The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck in 1939, is a fascinating, vital, and truthful story giving a wide range of impressions to readers. The book is about the problems that American farmers faced during the Great Depression. The author describes people living in poor conditions and forced to abandon their homes to go in search of a better life and income. The Grapes of Wrath covers the issues of human life in an unfair society, violation of people’s rights, and a change in their consciousness and worldview. The purpose of this essay is to give a summary of the book, to discuss themes and main characters, and to express a personal opinion.
Summary of the Novel
John Steinbeck’s novel is a classic of realism in modern literature, which shows the real life of the lower classes in the United States. The author describes the horror and hopelessness of families wandering across the vast expanses of the country in search of work during the Great Depression (1). The main character, Tom Joad, returns home after serving a sentence in prison for killing a man and hopes to see his family and live as before. However, he finds out petrified land and a ruined house. The new landowners say that renting land is unprofitable since annually, corn crops are destroyed by either heavy rain, drought, or strong winds. Human labor means nothing, and the efforts of families oppressed by slave work can be replaced by one tractor (2). Thus, people are forced to leave their homes and go anywhere to work and feed their children. The whole country is suffering from hunger and total unemployment.
The Joad family gathers their belongings and moves to California, where they hope to find the fruitful lands of the South and have good conditions for a new life. However, the road is long and brings even more loss and suffering. The Joads meet refugees everywhere, set up spontaneous camps, and try to create non-governmental communities to seek work and achieve decent pay (2). Having reached the destination in California, the main characters see the same poverty, and the government does not give a chance to improve life. The poor can only cultivate lands of reach people, receiving pennies for it. Despite the soil fertility and a rich harvest, people starve here too. Unsold products are destroyed; the crop is burned and left to rot under the sun but not given to the starving. People fell that in their souls, “the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (2) since they have lost everything dear to them. It is the cruel and absurd new reality in which the only interest of landowners is profit.
The life of Tom’s family, consisting of his wife, five children, Grandpa, and Grandma, is described with fantastic realism. The novel conveys the sensations of the scorching sun, wind from dusty roads, and the smell of death. Until the last moment, readers hope that these people will find a place in the country of opportunities after many troubles of their journey. However, the hopes are as empty as the hopes of the main characters. The last scene of the book makes the novel truly tragic. The mother of the Joad family and her unfortunate daughter Rose of Sharon, who recently have given birth to a dead baby, wander into an abandoned barn. There they see a child with a father dying of hunger. The boy begs to save his father, and Rosa silently lays down next to the man and gives him a breast full of milk (2). Even at the moment of loss and emptiness from eternal suffering, this weak woman finds the strength to save human life.
Themes and the Main Characters
In The Grapes of Wrath, the author discusses the topics of family, devastation, poverty, hunger, migration, and homelessness as a national epidemic caused by a combination of environmental and economic disasters. Steinbeck condemns the egoism of a government which is irresponsive to the fate of homeless people who cannot find justice due to the apathy of government officials. Families are forced to submit to circumstances and seek happiness in a faraway place (1). The book embodied the transition of such type of Americans, as farmers the Joads, from individualistic consciousness to a collective one (3). Severe trials give rise to previously unknown solidarity of the main characters and other citizens. This transition in the consciousness of working people from “I” to “We” is a terrible threat to the rulers of America.
Tom Joad is the novel’s main character who has a big family and has to leave home hoping to find a better place for life. During the journey, “Tom’s character experiences the most growth, encouraging his thoughtful reflection” (4). Tom is a kind, independent, merciful, and impulsive person. He is pragmatic and prefers to act rather than speak. He is concerned about the practical aspects of his life, and not the moral or ideological circumstances. Ma is Tom’s wife and the emotional foundation of the family, who takes care of her family, providing them with food, comfort, and support. She tries hard to hide her despair and fear and create joy from small moments. Throughout the journey, Ma maintains the unity of the family and becomes its head (2). Most of all, she wants to reach a place where they can be a happy family with clear boundaries.
Tom and his wife have five children and live with Granma and Granpa. Rose of Sharon is the eldest pregnant daughter who has many plans and dreams for their life in California. The eldest son, Noah Joad, is slow and emotionally distant due to birth injury. The Joads’ 16-year-old son Al is only interested in cars and girls. Ruthie and Winfield Joad are the youngest members of the family.
The image of nature plays an important role in Steinbeck’s novel. The author portrays nature as a counterweight to soulless civilization. The story starts with starvation from drought and the desire to escape to prosperous California. The landscape accompanies the heroes all the way, visualizing human identity and personality formation. Withered unfruitful lands are the personification of the crisis of society and the transformation of the consciousness of the main characters. The road means the changes that the family experience in search of a place where their life can improve (4). The sunrise is a symbol of resilience, giving the main characters hope for a brighter future. To my mind, this book is worth reading since it inspires people not to give up before difficulties and to believe in their dreams.
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is a sad story about Tom Joad and his family, who are forced to leave their lands in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and go to California. Thousands of poor and hungry people move with them into suspense in search of work, land, and hope for a happy future. This book is a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature and a story of human unity, love, a change in people’s consciousness, migration, the struggle for a better life, and family relationships.
- Heavilin BA. A sacred bond broken: the people versus the land in the grapes of wrath. SR 2017;(14)1: 23-38.
- Steinbeck J. The grapes of wrath. New York: The Viking Press-James Lloyd; 1939.
- Spencer A. Voluntary exploitation and forced assimilation: John Steinbeck’s critique of American advertising in the grapes of wrath. JAC. 2017 Dec;40(4): 313-324.
- Williams JK. The locus of the self: place-based identity in John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath. Elkins: Davis and Elkins College; 2016.