Following are suggested options for special assignments and special projects that build off of the reading, past assignments, and discussions of The Grapes of Wrath.
Explain that if the novel had mainly projected the storyline of the text, it might have been perceived as a “good” novel, but it would not have been given the acclaim it has received of being a “great” novel. A novel of classic stature projects concentric levels of experience, the threads of which are intimately bound into the organic unity of a transcending theme.
With that assertion as the control of your analysis, develop an essay in which you define your perception of the “transcending “theme of the novel and identify ways various “threads” of the novel intertwine to build that transcending theme.
Consider developing a brief written analysis of how specific tensions within the novel (various situations that pull against each other) interface to give the novel a complexity that enhances the basic storyline, for instance: the past – the present; hope – despair; two geographical landscapes; acceptance – rejection; endorsement of formal religion – rejection of formal religion, etc.
Students with special interest in philosophy might be interested in pursuing further study of the concept of “collective consciousness”. The suggestion could be made to initiate such a special study with Plato’s argument of “two worlds” (Allegory of the Cave – often studied in ninth grade) and the idea of a priori knowledge, then working through philosophical assertions made by Immanuel Kant and Carl Jung and/or other philosophers who agree or challenge the concept of “collective consciousness”. Those interested could “teach” the class through a presentation and follow-up discussion.
Steinbeck, largely as result of publication of The Grapes of Wrath, was accused, by many – even the American Farmers Association - of many transgressions against the existing social fabric. Some even indicted him as a “Red” sympathizer - one who actively promoted anti-government movements. As the firestorm built around Steinbeck, Eleanor Roosevelt came to his defense. Consider encouraging students especially interested in politics to explore accounts of attacks against Steinbeck’s social/political philosophy and activities, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s defense of Steinbeck that led to Congressional action on migrant workers’ conditions and changes in labor laws...
Much of the poetry of American poet, Carl Sandberg – particularly his poem, The People, Yes, published in 1936, is dedicated to celebrating the power of the “common man” and the “brotherhood “of the “common man” as the center and symbol of American democratic beliefs. Like Steinbeck, Sandburg came under attack for asserting what many believed to be subversive socialist propaganda.
Assign students to develop a comparative analysis of the statement Sandberg projects in the following lines of The People, Yes with a passage from The Grapes of Wrath that projects the same vision as that put forth in the following excerpt of Sandberg poetry:
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched
Or, a comparative analysis (perhaps combined with the above quote) of the following passage from Sandburg’s I Am the People, the Mob with a passage selected from The Grapes of Wrath:
When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the
People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer
forget who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool--then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: "The People," with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The following passage is from the American writer Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Chapter 27, published posthumously in 1940. Consider assigning an essay of comparative analysis that assesses whether or not, and if so in what way(s), the following quote mirrors aspects of the narrative or a specific character (s) of The Grapes of Wrath.
…this is a curious paradox about America – that the
sesame men who stand upon the corner and wait around
on Sunday afternoons for nothing are filled at the
same time with an almost quenchless hope , an almost
boundless optimism, an indestructible belief that
something is bound to turn up, something is sure to
happen. This is a peculiar quality of the American
soul, and it contributes largely to the strange enigma
of our life, which is so incredibly mixed of harshness
and tenderness, of innocence and of crime, of
loneliness and of good fellowship, of desolation and
of exultant hope, of terror and of courage, of
nameless fear and of soaring conviction, of brutal,
empty, naked, bleak, corrosive ugliness, and of
beauty so lovely and so overwhelming that the tongue
is stopped by it, and the language for it has not yet
Within the unity of a transcending theme in The Grapes of Wrath are compelling sub-themes that add complexity and richness to the text. A provocative way to explore these sub-themes is to think of them in terms of the big humanities questions: man’s relationship to nature; to the self; to other men; to the universe; to a “higher” power. Initiating a class discussion and/or informal debate using these questions as a way of exploring the text could generate a worthwhile experience of student immersion into the text.
As an interesting follow-up, students could build a comparison of the assertions that emerge from The Grapes of Wrath concerning these humanities questions with positions reflected in other literary selections in students’ experience.
As an example, Steinbeck’s text is permeated with nature images. What advocation of man’s relationship with nature seems to emerge from these images? How does that relationship compare with the relationship that is woven into the poetry of Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley? The Transcendentalist themes in Walt Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass? Or with that of Robert Frost in the existentialist poems, “Come In” or “Two by Two”? Or with Melville’s: “argument” concerning that question in Moby Dick? Does Steinbeck’s frequent use of nature images echo any of the above? Does Steinbeck seem to reject the basic underlying assertions of any of the above? Explain.
The compelling cadence and diction of Steinbeck’s prose throughout his work but especially in the “interlude” passages in The Grapes of Wrath such as Chapters 11, 12, 17, 33, etc. have been celebrated by many literary critics. Some assert that Steinbeck’s text is like “music” in places. To provide students with a special opportunity to listen to this “music” and thus gain better understanding of and appreciation for the linguistic force of The Grapes of Wrath, consider selecting, and/or having each student select, a brief passage to be read aloud – perhaps in a “reading circle” arrangement. If there is a talented guitarist in the class, ask him or her to accompany the oral reading experience with improvised background music.
John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, the nomination of the award was thought to be mainly in honor of his work in The Grapes of Wrath. Following is an excerpt from Steinbeck’s “Acceptance Speech”:
The ancient commission of the writer has not changed.
He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults
and failures, with the dredging up to the light our
dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to
celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart
and spirit - for gallantry in defeat, for courage,
compassion and love. These are the bright rally-flags
of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does
not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man
has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
Consider initiating a class discussion or assigning an essay in which students explore whether or not – and if so, in what specific ways, John Steinbeck, in writing The Grapes of Wrath fulfills this “ancient commission of the writer”.