John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath has been one of the most actively discussed novels in the American literary canon, generating both wide acclaim and wide denunciation. Praised passionately as a compelling chronicle of a dark decade in American history, as a heralding force of enlightenment and change, and as a literary achievement worthy of the highest praise, it also has been denigrated – even banned and burned in some venues - as an agent of political forces calculated to undermine American democracy, as an account perforated with passages that should be censored, and as a selection unworthy of its reputation as a great literary classic.

Since its publication in 1939, however, The Grapes of Wrath has been increasingly recognized and celebrated as a masterpiece. It was showcased in the Steinbeck Centennial Conference at Hofstra University in 2002, a community read selection for the state of California in 2007, the centerpiece of the community read program for Cornell University in 2009, and the selection for Big Read programs in several other communities throughout the nation in 2010, becoming more and more valued as a revealing account of the effects of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and new technology on a large segment of the American population and as an enlightening source from which to examine contemporary social, economic and political issues. Engaging students in an analysis of the form and content of the text will help them understand why the novel has been such a lightning rod for praise, protest and recent high acclaim.

Steps for Readiness

  • A valuable first step in readying students for close study of The Grapes of Wrath is to establish a framework for analysis. Consider initiating that step by introducing or reviewing general guidelines for ways to explicate a novel.

    Suggested guidelines:

    Explain that a novel is an entity, a circumscribed “whole”, that from the point of view of composition form is built out of two basic elements: structure and texture. Note that all formal literary genres, including student essays, are shaped with these three elements (even stream-of-consciousness has an undercurrent of structure).

    In open discussion, ask students to draw from their background in literary analysis and writing essays to clarify (a) the concept of controlling purpose (b) what elements of composition shape “structure” and (c) what elements shape “texture.”

    Responses could include: reference to a thesis as a controlling purpose (consider pointing out that well-crafted novels - even very long ones are unified into a “whole”–an entity–by a controlling purpose.)

    the dividing out of the thesis into a structural frame, noting that transitions hinge together large divisions of the structural frame and link them back to the controlling purpose; also, basic concepts of introduction and conclusion.

    Responses to (c) could reference such linguistic elements as: diction; patterns of syntax; rhythm of prose; tone quality; images and other rhetorical devices.

    As a follow-up, consider identifying a novel or short story previously studied in class that can be used as the introduction to or review of structure and texture as elements of form. Or assign a Steinbeck short story–Flight, for instance, to be discussed as a pattern for analysis of literary form.

  • Consider, as a second “readiness” step, introducing or reviewing aspects related to the analysis of content in a novel. Discuss with students, for instance: the difference between action and plot; various ways setting and background are developed for the reader; the roles of “voice” (point(s) of view) in building content; techniques of characterization; the handling of time sequence; purposes of foreshadowing; the implication of “climax” in the unfolding of a narrative; the traditional definition of “denouement” versus modern and post-modern patterns.

Drawing on students’ previous experience in analyses of themes and forms of literary selections will help inculcate understanding of patterns of composition and provide a springboard for explication of The Grapes of Wrath.

Explicating the Text

  • First ensure that students are in touch with the basic narrative of The Grapes of Wrath. Consider dividing the class into collaborative teams and assigning each team the responsibility of preparing a brief class presentation on one the following components of the novel:

    the environmental setting
    the family situation introduced at the beginning of the story
    a description of each main character
    an explanation of the basic challenges each character faces
    the resolution and plan of the Joad family to deal with the situation they find themselves in at the beginning of the novel
    a brief summary of the family’s “exodus” – what they encounter in relation to what they expect

  • Much of the power of The Grapes of Wrath, as a novel, emerges from the architecture of its structure. Ask students to enter in their notes (to be used for discussion and further assignments) a statement that defines their perception of the structural development of the text and to include a brief “defense” of their analysis, considering, for instance, such aspects as:

    the primary unifying element(s) of the storyline

    the controlling “voice” of development: for instance, an observer/narrator? an objective or subjective narrator? omniscient observer? a combination of some of these forms of “voices”? Other?

    whether or not the structural plan follows the traditional linear pattern of explication, complication, climax, and denouement or is, in some aspects, non- linear

  • Divide the class into collaborative pairs. Ask each pair to develop a brief written assessment of the texture of the novel, addressing such aspects as:

    general comment on the diction of the text

    types of imagery (list some key images)

    rationale for shifting rhythms and tone qualities

    specific examples of questions Steinbeck implants about future developments within the novel as a way of propelling reader interest in what is ahead.

    specific examples of foreshadowing

  • Much of the sustaining power and high acclaim of The Grapes of Wrath as a great classical novel has been generated by Steinbeck’s development of memorable “archetypical” characters. For instance, numerous songs and ballads have been written about the Joad family. Woody Guthrie’s song tribute, “Tom Joad,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” have become classics in their own right. The reference “Okie”, engraved in the American psyche with Steinbeck’s connotations, has become an entrenched colloquial idiom.

    Assign students to develop an “observational” essay in which they define specific methods Steinbeck uses to build such powerful, enduring characterization. Encourage students to give their analysis range and “authority”, by scrutinizing Steinbeck’s use of multifaceted techniques to shape his characters and to give their observations depth by using specific examples from the text to support their textual analysis.

