and they thwart it by remaining passive.
Tom’s job lasts only five days and, after a month, their money runs out, they have no job offers, and they have to resort to eating fried dough.
“We got to do somepin,” Ma says.
So, once again, the family moves on. At another ranch, they accept an offer to pick peaches for five cents a box. However, the only reason they were recruited was to replace workers agitating for higher pay. Although Tom sympathizes with the workers, he and the other Joads take the work out of desperation. By the end of the day, they make enough to buy a little food.
Meanwhile, Tom discovers that Casy, now out of jail, is one of the agitators. While Tom is talking with him, police arrive and confront Casy. During a struggle, a deputy murders Casy. Tom then kills the deputy but suffers a blow to the head in the fight.
The Joads leave camp with Tom hiding under a mattress. After traveling about twenty miles, they join up with other migrants living in abandoned boxcars and get work picking cotton. Tom, however, spends his time hiding out in a cave near a stream.
During the next month, the family makes enough money to buy good food. Moreover, their accommodations—humble as they are—are better than those at all the other camps except Weedpatch. Al falls in love with a girl named Agnes Wainwright and makes plans to marry her.
One day Ruthie—bragging to another girl about her big brother—unwittingly reveals his location. When Ma, who regularly takes food to Tom, tells him what happened, Tom decides to go off on his own to pursue the cause of the working man as Casy did. Eventually, he says, he will return to the family.
Nature then turns against the Joads in the form of heavy rains for three days that swell the waterways. Rose of Sharon, meanwhile. is about to give birth. Pa builds a mud dam with the help of others who remain behind, but a falling tree breaks it down. Rose of Sharon bears a dead baby, and Uncle John floats it away in the water as a testament to the suffering endured by migrants.
While Al stays behind with Agnes Wainright, the Joads go on foot to higher ground and take refuge in an abandoned barn. Inside is a starving man and his boy. The boy tells Ma and Rose of Sharon that his father has not eaten in six days; he gave his food to the boy. When he finally did eat something, he vomited. Now, the boy says, he can probably keep down only bread or milk. "Do you have any milk?" Ma looks at Rose of Sharon, and the latter says, "Yes." Then she gives the man the only food she has, nursing him with her breast milk.
Narration and Structure
The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view. Generally, the narrator is omniscient, or all-knowing, seeing and reporting the thoughts of the characters as well as witnessing and reporting the action. At times, however, he reports only the action without revealing the characters' thoughts. The narration alternates between
chapters centering on society, nature, universal themes, or background information and chapters centering on specific people and places. For example, Chapter 1 presents information about the the Dust Bowl and society's reaction to it. Chapter 2 centers on Tom Joad and a truck driver who gives Tom a ride home after his release from prison. Chapter 3 centers on a turtle that exhibits the kind of
perseverance that sustains the Joad family during their journey west. Chapter 4 focuses on Tom and Jim Casy, a former preacher who tags along with Tom. Chapter 5 presents general information on how banks evict tenant farmers. Chapter 6 zeroes in on Tom, Casy, and Muley Graves at the abandoned Joad homestead. The narration continues to alternate chapters in this way, giving the novel a balanced
Kinship: Ma Joad repeatedly stresses the importance of family bonds. If the Joads stand together in familial love, they can have a meaningful and worthwhile life. Ma applies her philosophy to society as a whole, regarding all men as brothers. She welcomes Jim Casy and the Wilsons; she feeds hungry children at a migrant camp even though she has barely enough food for her own family. The example she sets greatly influences her daughter, Rose of Sharon, who, the end of the novel, nurses a starving man with her breast milk.
Unity and Cooperation: Casy espouses unity and cooperation in his attempts to organize the migrant workers into a single voice that demands justice and fair wages. After Casy dies, Tom Joad decides to devote himself to carrying on Casy’s cause. Ma Joad also espouses unity and cooperation, stressing the importance of maintaining family ties and of cooperating with others to achieve common goals. After meeting the Wilsons on the road, she says, “Each’ll help each, an’ we’ll all git to California.”
Love: Casy, a former preacher, believes that loving fellow human beings and acting on their behalf is more important than ranting from the pulpit and warning people to live by the letter of the law. He willingly accepts blame and goes to jail for an offense that he did not commit. And he dies in the service of fellow human beings. Some scholars regard him as a Christ figure: His initials are J. C. and he lays down his life for others.
Perseverance in the Face of Hostility: The third chapter of the novel presents this theme when a truck deliberately runs over a turtle, knocking it to the side of the road. On its back, the turtle reaches out with its legs, grabs onto a rock, rights itself, and resumes its journey. This chapter foreshadows the response of the Joads to the troubles they face on their journey.
Deceit: Landowners and labor contractors lure the impoverished to California with handbills promising jobs for everyone. This tactic is a ploy to attract more workers than needed and then to offer the jobs to those willing to accept meager wages.
