The grapes of wrath - First edition (1939)
Plot: Tom Joad heads back home to his family’s farm in Oklahoma, after having spent four years in prison for manslaughter. On his way he meets a former preacher, Jim Casy, who has given up his ministry because of religious doubts. Jim holds that what is holy in human nature comes not from a distant God, but from the people themselves. Jim accompanies Tom, who finds his farm, and the surrounding ones, deserted. The lands and farms have been confiscated by the banks and the farmers have left to California in search of work. Tom finds his family at his uncle’s house: they’re packing what’s left to them. The Joads’ plan to go to California is based on flyers they found advertising work in the fields there. These flyers are actually false advertisements meant to draw more workers than necessary and drive down wages. On their journey, the Joad family loses Grand Pa, who dies; his wife will follow as soon as they get to California. In California the Joads move from one squalid camp to the next, looking in vain for work, struggling to find food, and trying desperately to hold their family together. The camps are overcrowded and the locals are hostile to the newcomers they contemptuously call “Okies”. While they are staying in a camp called Hooverville Tom and other men have an argument with a deputy sheriff on the right of men to organize into a union. Jim Casey hits the sheriff and is arrested. The Joads move to another camp, government-run, which is more hospitable and find friends and some work. Tom meets Jim again: after being released from prison, he has started organizing workers into unions. Tom joins him, but, while they’re organizing a strike, they’re hunted by the authorities. Jim is killed and Tom kills the man in turn. He has to hide, but after one of his sisters inadvertently reveals his secret shelter, he leaves to carry on Jim’s project of organizing the migrant workers. With the end of the cotton season, also work ends, while a flood sets in. In the meantime Rose Joad, one of Tom’s sisters, gives birth to a stillborn child. Ma Joad leads her family to a dry barn, where they find a man who’s starving to death. The novel ends with Rose breast-feeding the man in a desperate attempt to rescue him.
Tom Joad and Jim Casy: After four years in prison Tom is deeply disillusioned with life and has adopted the philosophy not to commit himself to any ideal or human being. Jim, at the beginning of the novel, is going through a spiritual crisis and does not know how to employ his talent as a speaker and a preacher. Anyway, he holds that human beings, when acting alone, can have little effect on the world around them, so they have to devote one to the well-being of the other. By the time they reach California, Jim has realized that his task is organizing the migrant workers. At the same time, Tom has converted to Casy’s teachings, realizing he cannot be a silent witness to the world’s injustices. At the end of the novel, Jim believes so strongly in his mission to save the suffering laborers that he willingly gives his life for it. He has turned into a martyr akin to Jesus Christ, he shares his initials with. Tom, in turn, has abandoned his non-committal philosophy and has turned into a social activist, so both characters can be defined as round characters.
Ma Joad: Ma Joad emerges in the course of the novel as the family’s driving force, while Pa Joad slowly loses his traditional role of leader. In unusual and dramatic circumstances, she reveals a strength she has never demonstrated when life was ordinary life. After having accepted for a whole life the subordinate role society has assigned to her, Ma Joad slowly takes on the role of the leader. The stronger supporter of the necessity of family unity, she always manages to act decisively and for the family’s good.
The “Okies”: The novel is a choral novel, as it deals with the journey westwards of thousands of families. The Joads are one of those families, and the novel tells their story, but they are absent from whole chapters, devoted to the description of the dramatic exodus of the laborers and their families.
Structure: In the even chapters, Steinbeck deals with the story of the Joad family, in the odd ones he describes the journey of the families heading for the “promised land” of California.
Time and setting: From Oklahoma to California, in the years of the Great Depression, camping first on the road, then in organized labourers camps.
Narrator: The third person narrator is far from unobtrusive or impersonal, as he is Steinbeck himself. He voices his social commitment in favor of socialist ideals and the creation of organized unions of laborers and his belief in the values of solidarity and human sympathy.
Family, fellowship, solidarity: In the migrant lifestyle the families are forced to adopt, the original family unit, defined by home boundaries, becomes a thing of the past. On the one hand, the unity has to be preserved, as Ma Joad obstinately pursues, on the other hand only new fellowship and solidarity with the other families grant survival when the laborers are faced with inhuman living conditions. In the face of adversity, the survival of the migrants depends upon their union. “twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” The “grapes” of the title, connected with the Promised Land of the Bible, are symbolic of this theme.
Dignity and self-respect: Dignity and self-respect are needed not to lose one’s spirituality when faced with adversities. The most striking example is at the end of the novel, when the Joads, who have suffered so many losses, can still perform an act of high kindness and generosity towards the starving man. Anyway, Steinbeck makes a clear connection between dignity and rage. In order to maintain their dignity, men have never to lose their sense of injustice, a sense of anger against those who try to undercut their pride in themselves. The “wrath” of the title, pointing to the just fury of the God of the Bible, is symbolic of this theme.