The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Study Guide

Published in 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was met with immediate critical and popular success when it first appeared. An American realist novel set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Steinbeck's work documents hard times in general, and also explores its era through the experiences of one particular family, the Joads. Steinbeck focuses throughout on the oppression of poor tenant farmers by industrialized agriculture: he depicts the hardships that such farmers experience at the hands of callous, wealthy, and greedy landowners. Yet The Grapes of Wrath is also a story of man versus the environment, since the families depicted in its narrative have been forced to flee the poor agricultural conditions afflicting the Great Plains. Seeking better farming conditions and new land after being forced out by corporate agriculture, the former farmers have gathered their families and belongings in barely functional cars and have set out for California. Unfortunately, a better life does not await them, and they merely continue to struggle against corporate interests.

Steinbeck's novel confronted and exposed the difficulties faced by this landless population, and it argued persuasively for the need to organize labor forces. When he was preparing 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, Steinbeck won the praise and admiration of this segment of society. Critically acclaimed, the novel itself won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year immediately after its publication, 1940. The popular success of The Grapes of Wrath matched the critical praise, and Hollywood produced a 1940 film adaptation, which would become widely watched.

The Grapes of Wrath continues to influence readers and inspire student discussions, even though the history it addresses is far in the past. 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: just recently, the Steinbeck Institute commissioned researchers to trace the path of the Joads. They reported that little has changed -- a traveler who sets out from Oklahoma and heads for California is met with wide expanses and difficult terrain, much the same landscape that the Joads encountered. In more ways than one, The Grapes of Wrath is timeless.