The Grapes of Wrath at a Glance


John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad and his family are forced from their farm in the Depression-era Oklahoma Dust Bowl and set out for California along with thousands of others in search of jobs, land, and hope for a brighter future. Considered John Steinbeck's masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath is a story of human unity and love as well as the need for cooperative rather than individualistic ideals during hard times.

Written by: John Steinbeck

Type of Work: novel

Genres: historical fiction

First Published: 1939

Setting: the Great Depression; Oklahoma

Main Characters: Tom Joad; Ma Joad; Jim Casy; Rose of Sharon Joad; Pa Joad

Major Thematic Topics: love; strength in unity; re-birth; survival

Motifs: disrupted power structures

Major Symbols: turtle crossing the road; vacant houses; Ma Joad; the truck

The three most important aspects of The Grapes of Wrath:

  • The Grapes of Wrath takes place during America's Great Depression, which lasted from the Stock Market Crash of October 1929 until World War II began 12 years later. During this time, a long period of drought and high winds affected large parts of the American Midwest, including much of the state of Oklahoma, creating what was called the Dust Bowl. Many of the people in the lower Midwest moved elsewhere, hoping to find fertile land on which to make a living.
  • Tom Joad is the protagonist, or main character, of The Grapes of Wrath. Tom is the book's hero as well despite the fact that Tom attacks a policeman at one point in the novel and beats a man at another point, becoming a cave-dwelling fugitive as a result. Tom's actions, although illegal according to the letter of the law, are morally just.
  • The most famous image in The Grapes of Wrath is the novel's final one, in which Rose of Sharon Joad, whose baby was recently stillborn, breast-feeds a sickly, starving man on the floor of an old barn. In this image, Steinbeck powerfully dramatizes the desperate plight of Depression-era migrant workers, whom the author felt had been abandoned by society.