John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath

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The Grapes of Wrath Summary

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The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, was published in 1939. The novel is set during the Great Depression and focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers.  During that time, many tenant farmers in the area were driven out of work and away from their homes in Oklahoma due to travesties, including drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures.

Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they were trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads had to leave Oklahoma. The Dust Bowl was a time during the 1930s when more than a million acres of land was affected in the severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies.  Severe droughts and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion caused this phenomenon. As a result, thousands of farmers lost their livelihoods and property, and mass migration patterns began to emerge as farmers left rural America in search of work in urban areas.

The story begins when Tom Joad, a prison parolee, meets Jim Casy, a preacher who has given up his calling. They went to Tom’s home looking for his family, but the Joad farm and all those around it were deserted.  They were told that the Joads were living with Tom’s Uncle John.  Arriving at Uncle John’s house, they learned that the family had lost their farm and were making preparations to sell their belongings and move to California in search of a new life and a promise of work.  The Joads put together everything they had to make the journey.  Although leaving Oklahoma would violate his parole, Tom decided it was worth the risk.  He went along and invited Casy to join him and his family.

With Casy accompanying them, the Joads encountered many hardships on the road west, and the family began to crumble.  Grampa died the first night he was separated from his Oklahoma home, and they buried him in a field. Granma died while they were crossing the Arizona desert, close to the California state line. The further west they went, the more aggressive and unkind the people were.

As they traveled west on Route 66, the Joad family found the roads to be crowded with other migrants.  In makeshift camps, they heard many stories from others, some who were in fact returning from California, and the family became worried about the future ahead.  Both Noah (the eldest Joad son) and Connie Rivers (the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, who is named Rose of Sharon) separated from the family.  Led by Ma, the remaining members realized that their only choice was to continue, as there was nothing left for them in Oklahoma.

Reaching California, they found the state oversupplied with labor, and one of the consequences of that was that wages were very low.  Additionally, the workers from Oklahoma (“Okies”) were looked down upon by Californians and therefore were gravely mistreated and oppressed.  Most laborers, especially the Okies, were exploited to the point of starvation.  The big corporate farmers were working to benefit only each other, and the smaller farmers suffered from collapsing prices.   Weedpatch Camp, one of the clean, utility-supplied camps operated by the Resettlement Administration, offered better conditions, but did not have enough resources to care for all the needy families.  However, as a Federal facility, the camp was able to, and did, protect the migrants from harassment by California deputies.

In response to the exploitation, Casy became a labor organizer and tried to recruit people for a labor union. The remaining Joads worked as strike breakers in a peach orchard where Casy was involved in a strike that eventually turned very violent.  During this violence, Tom Joad witnessed Casy being beaten to death. Tom then killed Casy’s attacker and had to flee as a fugitive. The Joads left the orchard for a cotton field where the pay was better. However, at the cotton field Tom was at risk of being exposed and arrested for the killing.  Tom then bid his mother farewell, and he promised that he would work for the oppressed.

Rose of Sharon delivered a stillborn baby during a terrible storm. As the family’s anchor, Ma Joad remained steadfast and held the family together through the bereavement. Due to the rainstorms, the Joads’ dwelling became flooded. The family then had to abandon their boxcar home to escape the flooding. To survive, they move to higher ground.

In the final chapter of the book, the family took shelter from the flood in an old barn.  Inside, they found a young boy and his father, who was dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon took pity on the man, and in order to save him from starvation, she offered him milk from her breasts (which had been accumulating due to her pregnancy).