“The Grapes of Wrath” is a classic novel by the American author John Steinbeck originally published in 1939. The book became a huge topic of discussion in the country at the time and was both hated and loved by Americans. It was the best-selling book in the country the year it was released and over a quarter of a million copies were printed within that year.
In February of 1940, it won the National Book Award and later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also cited among the great works belonging to Steinbeck when he later won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The novel continues to be seen as an American classic and is still present on many high school reading lists today.
The plot of the novel centers around a family of farmers who are evicted from their home during the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930’s and travel to California to find work on a farm. The main character of the novel, Tom Joad was released from prison and returns to his parent’s farm to find it deserted and his parents living with his uncle.
The Joad joins a mass exodus of former tenant farmers from Oklahoma and discovers the hardships of living in camps filled with people and traveling from place to place to find work. In the end of the novel, Tom decides to help organize the farmers into a strike in order to obtain contracts and better wages.
In the cornfields of Oklahoma, a massive dust storm rages. The dust bowl freezes the production of crops and covers everything in a fine layer of dust. The dust gets everywhere and the people must cover their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs whenever they leave the house.
The farmers can only look over their dead crops sullenly and wonder how their family is going to survive. The families worry about the farmers going insane from the stress and the women think that there is no disaster too tough to bear as long as their husbands remain “whole”.
It is in this harsh time and part of the country that a recently released former convict named Tom Joad enters. Tom hitchhikes into town, asking the trucker that he rides with to give him a lift although he knows that it is not technically allowed by the trucking company that the man works for. When the driver asks, Tom explains that he is returning to his father’s farm.
The trucker is surprised to hear that Tom’s father still has a farm to return to as many of the farmers in the area have been driven off the land by the dust bowl. The bankers send a large tractor called a “cat” to drive the farmers and their families from their houses when they cannot pay their mortgage.
The trucker, thinking that Tom may have taken offense to the question, assures him that he meant no harm and drops Tom off on the road to the Joad’s farm. Out on the road, a turtle only just manages to avoid being hit by a driver who swerves into its path specifically to hit it. Tom sees the turtle struggling on it’s back and picks it up to take it with him.
As he continues up the road he sees a disheveled man sitting under a tree. The man recognizes Tom immediately and introduces himself as Jim Casy, the preacher at Tom’s former church. Casy reminds Tom that he was the preacher who baptized him but that Tom was too busy pulling a little girl’s pigtails to take much notice of the ceremony.
Casy admits to Tom that he stopped preaching years earlier because he had trouble reconciling his sexual appetites with his piety and his responsibility toward the young women that he was sleeping with. Casy relates that he eventually came to the notion that: “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. They’re just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing”. Casy began believing that the human spirit and the holy spirit were the same things and that human pleasures are how God shows his love for us.
Casy asks Tom about his father and he admits that he has not seen him for many years. He tells Casy that he was in prison for getting into a drunken fight and accidentally killing a man with a shovel. Tom notes that although he was treated well and taken care of in prison, the lack of female companionship made life difficult. Casy asks if he may accompany Tom to his father’s farm and Tom agrees. However, when they get to the end of the road they see that the farm has been completely deserted.
The banks have evicted many farmers in the area of lack of payment. Because the farmers rent the land from wealthy landowners in the area, the bank is unable to make high profits. This is called “tenant farming”. The farmers tell the landowners and the banks that they have nowhere else to go and are told to try to go to California where there is more money to be made. Tractors roll onto the farmers land and crush everything in their path to evict the families.
Often, the people operating the tractors are the farmer’s neighbors who hate their jobs but must do something to earn money. The displaced farmers want more than anything to fight back but the banks and the landowners are too powerful and cannot be fought.
The Joad farm has not been completely bulldozed but has been deserted. Tom finds usable tools and materials that have not been looted and assumes that this means that the neighbors must have been evicted as well. A man from the town named Muley Graves happens upon Tom and Casy while they are trying to find out what happened to the farm and tells them that the Joad’s have moved in with Tom’s uncle, John.
The Joad’s are working picking cotton so that they may earn enough money to buy a car to take them to California.
Muley tells them that a corporation has bought all the land and evicted the farmers to cut labor costs.
Tom asks Muley if he might stay with him for the night but Muley confesses that he has been evicted as well and that the rest of his family has already gone to California. Casy questions why Muley would stay behind when his family left for California and criticizes the decision.
