The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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In The Grapes of Wrath (published 1939), John Steinbeck captured the lives of his contemporary Americans, those living at or below the poverty line in the midst of the Great Depression. While the Joads’ migrant story was moving and I came to love many of the family members, The Grapes of Wrath is so much more than the story of one family. In between the narrative sequences about the Joad family, Steinbeck writes more general descriptive chapters about the fate of masses of migrants uprooted from their homes during the Dust Bowl and forced to search for work in California amidst thousands of other displaced workers. The Grapes of Wrath is about an entire people of otherwise unrecognized poor in our nation’s history.

This is why we keep reading it, even 70 years later. While the plight of poor workers has hopefully improved by today, the unnoticed poor still need a voice. Reading The Grapes of Wrath gives historical perspective, but it also reminds us that there is a majority that is often not represented in literature.

When I finished reading East of Eden (by John Steinbeck, published 1952) for the first time, I was bubbling over with excitement about the themes, the wonderful writing, the incredibly described setting, and the beloved characters. I couldn’t wait to find someone to talk to about it. As a result, I ended up starting my book blog Rebecca Reads, simply because I wanted a community (besides my family members, who had no comments) that would respond with excitement about my love for a newly discovered book.

I’ve put off reading John Steinbeck’s most well known and read classic for fear it wouldn’t measure up. As a result, as I did read it over the past few weeks, I found myself incessantly comparing it East of Eden’s majestic depth and epic nature. In most respects, I wasn’t disappointed with The Grapes of Wrath; the only ways in which I was disappointed was in the ways it did not fully measure up to the spectacular brilliance of East of Eden. I’ve decided that East of Eden is simply the touchstone Steinbeck work for me; I can’t expect anything else by Steinbeck to move me in quite the same way.

I was very impressed with East of Eden from page one because of the descriptive scenes, and The Grapes of Wrath was no different. The descriptive “everyman” chapters described a land that is no more, and made it come alive. Even mundane things, like a turtle walking along the highway, are brought to life. The Joads – Tom, the rebellious, unrepentant murder; Ruthie and Winfield, the children; Ma Joad, the backbone of the family – seemed like real people in the midst of a tragedy. I kept hoping that something positive would happen for them; alas, I knew from the start that this would not be a happy book.

The following paragraph has spoilers.

Yet, even as tragedy after tragedy struck the family, I was impressed with the good. The Wilsons and other families on the road pitched in to help keep people fed. Jim Casy, a former preacher who realized his own hypocrisy, gave himself to the police in order to let the rest of the group escape. The government camp was full of people wanting to get along, share, and otherwise live in peace. Tom ultimately had the goal of representing the down trodden as a group leader. And, finally, Rose of Sharon likewise gave of herself in a way that she could to sustain life.

End spoilers

So, although The Grapes of Wrath is a book about the hardships of the masses, the depressing existence lived by hundreds of thousands during the Great Depression, it’s also about a little bit of hope in human nature. People joined together when they could.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the 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.  (chapter  17)

I think it was Steinbeck’s dream that by sharing the Joads’ story, which was based on experiences by people he’d interviewed, we’d all somehow become one in America again. He was writing to his contemporaries in the midst of the Great Depression, but I think it’s a message we all still need to remember.

There is so much in this book. Someday I’ll revisit it, so I can further flesh out the ambience in Steinbeck’s creation. In the mean time, here are some other stops for The Grapes of Wrath on the Classics Circuit tour. It was the most popular book for this particular tour. Links below are to the post on The Grapes of Wrath (except for the one who hasn’t posted yet).

Reviewed on August 25, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • It’s interesting, because i read those two books in the opposite order and had the opposite reaction – East of Eden couldn’t quite measure up to Grapes of Wrath, even though it was still good. None of Steinbeck has ever lived up to GoW for me and probably never will.

    • Amanda » that’s why I say I think EAST OF EDEN is MY book. I can totally see the opposite happening to one reading them in the opposite order. I really do need to read more Steinbeck, because I’m just so impressed with how he writes!

  • Oh and oldie but goodie! I definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as I loved East of Eden but then, they’re just totally different books.

  • Ooh, I think I missed the Classics Circuit email for this round. I read Grapes of Wrath in high school and strongly disliked it. I thought it was slow and dull. I also didn’t like The Pearl, so I thought maybe I just didn’t like John Steinbeck, but people LOVE East of Eden, so maybe I should give that a try…

    • Aarti » I personally can’t imagine reading GoW in high school…. but if you’re intimidated by EofE for the length, maybe try the much shorter Of Mice and Men, or one of the humourous collections of stories, like Cannery Row (although, I haven’t read that one…)

  • Rebecca, I think I’ve put off reading The Grapes of Wrath long enough! With your post, and this whole Classics Circuit tour, I feel a little less remiss having waited as long as I have to read his masterpiece, but I also don’t want to miss it either! It was great for me to approach Steinbeck the man through his letters and the edges of his “canon” through King Arthur, but I look forward to reading his central novel, savoring those long descriptive passages (in a way my youthful self might not have) and facing the Joad’s sorrows, and America’s too, with less reluctance. Thank you!

  • I thought The Grapes of Wrath had such beautiful writing. I got fed up with some aspects of it, like the two-dimensionality of some of the characters, but Steinbeck wrote like a dream. If East of Eden is so much better altogether maybe I will give it a go. I remember this bit from The Grapes of Wrath that blows me away every time I think of it: “The people in flight from the terror behind — strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refined forever.” Steinbeck. Damn.

    • Jenny » well, it seems people have a clear preference between GoW and EofE, so MAYBE EofE will blow you away like it did me. I thought it was deeper — the people were too. Which characters in GoW did you find 2-dimensional? I thought we didn’t get to know some of the Joads as well as others, but in general, they seemed fairly well developed to me.

  • It’s good to recognize, I think, when a certain work just surpasses most others for you, so you can adjust your expectations downward accordingly. Mrs. Dalloway is like that for me.

    I’m still not sure where I stand with Steinbeck in general (very much liked East of Eden and Of Mice and Men; strongly disliked The Pearl), but I do intend to get around to Grapes of Wrath at some point.

  • I loved this book when I read it (during my pre-blogging days), and I love reading these reviews, which remind me why I loved this book so much.

    You make a very valid point about the book talking about a group of people who are often marginalized in literature. That’s so true, and it’s also so Steinbeck, most of his novels and short stories dealt with people on the sidelines.

    I love his work!

    • Nishita » I need to read more Steinbeck (feel like a broken record saying that!) but yeah, you’re right, his others, that I’ve read at least, often deal with the lesser recognized people.

  • East of Eden is one of my favorites. I love all of Steinbecks books but this is at the top. It just speaks to me. It is the story of my ancestors. Most of my friends dislike his writings because they are so depressing, but for some reason I connect and I thrive on his stories. It’s nice that I finally found a friend who loves his books.

  • I own a few of Steinbeck’s novels, but shamefully have still not read them. Now I am not sure what order to start them in – but I suspect I will start with te Grapes of Wrath. It sounds like one of their books that there is so much to discover you can never read enough.

    PS. I found your blog on the Book Blogger Appreciation Week and I am so glad I found it, its brilliant, I’ve really enjoyed reading your reviews

    • Becky (Page Turners) » thanks for finding my blog! And I really loved EAST OF EDEN. Not sure which ones you have, but if you want to get a feel for Steinbeck without 400+ pages, OF MICE AND MEN might be a good start. Moving but short!

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