Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath: Representation of the Harshness of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression

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General informantion

  • Title: The Grapes of Wrath
  • Significance: It shows the harshness of the Dust Bowl & Great Depression and trigger sympathy for the struggles of migrant farmworkers like the Joads family.
  • Genre: Novel, Historical Fiction
  • Date of Original Publication: 1939
  • Author: John Steinbeck

Relevant Biographical Information:

John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, to a middle-class family in Salinas, California. His father, John Ernst, Sr., was a miller and local politician, and his mother, Olivia Hamilton, taught school. John Steinbeck was an American author who graduates from Salinas High School and enrolled at Stanford University but he left without a degree and traveled to New York City to start his life as a writer and then returned to California and settled there at Lake Tahoe. He then published his 1st book after a while, the great Depression occured, and then later he married Carol Henning (1st wife). 5 years later, the Dust Bowl occurred leading crops to die. John Steinbeck wrote another book called Tortilla Flat, it was Steinbeck's first real critical and commercial success, earning him his first California Commonwealth Club medal for best novel by a Californian. He continued to publish books, later in 1936, he published Dubious Battle, and a San Francisco News series entitled 'The Harvest Gypsies.' Steinbeck is appalled by the living conditions of the workers he interviews, and later publishes the series as a book entitled “Their Blood Is Strong”. Later in 1937 Of Mice and Men was published earning him a New York Drama Critics Circle Award.In 1938 he published The Long Valley which is a collection of short stories. In 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath which was Steinbeck's greatest critical success. The book is wildly popular with readers, but also attracts virulent critics who decry the book's 'vulgar' language, several libraries even banned the book. In 1940, Steinbeck got to direct the film version of the Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. Steinbeck receives both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the novel. In 1941, Steinbeck then separates from his first wife, and moves to New York with another woman named Gwyndolyn Conger. In 1942, Steinbeck publishes The Moon is Down. March 29, 1943, Steinbeck married to Gwyndolyn Conger (2nd wife). He later traveled to cover World War II as a correspondent for a newspaper company. Steinbeck is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story for his work on the Alfred Hitchcock picture Lifeboat but it went to someone else instead. In the same year, Steinbeck's first child, son Thomas Steinbeck, was born and then in 1946, Steinbeck's second child, John Steinbeck IV, was born. In 1948, Steinbeck's close friend was killed in a car accident and a few months later, his second wife divorces Steinbeck. In 1950, Steinbeck married his third Elaine Anderson Scott (last wife). In 1952, Steinbeck published the book East of Eden and he considered it his finest work. In 1961, Steinbeck published his final novel “the winter of our discontent” and in 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1968, John Steinbeck died of a heart attack in New York City.

Setting: Late 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era; Oklahoma

Importance: knowing where and when it was happening helped the reader understand because if there was no great Depression or the Dust Bowl happening in the novel , we wouldn't be able to know what happened with the Joads family and what they experienced , they wouldn't have large debt to pay because of the Great Depression and dust everywhere making it hard for them to farm. if those things didn’t happen they wouldn’t have to move and try to survive out there to go to a better place which they believe that is california but if those things happened then we know why they wanted to leave and go to a better place, or a place that has no dust like in oklahoma because that is where the dust bowl happened and also to place where they can find jobs and farm again. This novel also tells a story that many people in real life experienced but not exactly the same as the Joads family.


The novel started with Tom released from an Oklahoma state prison after serving four years for a manslaughter conviction, when Tom Joad makes his way back to his family’s farm in Oklahoma. On his way he meets Jim Casy, a former preacher who has given up his calling to preach. Jim accompanies Tom to his home, only to find that all the surrounding farms and homes were deserted and left. Muley Graves, an old neighbor, wanders by and tells them that everyone has been “tractored” off the land by the bank as they call them the bank monster. He said that most of the families, including his own, have headed to California to look for work. Then Tom and Jim set out for Tom’s Uncle John’s the next morning, where Muley assures them they will find the Joad family. When they arrived, Tom finds Ma and Pa Joad packing up the family’s few possessions. Because they saw handbills advertising fruit-picking jobs in California, they saw the trip to California as their only hope of getting their lives back on track, a way to get money and to get away from the dust.