The men share a dinner of rabbits that Muley has caught while hunting before the lights of a police car begin sweeping across the area. Afraid that they will be arrested for trespassing, the men hide. Although Tom realizes how ludicrous it is to have to hide from the police on his own families farm.
Muley brings them to the cave where he is currently sleeping. Tom sleeps outside the cave but Casy finds that his mind is too troubled to sleep. The narrator takes up the voice and drawl of a used-car-salesman who is telling his employees how to cheat the departing families in order to explain more about the situation. The exodus has created a need for cheap automobiles and, as a result, many shabby used-car lots have sprung up in town.
Cheating salesmen sell poor families whatever cars they can find, frequently filling the engines with sawdust and replacing good batteries with cracked ones before the car is actually delivered. The tenant farmers have little knowledge of cars, being a new technology and one that it still expensive, and will pay whatever is necessary in order to get a vehicle that will take them to California.
Tom, Casy, and Muley begin traveling to uncle John’s house in the morning. Tom remembers a story he was told about his uncle. Years before, when uncle John’s wife complained of stomach pains he dismissed her fears and refused to call a doctor for her. The woman died shortly after this and John never forgave himself. John now indulges himself in constant acts of generosity wherever he can. He often hands out candy to young children or delivers meals to neighbors as if he were constantly trying to atone for one fatal mistake.
When the men arrive at uncle John’s house, Tom is reunited with Ma and Pa Joad. At first, Tom’s parents are reluctant, fearing that he has broken out of prison. Tom explains that he was paroled. He realizes that his parents seem to be bringing all of their worldly possessions out of the house and they explain that they are going to California.
Ma Joad worries that prison could have driven Tom insane and Tom explains that he is not a person that have the kind of mind that would see a prison stay as a huge insult to his pride, saying: “I let stuff run off me”.
Tom reunites with his grandparents and his slow and withdrawn brother Noah. The group has breakfast together and Tom’s grandmother insists that Casy says grace although he no longer preaches. Tom’s younger brother Al arrives at the house and it is obvious that he likes and respects Tom a great deal. Tom also learns that his youngest siblings, Ruthie and Winfield are in town with John and another of his sisters has married to a boy from a neighboring farm.
The narrator then shifts focus to show how the typical tenant farmer prepares for their trip to California.
The narrator takes on the role of the tenant farmer, relating what their possessions and memories mean to them. The farmers are forced to sell or pawn everything they can bear to part with to raise money for the trip and must take any deal they can get because they are in no position to broker.
Most times, they end up selling much more valuable possessions for what amounts to a pocketful of change.
In the next chapter, Pa Joad goes to sell some of the families possessions and returns with only eighteen dollars to show for it. The Joad’s decide that they will allow Casy to come with them on their trip.
Tom’s married sister, Rose and her husband are also accompanying the family on the trip. Muley bids the family goodbye as they pile into the truck and drive away. The narrator explains that the men working the land after the farmers have been evicted have no real connection to the land and thus do not understand their work like they too. The farmhouses, left empty, quickly become invaded by animals and crumble in the weather.
The Joad family is met with a long line of traffic leaving Oklahoma on their way to California. The farmers struggle on the journey and are often cheated when trying to get their cars serviced. Many people on the journey meet the farmers with hostility and suspicion for invading their land and crowding it.
The Joads stop at a service station where the attendant accuses them of having no money to pay for gas. He tells them that most of the farmers coming by the attempt to beg for fuel and that the newer, fancier cars only stop in town.
While the family is resting at the station, their dog is hit by a car and Rose becomes worried that witnessing something so disturbing will harm the unborn child that she is pregnant with.
The attendant tells them that he will bury the dog and the Joads leave to continue to California. The Joads soon pass through Oklahoma City and are impressed by its size and the amount of people on the street. Little Ruthie and Winfield are frightened by the sights and sounds of the city.
At the end of the day, the family must camp on the roadside. There they meet Ivy Wilson and his wife, fellow farmers whose car has broken down. The Wilson’s offer Grampa Joad a tent to rest in as the man has become sick on the way. However that night Grampa suffers a stroke and dies.
Allow it is against the law, the Joads have a short funeral and bury their grandfather on the roadside. They decide that they will travel together with the Wilson’s the rest of the way to California. The narrator tells us that the people living in California do not understand why their state is suddenly becoming inundated with farmers from the east and they do not know of the dust bowl. They fear the new people and worry that they will somehow rise up against them.
