The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published in 1939. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature 1962. The title comes from a lyric from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which in turn refers to Revelation 14:19-20 that describes the justice doled out through the Apocalypse.
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.
The novel takes place in the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. It followed the Joad family on their attempt to survive both as individuals and as a family. The Grapes of Wrath was initially not very well-received due to the social and political views that Steinbeck espoused through the novel, mainly by detailing the plight of poor people and the hardships of the migrant workers in California — people labeled it was lies and Communist leaning. However, it has become one of the most widely read books in classrooms and colleges across America.
The novel begins with Tom Joad, the Joad’s second oldest son, getting out of prison after serving four years for manslaughter. He makes his way to his family’s Oklahoma farm and on the way he meets Jim Casy, who is a former preacher who has given up his day job in order to be with the people — he believes that sacredness consists simply in endeavoring to be an equal among the people (Jim Casy is based on/inspired by Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts). Tom and Jim get to the farm to find it completely deserted. A neighbor tells them that the people on the land have all been “tractored” off and that most people, including the Joads, are heading to California to find work. Tom and Jim head to Tom’s Uncle John’s house to find his family finishing packing up all of their belongings into a single car that is affectionately referred to as a “jalopy.” They travel down Route 66 from Oklahoma to California.
Grandpa Joad, who complains the loudest that he doesn’t want to leave his land, dies before they can cross the Oklahoma border. Grandma Joad dies before they reach the California state line and Noah, the oldest brother, and Connie, the husband of the Joad’s pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon, abandon the family.
Once the family reaches California, they are met with resistance — the work pool is oversaturated by people trying to find work and newcomers, whom are isnultingly referred to as “Okies”, are not appreciated. The family sets up in a Hooverwille (affectionately named for Herbert Hoover, who was the unfortunate president during the onset of the Great Depression and has become a scapegoat for blame for the economic downtown). The Hoovervilles are overcrowded and no one gets enough food; work is difficult to come by and no one can afford a sufficient amount of food for their families.
How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him – he has known a fear beyond every other.
The corporate farm landowners fear a worker uprising, so they try to guarantee that the workers remain poor and dependent on them for survival. Tom and several men get into a heated argument with a deputy sheriff over whether workers should organize into a union. When the argument turns violent, Jim Casy knocks the sheriff unconscious and is arrested. Police officers arrive and announce their intention to burn the Hooverville to the ground.
The Joads eventually find work picking peaches at an orchard, until they find out that they’ve been hired as strikebreakers. Tom meets up again with Jim, who has been released from jail and is now hard at work organizing the workers and getting them to understand their power. Police deputies, hired by the landowners who don’t appreciate Jim’s new calling, raid the strike and in the action, Jim is killed; Tom retaliates by killing the police officer who killed Jim and fleeing.
Given Tom’s new fugitive status, the Joads move from the peach orchard to a cotton farm under the hopes that no one will identify Tom. When Ruthie, the youngest Joad daughter, is overheard telling another girl on the farm about her brother the murderer, Ma Joad sends Tom away to hide; Tom takes the opportunity to pick up where Jim left off in organizing the workers. Tom assures his mother that wherever he goes, he will work to help people:
Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.
The end of the summer comes, which means the end of the growing season and the end of work. The family realizes that there will be no jobs for three months when the rainy season arrives and there are torrential downpours that turn into floods. Rose of Sharon goes into labor with her baby, and Ma Joad finds a dry barn for them to stay; unfortunately Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. In the barn are another family, a boy and his father. The father is weak and dying from malnourishment because he’s been giving all of the food they find to his son — the irony is that he’s now too sick to eat solid food. The novel ends with Rose of Sharon taking the the dying man in her arms and breast feeding him.
The Grapes of Wrath, while not overtly Christian, has a lot of Christian themes and symbols. Jim Casy is a Christ-like figure all the way down to his “J.C.” initials. He is a man who lives his life for others and sacrifices himself for the cause of the unrepresented workers. The floods at the end of the novel, while damaging, bring forth a sense of renewal and hope with the beginning of spring. Rose of Sharon transforms from a rather self-centered girl to a Pieta figure — she is overcome by maternal instincts and is able to provide comfort and protection for others.
The story of the family is offset by chapters told from the point of view of inanimate objects and creatrues that symbolize different parts of the journey of the people during the Dust Bowl. There is a chapter that is about a turtle crossing the road and the dangers it encounters (an ant gets in its shell, a driver swerves to hit it and then swerves to misses it), several excerpts about the machinery that is taking over agriculture and making farmers obsolete and details about what happens to the land when the farmers leave, and there’s a chapter in the point of view of a used car salesman talking about how he cheats the customers that are obviously poor and desperate. It makes the novel more universal; rather than just following the Joads, the narration is ubiquitous, showcasing the suffering of what seems to be everyone in America.
One of the major themes of the novel is man’s inhumanity towards man and the dangers of forgetting the importance of altruism. Most of the hardships that the migrant workers, and the Joads specifically, face aren’t caused by the weather and the Dust Bowl but by people. Whether it’s from a social, economic, or racial hierarchy, the people in the novel keep themselves up by shoving others down. That’s what makes people consider this one of Steinbeck’s more socially conscious stories, the fact that he focuses so much on the plight of the migrant worker and the injustices suffered to them.
I first read The Grapes of Wrath in my AP English class my junior year of high school. And to be honest, all I remembered was Rose of Sharon breast feeding the dying man and that at one point someone pees in the dirt and makes a poultice for a cut out of the urine soaked mud. I also remember my teacher yelling at us about the machines being personified as monsters and being alive. It’s nice that the integrity of literature lives on in teenagers.
Steinbeck is one of the great American authors, and with good reason. The Grapes of Wrath manages to be a social commentary without seeming too preachy, in my opinion — however, it was banned and people held public burnings of the book because of what were seen as communist and socialist views. It’s nice to know that some things never change.