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The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck
Main Ideas Key Facts
Main Ideas Key Facts

full title The Grapes of Wrath

author  John Steinbeck

type of work  Novel

genre  Epic; realistic fiction; social commentary

language  English

time and place written  Late May–late October 1938, Los Gatos, CA

date of first publication  April 14, 1939

publisher  The Viking Press

narrator  An anonymous, all-knowing, historically aware consciousness that is deeply sympathetic, not only to the migrants but to workers, the poor, and the dispossessed generally

point of view  The narrative shifts dramatically between different points of view. In some chapters, the narrator describes events broadly, summarizing the experiences of a large number of people and providing historical analysis. Frequently, in the same chapters, the narrator assumes the voice of a typical individual, such as a displaced farmer or a crooked used-car salesman, expressing that person’s individual concerns. When the narrator assumes the voice of an anonymous individual, the words sometimes sound like what an actual person might say, but sometimes they form a highly poetic representation of the anonymous indiv-idual’s thoughts and soul. The chapters focusing on the Joad family are narrated primarily from an objective point of view, representing conversations and interactions without focusing on any particular character. Here, the characters’ actions are presented as an observer might witness them, without directly representing the characters’ thoughts and motivations. At certain points, however, the narrator shifts and presents the Joads from an omniscient point of view, explaining their psychologies, characters, and motivations in intimate detail.

tone  Mournful, awed, enraged, sympathetic

tense  Mainly past

setting (time)  Late 1930s

setting (place)  Oklahoma, California, and points along the way

protagonist  Tom Joad

major conflict  The disastrous drought of the 1930s forces farmers to migrate westward to California, pitting migrants against locals and property owners against the destitute. Moreover, Tom Joad’s story dramatizes a conflict between the impulse to respond to hardship and disaster by focusing on one’s own needs and the impulse to risk one’s safety by working for a common good.

rising action  Tom is released from prison, determined to mind his own business; Tom encounters the devastation of the Dust Bowl; Casy presents Tom with his philosophy of the holiness of human beings in general; Tom is drawn into the workers’ movement.

climax  A policeman murders Casy, and Tom kills the policeman, making himself an outlaw and committing himself totally to the cause of workers’ rights rather than the fortunes of his own family.

falling action  Tom’s explanation to Ma of the wisdom he learned from Casy; Tom’s departure from the rest of the Joad family; Rose of Sharon’s nursing of the starving man, which symbolizes the community in suffering formed by the destitute migrants

themes  Man’s inhumanity to man; the saving power of family and fellowship; the dignity of wrath; the multiplying effects of altruism and selfishness

motifs  Improvised leadership structures

symbols  Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy; the death of the Joads’ dog

foreshadowing  Many tragedies or reported tragedies in the book serve to foreshadow future sorrows. Thus, the death of the grandparents and the reports of men returning in despair from California are sources of sadness in themselves, but they also seem to bode ill for the future. Moreover, the descriptive chapters that are interspersed with the book’s Joad-focused chapters often serve to foreshadow tragedy: at many points, they portray hardships facing the migrants at large, which the Joads then encounter in the following chapter