The Joad and Wilson families travel together for the next few days. Rose declares that when she and her husband get to California he plans to study to open his own store. Ma Joad frets over this as she does not want to split up the family.
The Wilson’s car breaks down once again and Tom and Casy offer to stay behind to fix it but Ma insists that everyone stay together. The group waits while Tom and his brother Al find that parts and fix the car. That night while camping, Pa Joad tells a man that he is traveling to California for work. The man laughs at him and tells that there is no work, despite what everyone thinks. The wealthy farmers receive over 20.000 applications for only 800 jobs. The man tells Pa that his own family starved to death while he was looking for work in California. This worries Pa, but Casy reassures him that this will not happen to the Joads.
The wealthy farmers receive over 20,000 applications for only 800 jobs. The man tells Pa that his own family starved to death while he was looking for work in California. This worries Pa, but Casy reassures him that this will not happen to the Joads.
The narrators tell us that many families band together during the journey to California and create their own communities and rules of conduct. When the Joad’s arrive in California, they enter through a desert and are surprised to find that it is not the lush valley that they were expecting. The men find a river to bathe in and meet a father and son who warn them what awaits them in California. They say that the Californians derisively refer to them as “Okies” and that there are no jobs.
The Joads decide to continue on despite the warnings. Noah decides to stay by the river and decides to live off the land. He tells them that they do not really need him and that his absence will not hurt the family as he believes that they don’t love him anyway although they treat him kindly. Tom tries to convince Noah otherwise but he will not be swayed.
Granma, who has suffered a great deal since Grampa’s death, begins hallucinating and her health deteriorates.
When Ma is told that Noah has left, she laments that her family is coming apart already. A policeman comes into the Joad’s tent and tells them that they must move on. They begin packing and realize that they must leave Wilson’s behind as Ivy’s wife’s health is failing and she is too sick to move. Ivy insists that they go on without them.
While driving that night, the police stop the Joads for a routine inspection and Ma begs them to let them drive on as Granma’s health is failing. After the police let them leave, Ma confesses to the others that Granma has actually been dead for hours and that she had to sit with her body in the back of the truck all night.
The narrator tells the reader that California once belonged to Mexico but was taken away by Americans who believed that farming the land meant that they owned it. The descendants of these farmers are now wealthy landowners who protect their mansions with security guards and make money by underpaying their laborers.
The Joads must leave Granma’s body in a corner’s office as they lack the funds for a proper funeral. The family makes its way to a large, dirty, crowded camp named Hooverville which is filled with families looking for work. One man named Floyd explains to Tom that the police patrol the camp regularly and will drag off anyone who seems suspicious or like they are considering organizing against the wealthy landowners. The men who are arrested are put on a blacklist which prevents them from ever being able to work.
Ma cooks a stew and after feeding her family hands over the leftovers to some hungry children in the camp.
A contractor arrives looking for men to work at a fruit-picking job. Floyd wonders if they will get a contract and a set wage and the man signals to a police officer who arrests Floyd immediately and threatens anyone who opposes him.
Floyd manages to get away from the officer and runs away. The officers shoot at him and accidentally hits a woman in the hand. Tom trips the officer and Casy knocks the officer unconscious.
But the two realize that someone will have to be held accountable and arrested and Casy volunteers. He reminds Tom that Tom has broken the rules of his parole by leaving Oklahoma and if he is arrested he will go back to prison.
More officers arrive and arrest Casy and the sheriff announces that they are going to burn the camp.
The Joads round up their family and get them back into the truck. Rose is distraught that her husband must be left behind as he has seemingly walked away and abandoned her. The family leaves word at the camp for him in case he does return and being traveling again. They are turned away from one town by men wielding shotguns to keep Okies out.
The Joads happen upon a better run, the cleaner camp where the migrants govern themselves and thus the police do not interfere. They are also equipped with toilets and showers. Tom meets two men named Timothy and Wilklie Wallace who agree to bring him to the ranch that they have been working on to see if they can get him a job.
The ranch owner, Mr. Thomas tells Tom about the Farmer’s Association which demands that he pay his workers 25 cents an hour and no more. He knows that his men deserve more, however, but knows that he is not allowed to and that to do so would cause unrest.
He tells Tom that he has heard that the government camp is riddled with communists and that the Farmer’s association is planning to send instigators to start a riot so that the police will be able to come in and arrest people.
Mr. Thomas hires Tom to work on his ranch.
