Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is distinguished by its lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Written after Steinbeck produced a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma and Arkansas farmers facing poverty and starvation due to the Great Depression and severe drought of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar of controversy and was one of the most commonly banned books of its time because of Steinbeck’s obvious socialist sympathies. Nonetheless, the novel remains one of the most admired and studied works of social protest fiction of the twentieth century.
Plot and Major Characters
The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the supposed Eden of California after drought and economic depression cause their small family farm to collapse. They are joined by Jim Casy, a former preacher, now disillusioned with religion, who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community that must work together for the greater good, and who inspires the Joads’s son Tom to support the cause of the working poor. Interspersed among the chapters dealing specifically with the Joads are chapters in which Steinbeck took a broader, more universal approach to illustrate the full force of the tragedy of the migrant farmers–commonly and disparagingly referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies”–of the 1930s. Simultaneously symbolic and journalistic, these chapters provide a historical overview of the events of the time not only for the displaced farmers but also for American society as a whole, which, according to Steinbeck, must bear the responsibility and the consequences for its callous treatment of the working poor. During the course of their travels, the family’s dog is hit by a car, and both of the grandparents die. Then Rose of Sharon, the Joads’s pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. When the Joads–and all those like them–finally make their way to California, they expect to find themselves in a kind of paradise with plenty of well-paid work available. Instead they find an oversaturated work market where they are forced by hunger and desperation to work as scabs in migrant camps. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by a thug who works for the farm owners, and Tom Joad, who has already violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, must go into hiding after killing Casy’s murderer. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads’s recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life.
The Grapes of Wrath is in one sense a documentary account of American socioeconomic events of the 1930s. Photojournalists recorded the suffering of the people of the Dust Bowl region, and Steinbeck was strongly influenced by the widely published photographs, including those in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Steinbeck’s interest in the plight of farmers in the face of rapidly encroaching agribusiness and his sympathy for union organizers became important themes in the novel, along with the struggles of the average person against big business. But beyond the depiction of historical events is Steinbeck’s symbolism. Jim Casy, although he is a reluctant preacher, serves as a Christlike figure, leading the Joads and the workers to consider the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Ma Joad, with her considerable inner strength, and Rose of Sharon, particularly in the final scene of the novel, are earth-mother symbols who instinctively understand their roles as nurturers. This religious symbolism–both Christian and non-Christian–pervades the novel. Images of exodus, plague, and the search for paradise, as well as of the sanctity of the land, dominate the farmers’ travels to the West.
While The Grapes of Wrath is praised by most critics for the universality of its themes, it is sometimes faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Initial reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck’s book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. With its political implications now defused, critical study of The Grapes of Wrath has more recently focused on Steinbeck’s religious and nature symbolism and the role of his female characters, which earlier critics had considered stereotypical and one-dimensional. But regardless of critical opinion, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the most respected modern American novels.
Source citation: “The Grapes of Wrath.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 135. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.