The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
Historical Context and Biblical Allusions
Critical Reception
"The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most
thoroughly discussed novel – in criticism,
reviews, and college classrooms – of 20th
century American literature."
At the time of publication, Steinbeck's novel
"was a phenomenon on the scale of a national
event. It was publicly banned and burned by
citizens, it was debated on national talk radio;
but above all, it was read."
According to The New York Times it was the
best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies
had been printed by February 1940.
In that month it won the National Book Award,
favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members
of the American Booksellers Association. Soon
it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Steinbeck wrote the novel in 100 days, but he
had been researching it for years…
So what inspired such a fervent and
impassioned outpouring?
What circumstance informed such an ardent
What is this novel?
Where did it come from?
Let’s take a look…
Historical Context – the 1930’s
Trouble for farmers
The Great Depression
The Dust Bowl
Migrant Camps
Labor Unions
The Grapes of Wrath was
published in 1939
The novel is set in the time
period during which
Steinbeck was writing: the
This was one of the most
economically, socially, and
spiritually devastating eras
in not only American
history, but the history of
the western world.
Trouble for Farmers
Troubles for American farmers had begun
years before the story of the Joads in The
Grapes of Wrath.
Crop prices were high and favored American
farmers when supplies of food were short and
European markets were disabled.
American farmers borrowed heavily from
banks to invest in land and equipment.
Trouble for Farmers Cont…
After the war, however,
prices for wheat, corn, and
other crops plummeted as
European farmers returned
to their businesses, and
American farmers were
unable to repay their loans.
Thus, in the 1920s, while
much of the country was
enjoying economic good
times, farmers in the United
States were in trouble.
Trouble for Farmers Cont…
Banks began to foreclose
on loans, often evicting
families from their homes.
Families who rented
acreage from landowners
who had defaulted on
loans would, like the
Joads, be evicted from
their homes.
The situation, of course,
became much worse after
the stock market crash of
The Great Depression
In October, 1929, stock
prices dropped
precipitously, causing
businesses and banks to
fail internationally and
wiping out the savings of
many families.
Over the next few years,
unemployment rates
soared up to twenty-five
Forty percent of the
working population in
America at the time were
The Depression Cont…
Low crop prices meant a lower
income for farmers, and with a
decreased salary came decreased
spending on goods. People
stopped buying unnecessary
items such as radios and
refrigerators. This had a ripple
effect on the nation’s economy,
manufacturing came to a
standstill, people lost their jobs,
businesses closed.
The resulting pressure on banks
to collect on loans caused them to
evict many farmers.
However, this wasn’t the only
problem that plagued farm
The Dust Bowl
Six years of severe
droughts (mostly natural,
but also exacerbated by
manmade conditions) hit
the Midwest during the
1930s, causing crops to
This, compounded by poor
farming practices such as
overgrazing and failure to
rotate crops, caused the
land to wither and dry up.
The Dust Bowl Cont…
Great dust storms resulted that
buried entire communities in
More than five million square
miles of land from Texas to
North Dakota and Arkansas to
New Mexico were affected.
The Midwest came to be called
the Dust Bowl.
Although no one escaped the
economic pain this caused,
small farm families similar to
the Joads were the hardest hit.
The Dust Bowl Cont…
Of these states, Oklahoma
was especially hard-pressed.
Dispossessed farming families
abandoned their land, piled
their worldly goods on their
trucks and took to Route 66 on
an arduous exodus to
California. This state seemed
to promise ready jobs, decent
wages and a decent living; a
veritable land of milk and
These people were called
“Okies,” although many of the
migrant workers were from
states other than Oklahoma.
Watch: Surviving the Dustbowl
Migrant Camps
Upon taking office in 1933,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
launched a comprehensive
agenda of government
programs to combat the
Collectively called the New Deal,
these programs included new
federal agencies designed to
create employment
opportunities and to improve the
lot of workers and the
Among the many such agencies,
the one that most directly
touched the Okies was the Farm
Security Administration (FSA).
Migrant Camps Cont…
Operating under the authority of the Department of
Agriculture, in 1936 the FSA began building camps
in California in which the homeless migrants could
Ten such camps were finished by the following year.
Steinbeck visited several in his research for The
Grapes of Wrath.
