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The Grapes of Wrath

Term Definition
The Grapes of Wrath

In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck portrays the hardships faced by the Joad family as they migrate west on Route 66 in order to seek a better life for themselves in the midst of the Great Depression. The novel has retained its fame over time as a result of its iconic portrayal of a very important and distinctive time in the history of the United States. Also, the title is a Biblical reference denoting a plea for justice and deliverance from hardship. 

Summary of Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is a 1939 realist novel by American author John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Set in the heart of Dust Bowl-ravaged America during the Great Depression, the novel follows the survivalist plight of a poor Okie farming family in their search for food, land, and livable wages.

The story commences with the parole of convicted killer Tom Joad, who reconnects with his childhood preacher Jim Casy while en route to the family farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Upon arrival, he learns that the whole community has been evicted, and that his family has lodged at Uncle John's. There, Tom finds everyone loading up for the greener prospects of California. He agrees to come, despite the terms of his parole forbidding him to wander out of state lines. 

Along Route 66, the Joad's journey is beset with tragedy: both grandparents die, and two of the young men—one the husband of pregnant Joad daughter Rose of Sharon—abandon the clan. In California, job opportunities have diminished due to over-migration, but the family finds work at a peach orchard, where Casy unionizes and is ultimately killed in a labor clash. Avenging Casy's death, Tom bids farewell and flees town. After rains flood the Joad's abode, the family rooms in an old barn, where Rose of Sharon, having lost her baby, offers her lactating breast to a deathly starving man. 

Core Themes of the Plot

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck draws attention to man's cruelty towards man. Despite all the suffering caused by the drought and dust storms, most of the hardship is inflicted by the rich landowners through their exploitation of the working poor. During a recount of California's history, it's explained how Americans wrested the state from Mexicans after migrating west to make good on the land's vast resources. Those who are now in charge don't want this pattern repeating, so they've created a system where the poor are kept downtrodden and forced to betray their own just to survive.

As the novel advances, kinship is defined less by family ties and more by a sense of loyalty to others in the same situation. Lacking a home to define the boundaries of their biological family, the Joads mesh with a collective of migrant families who are all bound in a quest for happiness and dignity. Within this setting, the child of one is a child of all, and an injury to one is an injury to everyone.

One of the most symbolic passages occurs shortly into their journey west during a fuel stop, where the Joads are berated and their dog is killed in a hit and run. While the incident is a heartbreaking tragedy in and of itself, it also serves as a chilling portent of the many misfortunes that lie ahead for the family.

More Information on The Grapes of Wrath

Heralded as the ultimate literary phenomenon of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath won Steinbeck a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1962, the now-canonical work was frequently cited when the author was awarded that year's Nobel Peace Prize. Today, the novel is widely named one of the greatest literary works (click here to see more examples of award winning literary works) of the 20th century; an accolade bestowed over the last decade in the pages of Time and The Daily Telegraph. 

The Grapes of Wrath was quickly enshrined by 20th Century Fox with a namesake 1940 feature starring Henry Fonda in the role of Tom Joad. Despite straying from the novel during the second half, the movie has been acclaimed as one of the few examples of a great novel being made into an equally great film. 

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