Back at the camp, the camp Ladies Committee meets with Ma and Rose to tell them the rules for women in the camp while all of the men leave to find work. One night the camp decides to have a dance. Tom realizes that it is the same night that the instigators were supposed to come in and start a riot and before long he sees some troublemakers picking fights. The troublemakers are quickly apprehended and taken away by the other farmers and when they are asked why they would do this they admit that they were paid well to start a riot.
The troublemakers are quickly apprehended and taken away by the other farmers and when they are asked why they would do this they admit that they were paid well to start a riot. Many small farmers in the area are troubled by the wealthy landowners as well. They cannot compete with their production and thus they watch their debts rise and their crops wither on the vine. The wine in their vats goes back and their anger and resentment build.
The narrators say that: “In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage”.
After almost a month in the camp, the Joads find that Tom’s job is not enough to support them alone and their supplies are dwindling. Ma Joad tells they others that they must leave the camp and the pack up and leave the next day. They stumble across a man in a nice suit who tells them that he is hiring workers to pick peaches only thirty-five miles away.
However, when they arrive at the farm they find a long line of cars and people shouting from the roadside. Although they learn that they are to be paid only 5 cents a box for picking peaches, the family takes the job as they are desperate.
Even with everyone in the family working hard at the end of the day they have only earned one dollar. That night Tom sneaks into the orchard as he is curious to discover what the trouble was on the roadside earlier. He finds a Jim Casy inside a tent and is told that the former preacher is now working to organize the migrant workers into a strike. Two policemen approach and accuse the men in the tent of being communists.
Casy says that the farm is starving its worker’s children and a scuffle ensues. During the scuffle, one of the officers kills Casy by crushing his skull with a pick handle. This causes Tom to fly into a rage and kill Casy’s murderer before he escapes the fight. He manages to make it back to his family who bandage his wounds and listen to his story. Tom insists that he will leave so that he will not cause any trouble for them but Ma says that they will all leave the peach farm. They head off to find work picking cotton and Tom must hide in a culvert until his face heals so that he will not draw suspicion.
Cotton picking work is slightly easier to find and the wages are decent but the workers must buy their own sacks for the cotton and there are so many workers that many are unable to work enough to even pay for their sacks. Many of the owners rig the scales when weighing the sacks so that they will have to pay out less.
While working the cotton fields, the Joads are given a train boxcar to live in although they must share it with another family named Wainwright. Soon, though the Joads begin making a bit more money and are able to buy food and clothing.
Ma is even able to buy the Ruthie and Winfiled a box of cracker jacks. But when another little girl picks a fight with Ruthie over the candy she angrily tells the girl that her brother has killed two people and is in hiding. Ma rushes to the woods to warn Tom about this.
Tom calmly shares with his mother some of Jim Casy’s words that he has been thinking over since the man died. He tells her that every man’s soul is only a smaller piece of one great soul. Tom reveals that he has decided to help unify the great soul by helping the farmers organize to strike.
Ma anxiously reminds him that Casy died trying to do just that but Tom jokes that he will have to be faster to duck out of the way. When she returns to the boxcar Ma is told that Al has announced that he is marrying the oldest Wainwright daughter.
Rain begins to fall over the area and no work can be done. The men begin begging and stealing food. The women worry that this may finally break their men and drive them insane from stress. But they see that their husbands fear are only turning into anger and know that this will keep them strong.
On the third day of non-stop rain, Rose goes into labor. With no way to get to a doctor, the family must deliver the baby who turns out to be stillborn. The family makes a small coffin for the baby and places it in the overflowing stream where it is carried away.
After the rain continues for three more days, Ma decides that the family must seek dryer ground as the boxcar is flooding. Al decides to stay with the Wainwrights and the rest of the family take off for higher ground. The family take off on foot and eventually come across a barn. Inside the barn, they find a dying man and a small boy. The boy tells them that his father has given him all of their food and that he has not eaten in so long that he is starving to death.
The boy tells them that his father has given him all of their food and that he has not eaten in so long that he is starving to death. The man can no longer digest solid food and needs soup or milk. Ma looks to Rose and the other woman understands what she must do. Rose asks everyone to leave the barn and offers to let the man drink her breast milk.
Tom Joad – A recently released convict who returns to his hometown to see his family only to discover that this parents farm has been repossessed by the bank. Tom is said to be his parent’s favorite son and is a good-natured, kind young man who, although he has been separated from his family for four years while he was in prison, does not harp on his regrets.