Watch: Reflections on the American Novel
Migrant Camps Cont…
Steinbeck had the Joads stay at
one of these camps—the Arvin
Sanitary Camp, also called the
Weedpatch Camp, in Kern
The intention was that the
orchard owners would follow this
example and build larger, better
shelters for their migrant
This never came about,
however, and many families
ended up staying at the
uncomfortable – though infinitely
better - federal camps for years.
Labor Unions
In an attempt to defend their right to
earn living wages, migrant workers
tried to organize labor unions.
Naturally, this was strongly
discouraged by the growers, who
had the support of the police, who
often used brute force to break up
In Kern County in 1938, for
example, a mob led by a local
sheriff burned down an Okie camp
that had become a center for union
You will see this graphically
depicted in the novel.
John Steinbeck's "big book" begins to
Steinbeck’s sensibilities
favor the working man, the
downtrodden, the
dispossessed, and the
marginalized. The
experiences of these poor
workers and their families
were a consistent focus.
Steinbeck wrote about
many workers or laborers in
California, the most notable,
or his “Big Book” is The
Grapes of Wrath
Watch: His Novel’s Voice
Before you begin…
The Grapes of Wrath is clearly
and unapologetically biased.
It is considered a controversial
novel in that it portrays
 Religious Leaders 
 Oklahomans  negative
simplistic portrayal of state
 Californians  cruel and
 Americans in general 
It draws attention to the plight
of migrant workers
Explicitly POLITICAL
 Champions collectivist
 Anti-individualism, antimonopoly, anti-big business
Like Modernist works, it reflects on
man’s purpose in the world, but
unlike most Modernist works, it
draws a distinct conclusion about
the way to live an authentic life.
Watch: “A Chance to Work; A
Chance to be Human”
The Chronological Structure of the Novel
3 Logical Parts
“Oppression” : Drought and dust in Oklahoma
“Exodus” : The journey west on Route 66
“The Promised Land”: California
Intercalaray Chapters
The Joad narrative is interspersed with chapters that are
termed “intercalaray,” or something that is inserted,
introduced, or interpolated
On the surface, these chapters provide commentary or
supply historical and social background that led to the
present situation .
The discerning reader, however, will note a highly
thematic intention in these chapters as well as a variety
of rhetorical techniques.
Employing a variety of literary styles and techniques,
Steinbeck is able to cross-reference details, interweave
symbols, and provide outside commentary on narrative
events in such a way that the two types of chapters
blend together, unifying and enhancing the social and
humanist themes of the novel.
Juxtaposition in the Intercalary and
Narrative Chapters
Intercalary chapters
Abuse of entrenched power,
wealth, authority and
Violations of migrant civil
and human rights, ensuring
their continued poverty and
loss of dignity through
threats reprisals and
The sectioning of America
into financial, social,
geographical caste system.
Narrative (Joad) Chapters
Unity of the family
Challenges of survival
Powerlessness, poverty,
victimization, and fear of the
nomadic American migrants
Community in the struggle
Desire for dignity, work, and
land of their own
Kept alive by innate resilience
and resourcefulness
Democratic benefits of the
government sanitary camps.
Hope against all odds
The Novel’s Style
Vivid imagery and close attention to detail
"The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than
fog does"
Figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, and
“The full green hills are round and soft as breasts”
"a walkin' chunk a mean-mad"
Dialect, Steinbeck’s research methods
Setting, gritty and detailed
“Like other products of
rough hewn American
genius. . . The Grapes
of Wrath has a homegrown quality:
part naturalistic epic
part jeremiad
part captivity narrative
part road novel
part transcendental
jeremiad: a prolonged
lament or complaint, as in
the Hebrew prophet
(Emerson): core belief an
ideal spiritual state that
“transcends” the physical
and empirical and is only
realized through the
individual's intuition,
rather than through the
doctrines of established
Main Characters
Tom Joad (main character)
Ma and Pa Joad
Granpa and Granma
Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon) and Connie
The other Joads: Noah, Ruthie, Winfield
Reverend Jim Casy – spiritual lynchpin
Ivy and Sairy Wilson
Major Themes
Forces of the Times: "An' Almighty God never raises no wages" (265)
Family First: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It aint so now" (470, 148)
Power of the Group
The People's Justice: "They's change a-comin'. They's a res'less
feelin'." (365, 184)
Survival "Ever'thing we do aimed right at goin' on."(448)
Identity: "He was that place an' he knowed it." (156, 95)
Faith: "How can such courage be and faith in their own species? ...
