The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Great Depression. Written in 1939, it’s the story of one poor sharecropper family’s struggle to survive the worst deprivations that American society of the 1930’s had to offer. Indeed, perhaps no American work of fiction fits the label of “The Great American Novel” better than Steinbeck’s wonderfully written and still highly controversial masterpiece of fiction.
Set in America’s “Dust Bowl,” of the 1930’s, The Grapes of Wrath is the tale of the Joad family, a large clan of poor Oklahoma sharecroppers, and how they are forced to migrate to California. It’s also the story of the many trials and sufferings they endure during their long and harrowing journey.
The forces of nature and the forces of economics have conspired to compel the Joads to leave their farms. So, these proud, hard-working people sell most of their worldly possessions in order to buy a run-down old jalopy. The whole family – Ma and Pa; Granma and Granpa; Tom (the oldest son, and an ex-convict recently paroled from prison); Al (Tom’s younger brother); Uncle John (Pa’s brother); Ruthie and Winfield (Ma and Pa’s youngest children); the heavily pregnant Rose of Sharon (Tom’s younger sister) and her husband Connie; and the Reverend Jim Casy (a family “friend”) – pack themselves and their essential belongings aboard their decrepit old vehicle, and depart for the “promised land” on America’s west coast.
The vast majority of this compelling novel tells the story of the Joads’ plight while on the road. They are almost immediately confronted with the death of a loved one. This compounds their grief at the loss of their home and possessions. They discover that most people they meet along the way despise and vilify them as filthy “Okies;” they receive comfort from very few along their route. Yet, they remain undaunted; throughout their struggles, they remain focused on the ultimate realization of a dream: jobs, high pay, and a new life in California.
The great climax of The Grapes of Wrath sees the Joads once again suffering in unspeakable squalor as they attempt to survive the violent forces of nature and humanity in the great western “promised land.”
The basic plot of The Grapes of Wrath is exciting, suspenseful, gripping, and possessed with a terrible beauty. It is written in the finest traditions of the early twentieth century “muckraking” novels, exposing as it does the worst societal ills that were prevalent in American society of the 1930’s.
The Grapes of Wrath serves as Steinbeck’s soapbox, as he deplores the exploitation of California’s migrant workers during this era. Indeed, the author is often barely able to contain his moral outrage at the sufferings of thousands of “Okies,” and their often violent treatment by landowners, businessmen, and even law enforcement officials.
How Steinbeck constructed his novel has much to do with its tremendous impact. Every other chapter in the book, beginning with Chapter 1, sets the stage for the events to be recounted in alternate chapters that trace the life and travels of the Joad family. In a simple and straightforward manner, the Joads’ journey is chronicled in long and detailed chapters filled with earthy and realistic dialog. The short “stage-setting” chapters contain little dialog; instead, they are highly descriptive of places, people, and attitudes. From descriptions of the intensely burning Oklahoma sun, the choking, blowing dust, and the tortoise lazily crossing a highway in Chapter 1, to the torrential California rains of Chapter 29, Steinbeck paints brilliant word pictures of the backdrop to the Joads’ journey.
The Grapes of Wrath abounds with wonderful character studies. The effects of indescribable suffering and abject poverty give Ma Joad the steel to evolve from her traditional role as a silent, obedient wife to become the true leader of the family. Conversely, Pa Joad’s traditional role seems to diminish; he recognizes the fact, and, after only brief resistance, he defers to his wife’s new role. Tom, ever so careful not to do anything to jeopardize his parole at the outset, finds himself increasingly outraged at his family’s plight, and emboldened to action as a result.
John Steinbeck’s central theme in The Grapes of Wrath is the growing disparity between the “haves” – the rich – and the “have nots” – the poor – in American society. That theme is still as relevant today as it was in 1939 – perhaps even more so today, considering the ongoing economic crisis that afflicts and divides our nation. Maybe this is the real reason why the book still generates such controversy and remains one of the most frequently challenged books in America. It holds a mirror up to us and forces us to confront some unpleasant truths that we, as an “enlightened” society, would rather not face. And that, in itself, makes this brilliant book well worth reading.