The journey to California in an unsteady, unsafe, and crumbling used truck was long and difficult. Then Grampa Joad, who is feisty old man who complains bitterly all the time that he does not want to leave his land, tragically died on the road shortly after the family’s going away. Broken-down cars and trucks, loaded down with scrappy possessions, jam the Highway 66, it seems the entire country is going to California because they also saw the newspaper too. On their way, The Joads meet a couple, Ivy and Sairy Wilson, troubled with car trouble, and then invite them to travel with the family that way they both help each other and back up each. Unfortunately, Sairy Wilson got sick and almost near the California border, she becomes unable to continue the journey because her sickness got worse so they said goodbye and let the Joad family continue their journey as they don’t want to burden and slow them down. As the Joads were near California, they hear inauspicious rumors of a decrease job market. Then Pa found one migrant and ask him what is going on and so he tells Pa that about 20,000 people show up for every 800 jobs and because there were no job means it means no money so no food that caused his own children to starve to death, he said that he is depressed and misses his children so he is also going to starve to death. Although the Joads clutch on, their first days in California was tragic, because Granma Joad dies, she was Grampa’s wife. As the remaining family members move from one filthy and poor camp to the next, looking for work or at least anything that will help them but they couldn’t find anything. They were struggling to find food, and trying desperately to hold their family together because the harder it is, the more likely it will fall apart. An example would be Noah who is the oldest of the Joad children, soon abandons the family because he couldn't take it anymore and as well as does Connie, who is a young dreamer who is married to Tom’s pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon. The Joads meet with much melovence and crudel in California. For example, the camps are overcrowded and is completely full of starving and poor migrants, who are often nasty and mean to each other. Then of course The locals were very fearful and angry at the flood of newcomers, whom they mocked them as “Okies.” Trying to find work is almost impossible and pays are very low and limited wage that a family’s full day’s work cannot even buy a decent meal to eat. Fearing a rebellion, the large landowners would try to do everything in their power to keep the migrants poor and dependent on things. While staying in a shacky camp known as a “Hooverville,” Tom and some other men get into a quarrel with a deputy sheriff over whether workers should organize into a union or not. Then when the argument got very violent, Jim Casy knocks the sheriff unconscious and so he was arrested. After a few minutes, some Police officers came and announce that they are going to burn the Hooverville to the ground intentionally. Luckfully the Joads were staying at a government-run camp which turns out to be more welcoming to the Joads, and other family too, they even were able to find friends and a bit of work. However, while working at a pipe-laying job one day, Tom overheard and learns that the police are planning to stage a rampage in the camps so it allows the police to shut down the facilities and get rid of the people. Tom was angry and disappointed when he heard so he alerted and organized the men in the camp, Tom helps to disarming the danger. Tom refuse to sit still and do nothing about it but still, life in the government camp is good and pleasant for them , they know that the Joads cannot survive without work, and they have to move on. Later they find employment picking fruit, but learned later that they are earning a good wage only because they have been hired to break a workers’ strike. When Jim Casy who after being released from jail run into Tom and talked about starting to organize workers, in the midst of the process, among the landowners, Casey has made many enemies. And When the police hunt him down and kill him in instead of Tom, Tom responded back by killing a police officer. Then Tom goes into hiding so they won’t be able to find because they know that Tom has killed a police officer, so while the family moves into a boxcar on a cotton farm. One day, Ruthie, who is the youngest Joad daughter, tells to a girl in the camp that her brother has killed two men and is hiding closely. When Ma found out, she send Tom away because of her fear for his safety, Ma loves him and wants him to be safe. So when Tom heads off , he went to fulfill Jim’s task of organizing migrant workers. When the end of the cotton season came which means the end of work, and word rake across the land that there are no more jobs to be had for three months. The nature strikes and there were rains set in and flood the land. At that time, Rose of Sharon was trying to give birth to a stillborn child and she did, so Ma was desperate to get her family to safety from the floods, which leads them to a dry barn not far away. In there, they find a young boy kneeling over his father, who is slowly starving to death because he hasn’t and wasn’t able to find food to eat, the father was instead giving whatever food he had to his son because he wanted his son to live rather than die. Realizing that Rose of Sharon is now producing milk since she gave birth to a child, Ma sends the others outside, so that her daughter can nurse the dying man so he can live. There is hope and humanity in this world.

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Point of View: The Characters:

(a) Protagonist:

Tom Joad is the protagonist. Tom is the first character that we meet, at the beginning of the novel, he killed a man by accident and has been away from his family for 4 years, so once he was released, he does not waste his time with regrets and went to his family so he lives fully in the present moment, which enables him to be a great source of energy for the Joad family. Tom turns out to be very knowledgeable, and he's very responsible. He takes good care of his family, and he works tirelessly to help them everyday to survive and live. Reverend Casy also helps Tom to understand the world and to find a noble purpose he wishes to fulfill. Tom, who only been concerned about his family in the past, develops to care for all of the crushed families he sees around him. He gives his life to fighting for justice and equality among the community. Tom is so helpful and selfless. Tom is good-natured and thoughtful and do what he can with what life hands to him. Tom exhibits a moral certainty throughout the novel that inspires him with strength and determination, he earns the astonished respect of his family members as well as the workers he later organized into unions.

(b) Antagonist:

The antagonist is the poverty, the bank, the environment, and nature. The Joad family and all migrant workers had experienced being poverty because of the bank, the harsh environment they are in because of nature. And if you combine being homeless with no money or home and even facing the natural disaster that happened, it’s like the world is against them.There were a lot of people were helpless victims of a harsh environment.

Symbol or Allusions:

The symbol of this novel is the turtle trying to cross the road. On an old dirt road, as the turtle was trying to walk across the road, it is where a car begins to come near the turtle, thankfully the car swerves in order to miss the slow, helpless turtle. When the turtle ducks into its shell for safety, it realizes that it is safe inside of his protective shell , when the turtle peaks his head out of its protective shell and continues to cross the road. A few minutes later, a truck then comes down the road the other way, the driver made a turn to intentionally to hit the defenseless turtle and he hits the side of the turtles shell, flipping it over. The turtle struggles to get itself back on its underside, thrashing its arms and legs with his strength, it is able to turn itself over. After this near incident, the turtle got scared so it sits in the safety of its shell again, not knowing if it was going to make it across to the other side of the road, It started to walk again. Using the symbol of the turtle, Steinbeck seems to be suggesting that outside factors affect the fate of the turtle more than the turtle himself. This is closely related to human fate. We, too, are at the mercy of outside factors such as our surroundings.

What is the theme(s) and justification of theme(s): The theme is one’s journey to survive, many obstacles will interfere but one can work through them (Survival). This theme represents the Joad family in many ways. For example, while they were on the road, they encounter many challenges along the way: constant hunger, cheap money, harsh environments, car problems, police harassment, exploitation by employers, and hostility from locals but all those things didn't stop them from going on or giving up because they have willpower and determination to survive because they want to.

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Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath: Representation of the Harshness of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
“Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath: Representation of the Harshness of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath: Representation of the Harshness of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 May 2024].
Critical Analysis of The Grapes of Wrath: Representation of the Harshness of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2024 May 25]. Available from:

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