Faith is refired forever" (130)
Choices and Regret: "The one-eyed man . . cried in his bed" (193)
Trusting one's own instinct: "I got a feeling I got to see them" (58, 149)
Redemption – Where there is life…. (last page – you will weep with Ms.
Gerber – yeah, again)
Steinbeck on the Writer’s Imperative
“The writer is charged with exposing our many
grievous faults and failures for the purpose of
improvement. . . Furthermore, the writer is
delegated to declare and celebrate Man's proven
capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for
gallantry in defeat, and for courage, compassion
and love."
--Steinbeck in his Nobel Prize acceptance
speech (1962, Literature)
Biblical Allusions
Central to your understanding and
appreciation of this amazing novel (no
apologies – I love it) is your awareness of the
many biblical allusions at work.
Think about why Steinbeck chose the Bible
as his reference.
You’ll want to keep an eye out for
Rose of Sharon
Hibiscus syriacus: Flower
mentioned frequently in the
In the Song of Songs, this
flower is compared to a
humble, young woman
Ironically, an ordinary flower
with extraordinary qualities,
as seen by her remarkable
act of generosity at the end
of the novel (gives hope to
Pietá: picture or sculpture of Virgin Mary holding the
dead body of Christ on her lap or in her arms
From the Book of Ruth -She was a foreigner, but
was very patient and ended
up marrying royalty
because of her character.
How does this connect with
the novel?
(HINT: It has to do with the
Land of Milk &
Honey…think of Sally from
Wright’s “The Man Who
Saw the Flood”)
The Joads/Book of Job
18th book from Old
Satan visits God and God
permits Satan to test Job.
Satan destroys all of Job’s
material possessions and
family to test Job’s faith in
Job’s faith remains strong
despite his misfortunes
How is Job’s experience
analogous to the Joads?
Noah and the Flood
Joad car (packed w/
possessions) = Noah’s Ark
(crammed w/ animals)
Flood = Dust Bowl (Man vs.
Struggle for survival
Noah Joad follows the river
on his own and can’t bear to
stay with his family (Ch. 18)
Noah spent 40 years afloat
on the Ark separated from
the world
Other Biblical Allusions
California = Canaan (Promised Land of the
Israelites; “Land of Milk & Honey”)
Moses and concepts of survival and salvation = Let
my people go – Go down and tell them…
Joads, like the Hebrews, go through many trials to
reach California (the Promised Land)
Insect references/description of changing land
similar to the Exodus plagues (locusts, disease of
livestock, etc.)
Book of Exodus: Migrants = Hebrews
Displaced; in search of the Promised Land
Other Biblical Allusions
Connie Rivers = Judas Iscariot
Connie abandons family at critical moment in Ch.
20 -- told Rose just before he left he would have
done better “if he stayed home an’ studied up
tractors” -- allusion to farmer-turned-tractor driver
of Ch. 5 (betrayal)
Judas betrays Jesus Christ to Jewish authorities
for 30 pieces of silver
Jim Casy
voice of modern faith
not a hypocrite even though he
is a sinner
arrested without premise,
much like Christ in the Garden
of Gethsemane
Takes blame for Tom Joad,
like Christ for humanity.
When Casy leaves the
narrative after the Hooverville
scuffle, he is wondering how
he can help “the people”
When Casy returns in Ch. 26,
he is a determined organizer of
migrant workers; nomadic and
clear-minded (like Christ!)
Casy and His Works
Jim Casy and Jesus Christ both changed the authority of the
common man’s ability to rise above oppression
Casy struggles with his life’s purpose; Jesus struggles with his
(Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14: 32-42, Luke 22: 39-46.)
Jim arrested in Hooverville camp; Jesus arrested in Garden (Matt
26: 47-56, Mark 14: 43-52, Luke 22 : 47-50)
Jim teaches Tom; Jesus teaches his disciples (Matthew 6:5-15,
Luke 11: 1-13)
Casy’s last words in novel: “You fellas don’ know what you’re
doin’”; Christ’s final words: “Father, forgive them; for they know
not what they do.