Tom is a source of honesty and vitality for the family as he lives fully and at the moment. Although he has accidentally killed two men, Tom exhibits a moral center throughout the novel that makes him strong and resolved. He earns the respect of those he meets. In the end of the novel, he decides to use his strong will and calm manner to lead a labor strike amongst the farmers simply because he feels that it is the right thing to do.
Ma Joad – The mother of the Joad family. Ma is happy if the nervous woman who gladly fulfills her role as mother and is happy to bandage wounds and calm tempers. Ma is also very practical, she is often the decision-maker and the leader of the family. It is usually on her say that the family decides to move to another location throughout the novel. Despite her steadfastness when she makes a decision, Ma is often worried about her children and many of her decisions about the family center around the need to keep the group together at all costs.
Pa Joad – The father of the Joad family. Pa is a former tenant farmer who is forced off of his land by the bank and the wealthy landowner that he rented it from. Pa is a no-nonsense, good-hearted man. Although it is Pa’s decision to move to California, after he realizes that living there will be harder than he anticipated he often looks to Ma for strength and guidance although he sometimes feels ashamed of this.
Jim Casy – A former preacher who gave up the cloth because he felt that his sexual urges and desires were at war with his more devout self. After leaving the ministry, Casy comes to believe that all human experience is devout and holy and that all of our choices are correct in some way.
Casy is the moral voice of the novel, and usually, the one to speak to the novel’s more moral message. Casy goes to prison in Tom’s place and when he is released he finds that he is compelled to take on the cause of the migrant workers starting a union.
Rose of Sharon Joad – The oldest of the Joad daughters, Rose is probably the most impractical and dramatic of the family. She brings the journey to California pregnant and with grand notions of making a wonderful life in the city with her husband. However, the harsh life on the road and working as a migrant worker soon rob Rose of that idea. After Rose’s husband abandons her and her child is born dead she matures a great deal and it is her gift of her breast milk to the dying man in the last chapter that closes the novel on a touching, poignant note.
John Ernst Steinbeck Biography
John Ernst Steinbeck was an American novelist and short-story writer, who described in his work the unending struggle of people who depend on working in the soil for their livelihood.
Steinbeck was born on February 27th, 1902 in Salinas, California and educated at Stanford University. As a young man, Steinbeck worked on a ranch as a fruit picker.
In 1925, when he was in his early twenties, Steinbeck moved to New York City and began trying to form a career as a writer. He was unsuccessful, and 3 years later moved back to California to work as a tour guide at Lake Tahoe. It was there that he met his first wife, Carol Henning and the two married two years later in 1930.
He soon moved into a cottage owned by his father and began writing with the gift of paper from older family members. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Steinbeck later claimed that he and his wife survived off of fish that he caught himself and vegetables from his own garden.
In 1929, Steinbeck’s first novel “Cup of Gold” was published. It is a novel based on the life of privateer Henry Morgan.
In the early 1930’s, Steinbeck produced several shorter novels and in 1935 he produced his first successful novel called, “Tortilla Flat”. The novel won the California Commonwealth Club’s Gold Medal and in 1942 the book was adapted into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr.
It was also during this time that Steinbeck began writing a series of so-called “California novels” and Dust Bowl fiction that were set among normal, salt of the earth people during the time of the Great Depression. These included, “In Dubious Battle” (1936), “Of Mice and Men” (1937) and, Steinbeck’s most famous work, “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).
“The Grapes of Wrath” became the best-selling novel of 1939 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other esteemed awards. Both ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were also adapted into Academy-Award winning films.
Throughout the 1940’s, Steinbeck continued to write while also serving as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and working with the predecessor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services.
Steinbeck befriended many soldiers and commanders during World War II and was present for many actual battles in Italy and Germany. After the war, Steinbeck returned with some psychological trauma and shrapnel wounds and began writing again.
By this point, Steinbeck had divorced Carol Henning and his second wife, Gwyn Conger with whom he had two sons, and married Elaine Scott, his third and final wife.
In 1952 “East of Eden”, Steinbeck’s longest novel was published it was also made into a movie which became the famous actor James Dean’s film debut. In 1961, Steinbeck published his last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent” which was not a success as the public felt that the tone differed too much from his earlier work.
However, the next year, 1962, Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. John Steinbeck died on December 20th, 1968 of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66 years old. He was cremated and interred near his parents and grandparents graves in Salinas, California. To this day he remains a literary icon and many of his books are still considered classic literature.