The Grapes of Wrath

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Steinbeck, John

The Grapes of Wrathis a landmark of American literature. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.

Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.

First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath summed up its era in the way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin summed up the years of slavery before the Civil War. Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book—which takes its title from the first verse: “He is trampling out the vintage where "the grapes of wrath are stored.”

At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s fictional chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s is perhaps the most American of American Classics. (From the publisher.)

Discussion Guide: 

1. Are we meant to conclude that Tom's killing of the deputy is justified?

2. What makes Casy believe that "maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of" (p. 24)? 

3. Why does Steinbeck devote a chapter to the land turtle's progress on the highway? 

4. Why does Pa yield his traditional position in the family to Ma? 

5. What does Ma mean when she says, "Bearin' an' dyin' is two pieces of the same thing" (p. 210)? 

6. As Tom leaves the family, he says, "I'll be ever'where—wherever you look" (p. 419). In what sense does he mean "everywhere"? 

7. Why does Steinbeck interrupt the Joads' narrative with short chapters of commentary and description? 

8. Why does Rose of Sharon smile as she feeds the starving man with milk intended for her baby? 

9. What does Steinbeck mean when he writes, "In the souls of the people The Grapes of Wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage" (p. 349)? 

10. Why do different characters insist at different points in the book, "A fella got to eat" (p. 344, for example)? 

11. Why does the book start with drought and end with floods? 

12. Is the family intact at the end of the novel? 

13. Why does Uncle John set the dead baby adrift rather than bury it? 

14. What is the source of Ma's conviction that "we're the people—we go on" (p. 280)? 

15. Does nature function as a force for either good or evil in this book?

For Further Reflection

16. As his land is destroyed, an anonymous tenant says, "We've got a bad thing made by men, and by God that's something we can change" (p. 38). Is Steinbeck suggesting that a just social order is possible?  

17. When the narrator says "men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread" (p. 36), the implication is that this break diminishes humanity. Can spirituality be maintained with increasing automation?  

18. Casy tells Tom about a prisoner whose view of history is that "ever' time they's a little step fo'ward, she may slip back a little, but she never slips clear back.... They wasn't no waste" (p. 384). Do you agree with this view?
(Questions issued by publisher.)