  • The above assignment could be followed with asking students to identify their favorite character(s) in the text, and to explain their reasons for their selection. A related assignment could include student appraisal of why Tom Joad has been celebrated as a folk” hero” and has sustained as a memorable character in the American consciousness.

  • John Steinbeck was a celebrated journalist as well as a celebrated novelist and short story writer. His series of articles, for instance, first written for the San Francisco News and later published as a collection titled, The Harvest Gypsies, are highly valued first-hand accounts of the Dust Bowl refugees in the Salinas Valley in the 1930’s. These articles chronicled his experiences in time spent in that decade among the migrant workers and their families in migrant camps in Salinas Valley - experiences which fueled inspiration for his writing of The Grapes of Wrath.

    After sharing with students Steinbeck’s background as a journalist, and the fact that he observed first hand and for a sustained period the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, particularly the appalling conditions the westward wave of migrants encountered in California, initiate a probe of The Grapes of Wrath as history.

    Consider parceling out topics to collaborative teams and giving each team the responsibility to lead a class discussion on specific ways The Grapes of Wrath provides historical perspective on the following issues of the 1930 decade in America. Encourage the team to be ready to “prompt” the discussion by having on hand from their preparation specific textual evidence to support their assertion that the text offers historical insight into their assigned topic.

    cause and the effects of dust storms

    nature of farming techniques, and agriculture in general in the Dust Bowl region in the 1920s and 30s and the effect of these techniques and the Great Depression on Great Plains tenant farmers

    victims of the “hype” of California as the “Promised “land

    conditions of poverty and travel for those seeking jobs in California

    living conditions in “Squatter” camps; in government camps

    evidence of infiltration of “Red” conspirators in American communities

    the role of Unions in issues of the 1930s

    Californians treatment of the new wave of migrants and why

    evidence of courage and perseverance of Americans in dealing with 1930s disasters

Any one of the above topics could also be used as an in-class writing experience and/or reading test.

  • Much has been written about Steinbeck’s use of Biblical imagery. Analysis has centered particularly on the title of the text - the fact that the title is from a key image in the song lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic - and on the analogies of “exodus” and names of characters with references and figures from the Bible.

    Some research of and a class discussion of these analogies could be valuable in explicating the text, and would bring students not familiar with the references into a provocative level of insight in their exploration of Steinbeck’s literary techniques. It also would underscore the power of imagery to evoke an enhanced level of understanding of theme in literary development. A follow up assignment – a discussion or a “free-write” essay - could focus on one or more of the following questions and generate a lively open-ended exchange of ideas:

    What, in your perception, is the controlling theme of the novel? (Remember that a controlling theme (thesis) must wrap around the full development of the text.) In what specific ways does the controlling theme of Steinbeck’s novel align with “vintage” and “where the grapes of wrath are stored”? What is analogous with “vintage” and “grapes” in the development of the novel? What is the Lord’s purpose in “trampling up the vintage”?

    “Joad” is a very unusual family name. Consider the possibility - since so much of the text is written in dialect that “Joad” is a dialectical (with plural implication) construction of “Job”. What do you know about “The Book of Job”? What analogy could be drawn, if any, between what happens to the Joad family and what happens to Job in the Biblical narrative?

  • A prevailing characteristic of Steinbeck’s prose style is the integration of sustained images to build memorable descriptions of landscape or to make or reinforce a point. Ask students to select three sustained images from the text and construct an explanation of the analogous relationship of each to the description or point Steinbeck is building through his development of each image. Identify the nature of the sustained image: simile; metaphor; personification.

    (possibile examples: wind personification; “turtle”; “tractor”; “citadel”, “Highway 66)

  • Mentioned in several places throughout the text of The Grapes of Wrath are references to the concept of “brotherhood”, to some kind of force that binds mankind together. Two of the most poignant and powerful statements of this concept, however, come in Chapter 28: the first when Ma Joad brings food to Tom Joad in his hiding place and he tells her he has seen Casy, the former minister, and shares Casy’s comments with her; the second when Tom says “goodbye” to his mother.

    In both of these passages, Tom affirms his belief in a “collective consciousness”, a philosophical position argued by renowned philosophers through the ages. Encourage students to re-read these two passages (and identify others of their choosing that address the above philosophy), then consider initiating an open- ended class discussion in which students explain their perception of the philosophical concept of “collective consciousness” as it comes through the Steinbeck text.

    Students could be encouraged to share ideas about the implications of such a philosophical belief on such aspects of human experience as social alignments, empathy, design and practices of government, individual behavioral practices, common understanding between and among individuals.

  • The argument has been made that the traumatic issues of the 1930s changed the role of women in America. Asserted is that as these issues closed in more and more on the men of the family, driven partly by the psychological factor of shame in lack of employment and men not being able to fulfill the traditional expectation of the “protector”, the “breadwinner”. As a result, women stepped increasingly into roles of family responsibility. Some social critics have used Ma Joad as an example of his shift in gender roles.

    Consider asking students to develop a brief response to that assertion of change, drawing specific arguments from the text to support Ma Joad as an example of “change” in women’s roles, or to counter the assertion with specific evidence from the text.


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
    been uttered.

  • 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”.

Next: Woody Guthrie



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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