Casy’s Doctrine
Casy: “…maybe it’s all men an’ all women we
love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit -- the
human sperit -- the whole shebang. Maybe all
men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”
(Ch. 4)
Casy believes in the unity of mankind -- to
offend others is to offend yourself
Christ: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”
Tom Joad as an Apostle of Jim Casy’s
Returns home from McAlester
Prison like Prodigal son (Luke
Even though he is a murderer,
he evolves to be a devout
follower and an advocate for
Tom Joad = early Christians,
carrying on Christ’s message
after he is gone
Tom takes up Casey’s cause
after he is gone
-reversal of roles – first Tom
acts and Casey talks
At end, Tom talks and Casey
Significance of the Title
The story goes that Steinbeck
struggled for a title for his “Big
Book”. "The Grapes of Wrath“ was
suggested by his wife Carol
The title is a reference to lyrics from
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the
coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where
the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of
His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on
The song was written by abolitionist
Julia Ward Howe in 1861, the night
after she visited a Union army camp
The hymn became a kind of anthem
for the abolitionist cause and for the
Union soldiers during the Civil War
in America.
The hymn summons God to bring
justice to those who have wrecked
havoc over the land and over its
people. In other words, the injustice
of slavery, (the darkest chapter in
American history) is so great that
God will bring answer it with an act
of vengeance.
Origins of the Reference
Julia Ward Howe took her reference
from the Bible and the Book of
Revelations: St. John’s divine vision
of the future of mankind; last book in
New Testament
“So the angel swung his sickle
on the earth and gathered the
vintage of the earth and threw it
into the great winepress of the
Wrath of God. And the winepress
was trodden through the city,
and blood came out of the
winepress, even unto the horse
bridles, by the space of a
thousand and six hundred
furlongs” (Revelations 14: 18-19)
Is this an apocalyptic warning?
The squishing of "the grapes of
wrath“, the widespread and graphic
depiction of the spilling of blood, are
violent and emotional images and
closely associated with the
widespread oppression of a people.
Dust Bowl oppression  the wrath
of the dispossessed and displaced
masses (like God’s divine justice)
Workers’ justice and “deliverance
from evil” achieved through
cooperation (i.e., family, organized
labor, compassion)
Where there is anger – there is
The Title, continued
The phrase also appears at
the end of chapter 25 in The
Grapes of Wrath which
describes the purposeful
destruction of food to keep
the price high:
...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.
The image invoked by the
title serves as a crucial
symbol in the development
of both the plot and the
novel's greater thematic
from the terrible winepress
of Dust Bowl oppression will
come terrible wrath
but also the deliverance of
workers through their
Biblical Parallels
“On one level it is the story of the family’s struggle for
survival in the Promised Land. . . . (Abraham, Isaac,
and Sarah)
On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle,
the migrants’. (Israelites--Exodus from slavery in
On a third level it is the story of a nation, America.
(Biblical Nation of Israel)
On still another level, through the allusions to Christ
and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the
story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension
of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth
he inhabits.”
Critical Motifs to Note as You Read
Motifs are reoccurring ideas,
symbols, statements. You will not
note several in this novel. Note
where these motifs occur in the
Expectation vs. Reality
The American Dream
The loss of human dignity threatens
Survival rests in group action
The need for brotherly love
Amassed bitterness will lead to
negative action
There is merit in the agrarian way of
Continuation of the life cycle
of Dignity
– that
that the every man, or anyone, can
What happens to a people k
this land by
Note theindisparity
the hope
the myth
oddly awith
who has notand
the of
of the American
on this
a backdrop
dispossed?want and poverty?
The promise of family
myth saysay
a person
of this
not prospered?
teat on which
suckle?in the
of the American
The promise notion
of prosperity
of themarginalize
Joads the
serve to further
promise their
of the
land roles,
their perspective
should of
The promise
of a basic
of this dream, the teat on which all
Americans suckle?
The Message – The Pot of Gold at the
End of Your Literary Rainbow (Corny)
John Steinbeck's 1939 novel is the wrenching story of the
"Okies," the Oklahoma farmers dispossessed from their land and
forced to become migrant farmers in California during the Great
First regarded as a protest novel and only later as a work of art,
THE GRAPES OF WRATH describes the Joad family's
exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics.
Steinbeck’s style, his point of view, his rhetorical devices clearly
place him behind the line of the Joads, who are clearly heirs to
our empathies.
So what’s the point? What is the moral, the message, the
universal truth of existence Steinbeck would have us