The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Study Guide

John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, and it was met with immediate critical and popular success. An American realist novel set in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, Steinbeck writes of the time generally and also explores it through the experiences of one particular family, the Joads. He focuses on the oppression of poor tenant farmers by industrialized agriculture, and he depicts the hardships they experience at the hands of callous, wealthy, and greedy landowners. The story is also a story of man vs. the environment, as the families have been forced to flee poor agricultural conditions in the Great Plains. Seeking a better farming conditions and new land after being forced off by corporate agriculture groups, the former farmers have gathered their families and belongings in barely running cars and started towards California. Unfortunately, a better life does not await them, and they continue to struggle against corporate interests.

The novel confronted and exposed the difficulties faced by this landless population, and it argued persuasively for the need to organize labor forces. When he prepared to publish the book, Steinbeck said, "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]." After publication, he told a reporter that, "I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags." Because of his staunch support for the working class, he won their praise and admiration. Critically acclaimed, the novel won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year immediately after its publication, 1940. Its popular success matched the critical praise, and Hollywood produced a film adaptation of the novel in 1940, starring Jane Fonda and directed by John Ford, which was widely watched.

The Grapes of Wrath continues to influence readers and classrooms even though it is far removed from its historical context. It is still one of the most widely read novels in both high school and college classrooms. The novel has even continued to prompt further research, and just recently the Steinbeck Institute commissioned researchers to trace the path of the Joads. They reported that little has changed - a traveler that sets out from Oklahoma and goes towards California is met with wide expanses and difficult terrain, just like the Joads encountered. In more ways than one, The Grapes of Wrath is timeless.