Prejudice: Many Californians assume that Oklahoma migrants are the lowest of the low and give them a name, Okies, charged with negative connotations. “Okie means you’re scum,” one migrant worker tells Tom.
Greed: Car salesmen take advantage of migrants desperate for transportation to California. A business charges traveling migrants for water. Landowners pay migrants very low wages in order to turn a profit.
Hope: Ma Joad never loses hope for a better future. Tom’s decision to continue Casy’s effort to organize workers and Rose of Sharon’s simple act of nursing a starving man both suggest Ma’s hope is not unfounded. Where people help each other, there is every reason to believe that good will come of it. .
The climax of the novel is the murder of Jim Casy as an event that spurs Tom Joad to become a union organizer, like Casy.
Chapter 3 foreshadows events in the rest of the novel. This chapter describes the southwest journey of a turtle on a concrete highway. After a light truck deliberately swerves to hit it, the turtle spins on its shell to the side of the road and comes to rest on its back. Reaching out with a foreleg, it finds a rock, pulls itself upright, and resumes its journey. The turtle symbolizes the Joad family on its journey west to California on Route 66, a concrete highway, and the light truck symbolizes the adversaries and obstacles they encounter along the way. Finally, the turtle's recovery and resumption of its journey symbolize the resolve of the Joads, led by Ma, to reach their destination and begin life anew.
The Joads must battle numerous forces, three of which are beyond their control: the severely depressed economy, the terrible drought, and the illnesses that kill Grampa and Granma Joad. Their human adversaries include demanding bankers who evict sharecroppers with bulldozers, greedy businessmen, corrupt law officers, and prejudiced middle- and upper-class citizens. The Joads also fight forces within themselves. For example, Pa Joad and Uncle John struggle against guilt for past deeds, and Tom Joad grapples with his headstrong ways and quick temper. Like the Joads, Jim Casy faces internal and external conflicts. In his soul, he struggles toward a new religious outlook. Outwardly, he battles unfair labor practices.
Biblical Allusions and Overtones
Steinbeck uses a variety of writing techniques in The Grapes of Wrath to enhance his presentation. One of them is his somewhat poetic descriptions of nature. They frequently employ personification, as in the following two paragraphs from Chapter 1 in which a cunning wind uproots corn (much as the banks and landowners root up the tenant farmers) but later cries and whimpers over the corn (perhaps in mockery).
The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves, and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dung cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.Another technique is the use of omniscient narration in passages in which characters unidentified by name reveal their thoughts in second-person point of view. In the following passage from Chapter 7, Steinbeck employs this technique to reveal the thoughts of a dishonest car salesman:
Watch the woman's face. If the woman likes it [a car] we can screw the old man. Start 'em on that Cad'. Then you can work 'em down to that '26 Buick. 'F you start on the Buick, they'll go for a Ford. Roll up your sleeves an' get to work.A third technique is the use of dialogue that imitates the patois of particular regions and social classes. The following conversation from Chapter 13 takes place after the death of Grampa Joad. Young Al is upset that Grampa died before having a chance to experience the wonders of California, especially the grapes that he was going to squeeze over his head in a joyous celebration. But in an attempt to comfort and enlighten Al—as well as Pa and Uncle John—Jim Casy tells him that Grampa was not at all looking forward to living in California:
He was foolin' all the time [about wanting to see California]. I think he knowed it. An' Grampa didn' die tonight. He died the minute you took 'im off the place [the Oklahoma farm]."A fourth technique is the rat-a-tat presentation of abundant specific details to capture the atmosphere of a particular locale. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph of Chapter 15:
Along 66 the hamburger stands—Al & Susy's Place—Carl's Lunch—Joe & Minnie—Will's Eats. Board-and-bat shacks. Two gasoline pumps in front, a screen door, a long bar, stools, and a foot rail. Near the door three slot machines, showing through the glass the wealth in nickels three bars will bring. And beside them, the nickel phonograph with records piled up like pies, ready to swing out to the turntable and play dance music, "Ti-pi-ti-pi-tin," "Thanks for the Memory," Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman. At one end of the counter, a covered case; candy cough drops, caffeine sulphate called Sleepless, No-Doze; candy, cigarettes, razor blades, aspirin, Bromo-Seltzer, Alka-Seltzer. The walls decorated with posters, bathing girls, blondes with big breasts and slender hips and waxen faces, in white bathing suits, and holding a bottle of Coca-Cola and smiling—see what you get with a Coca-Cola. Long bar, and salts, peppers, mustard pots, and paper napkins. Beer taps behind the counter, and in back the coffee urns, shiny and steaming, with glass gauges showing the coffee level. And pies in wire cages and oranges in pyramids of four. And little piles of Post Toasties, corn flakes, stacked up in designs.Symbolism
Among the symbols that Steinbeck uses in the novel are the following:
Dust: (1) Utter ruination of a way of life; death; (2) forces beyond the control of the Joads.
1.....Who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least admirable?