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Free Study Guide: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Free BookNotes

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The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family's experiences from their eviction from a farm near Sallisaw, Oklahoma to their first dismal winter in California. The novel has little plot in the ordinary sense. Out of its thirty chapters, only fourteen deal with the Joad story. The other sixteen chapters are not part of the narrative. They are called intercalary chapters or interchapters. Steinbeck desired to make the reader participate in the narrative of the Joads; but he also wanted the reader to identify and feel the pathos and futility of their situation. At the same time, Steinbeck wanted the reader to see beyond the Joads and sense the larger suffering of the displaced migrants. Steinbeck wanted to write a tragedy on an epic scale.

Steinbeck, thus, adopted the technique of interspersing the intimate individualized suffering of the Joads with the larger universal suffering of the migrants. He interweaves the narrative chapters of the Joads with the interchapters presenting the larger context of the Dust Bowl tragedy. The Joads do not appear in any of the interchapters. But there is a close relationship between the two types of chapters. The interchapters serve many artistic and symbolic functions. They are what Steinbeck called the “repositories of all the external information in the novel." They present the broad picture of the suffering of the migrants, and also provide the essential background information, such as the pattern of land ownership in California, which helps the reader to understand the novel better. This segregating of two distinct types of chapters could have resulted in an imbalance in the narrative structure, and the novel could have fallen into two distinct parts. But Steinbeck avoids this by skillfully linking narrative chapter and interchapter. The interchapters sometimes serve to comment on the main action and also foreshadow later events about to occur in the novel. Steinbeck was influenced in his narrative structure by the newsreel technique of John Dos Passos. The technique of interspersing interchapter with narrative chapters had also been used earlier by Fielding in Tom Jones and by Tolstoy in War and Peace.

The novel is structured into three parts: the time spent in the dust bowl region of Oklahoma, the journey on the road along Highway 66, and the time in California. Peter Lisca, a well-known critic, sees a relationship between this three-fold division and the three stages of the Biblical Exodus: the Israelites' time in bondage when God sent plagues to free them (chapters 1-11), the forty years of wandering in the desert (chapters 12-18), and the arrival in Canaan, the Promised Land (chapters 19-30). The plagues sent by God are paralleled by the drought in Oklahoma, the Egyptian oppressors by the bank officials, and the hostile Canaanites by the Californians.


The Grapes of Wrath is a protest against the ill-treatment of the migrants in California. It has often been considered as a political novel; it is not, however, proletarian in the ordinary sense of the term. Steinbeck makes no claims that the laborers are always good and always right. Even while he is condemning the exploitation of the laborers, he is also concerned with their moral improvement. He does not approve of any form of extreme radicalism that violates the dignity of human beings. Steinbeck's main point is that the workers must also reform their views if there is to be any real change.

Steinbeck makes a serious inquiry into the eternal problems of humankind--the nature of the divine, the individual's relationship with that divinity, and the results that follow from them. He examines various concepts of God and finds them all wanting, in one respect or another, and finally decides that the most valid concept of the divine is one that closely approximates the Emersonian ideal of the Oversoul. This concept is not stated explicitly, because Steinbeck is writing a novel and not a metaphysical tract. Steinbeck finds religious institutions harmful, an anthropomorphic god unsatisfactory, evangelism evil, and pantheism leaving something to be desired.

Steinbeck stresses the evolutionary idea that humanity must adapt to the changing conditions, no matter what those conditions are. Those who cannot adapt, such as Grampa and Granma, cannot survive. Pa, who lives in the past, relinquishes his titular position in the family to Ma, who has the strength to adapt herself to the new circumstances.

Steinbeck asks the meaning of ownership in the novel. The owners and the tenants reveal two conflicting views about the land. The tenants adopt the ideas of Jeffersonian agrarianism, which involves the belief that landed property held in freehold must be available to everyone. The Jeffersonians believed that a man could claim ownership of the land he occupied and cultivated by virtue of a natural right. The absentee landlords do not occupy the land and only have legal ownership of the land. For the tenants, land is a vital part of their existence. For the landlords, it is only an investment, which yields profits. In the later section of the novel, Steinbeck contrasts the Hoovervilles established on the outskirts of each town with the vast tracts of land that lie unused in the West. The owners of these estates are fearful that the migrants may encroach on their property. The theme of people's relationship to land is a crucial one. Tied to the theme of land ownership, Steinbeck depicts that the individual is increasingly at the mercy of the vast anonymous forces of capitalism and a market economy, which cannot be identified because they are faceless, mindless, and heartless. They are the faceless tractor drivers who do not “feel” the land. They are the banks that direct businesses because they possess the money. They are the large landowners who sometimes never see their farms.

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