poses California through the great economic depression of
poses the desperate conditions underwhich the migratory farm families of America during the 1930’s live under. The novel tells
of the Joad family’s migration west to California through the great economic depression of
the 1930’s. The tries and tribulations of the Joad family stretches to a greater concern for
the family of man than for a selfish concern of themselves.
The Joad family begins their westward journey in Oklahoma, a place where many
men and women became migrant farmers. These people received the name “Okie” because
of their place of origin. The Joads traveled in two heavily loaded and packed-up trucks.
The first sign of the family’s selfish behavior is the death of grandpa Joad. He was a man of
great pride, and though he longed to taste of the grapes of California, his stubbornness not
to leave home may have caused his death, but his lack of concern for his family shows that
he did not care for much else other than himself and the farm.
Yet along the trip there are many members of the family that stand out in self-
conceit. One person is Tom Joad, one of Ma and Pa Joad’s children. He has recently been
released from prison and seems to be concerned only for himself. He wakes each morning
only wanting work for money and food for his stomach. But throughout the novel Tom
learns many lessons, especially of those by Jim Casy, his old preacher-friend. Jim Casy, a
man representative of Jesus Christ in both his initials “J.C.” and in his beliefs. The preacher
is the one character that throughout the novel always knows what he must do: to help
those less fortunate fight in anyway possible in order to get what they deserve. Tragically,
Jim Casy is killed by a police officer while trying to protect Tom. From this incident, Tom
Joad learns that he must lead the crusade that Jim had died for. In this movement of
Tom’s, he finally understands what it means too help someone other than himself.
Another key player in the novel is Ma Joad. A strong woman and the true leader of
the Joad family she, too, has her faults. Though she does not care so much for her own
well-being, she in turn performs selfish acts for her family. At every chance she gets, Ma
Joad is ready to help her kin, but it is not without price that she does so. In the first
portion of her journey, Ma Joad turns away a hungry, young couple. But as she continues
on her journey, she sees more and more how the Okies are forced to live and how they
must endure such sufferings. Towards the end of the novel, the Joad family is in a broken-
down and pest infested camp. In this place Ma Joad makes a soup for the family to eat.
But the aromatic smell of good food travels through the camp bringing to Ma Joad nearly
fifteen starving children, all of whom haven’t seen or smelled such delicious victuals in
quite a long time. In that moment, with the eyes of the young ones staring up at her, Ma
Joad acts in a completely selfless manner. She feeds all the children before her family even
gets a taste. That simple action showed that every single person could find some decency
in themselves to help others.
Lastly, one of the “whiniest” of the lot– Rose of Sharon, who complains of her
pains and pregnancy and anything else she could possibly whine about– stands for the
majority of the family’s selfishness. Her husband, Connie, takes each day in stride, trying to
deal with her incessant complaining. But finally one day Connie falls to his own selfish
nature and walks out on his wife and un-born child. This only adds to Rose of Sharon’s
long list of complaints. She causes all the members of the family to become quite annoyed
with her, for on many occasions she is said to be whining constantly. But Rose of Sharon
is not a complete disappointment. Towards the finale of the novel, Sharon gives birth– but
to a still-born and shriveled baby boy. This catastrophe is due to Sharon’s malnutrition.
But in the very conclusion of the novel, the Joads arrive upon a near-dead man lying in a
barn. It is apparent that he will die without aide. Then, without any goading from
bystanders, Rose of Sharon lies next to the man and reveals her breast which is filled with
milk from her ill-fated pregnancy. She feeds the man from herself. She gives to one human
being a part of her body in order for him to survive. In this act by Rose of Sharon, all
loose ends come together and the family is shown as one universal unit instead of a
The opening chapter paints a vivid picture of the situation facing the drought-
stricken farmers of Oklahoma. Dust is described as covering everything, smothering the
life out of anything that wants to grow. The dust is symbolic of the erosion of the lives of
the people. The dust is synonymous with “deadness”. The land is ruined away of life–
people uprooted and forced to leave. Secondly, the dust stands for profiteering banks in
the background that squeeze the life out the land by forcing the people off of that land.
The soil and the people have been drained of life and are exploited.
The Grapes of Wrath combines Steinbeck’s adoration of the land, his simple hatred
of corruption resulting from materialism and his abiding faith in the common people to
overcome their hostile environment. The novel opens with a retaining picture of nature on
rampage. The novel shows the men and women that are unbroken by nature, their bodies
destroyed but their spirit is not broken. The method used to develop the theme of the
novel is through the use of symbolism. An example of this method is the description of a
turtle, which appears and reappears several times early in the novel, can be seen to stand
for survival, a driving life force in all of mankind that cannot be beaten by nature or man.
The turtle represents a hope that the trip to the west is survivable by the farmer
migrants and the Joads. The turtle further represents the migrants struggles against nature
and man by overcoming all the obstacles which are thrown before them.
The grapes of California seem to symbolize both bitterness and abundance.
Grandpa is the oldest member of the Joad family talks of the grapes as symbols of plenty;
all his descriptions of what he is going to do with the grapes in California suggest
contentment, freedom, the goal for which the Joad family strive for: “I’m gonna let the
juice run down ma face, bath in the dammed things.” The grapes that are talked about by
Grandpa help to elaborate the theme by showing that no matter how nice everything seems
in California the truth is that their beauty is only skin deep, for in their souls they are
rotten. The issue is of the rotten core verses the beautiful appearance, and the rotten core
is Granpa Joad’s death because he still can not come to terms with leaving his land and
tasting of those magnificent grapes he spoke of.
Also, the willow tree that is located on the Joad’s farm represents the Joad family
in a symbolic sense. The willow is described as being unmovable and never bending to the
wind or dust. The Joad family does not want to move, they prefer to stay on the land they
grew up on, much the same as the willow does. The willow contributes to the theme by
showing the unwillingness of the people to be removed from their land by the banks. The
latter represents the force making them leave their homes. Both of these symbols show a
struggle between each other. The tree struggles against nature in much the same way that
the Joad family struggles against the Bank and large companies.
The rains that comes at the end of the novel symbolize several things. Rain in
which is excessive, in a certain way fulfills a cycle of the dust which is also excessive. In a
way nature has restored a balance and has initiated a new growth cycle. This ties in with
other examples of the rebirth idea in the ending, much in the way the Joad family will grow
again. The rain contributes to the theme by showing the cycle of nature that give a
conclusion to the novel by showing that life is a pattern of birth and death. The rain is
another example of nature against man, the rain comes and floods the living quarters of the
Joads. The Joads try to stop the flooding of their home, but yet again are forced back
when nature drops a tree causing a surge of water to ruin their home and forces them to
move. In an opposite way, rain can also be helpful and give life to plants that need the
water to live. Depending on which extreme the rain is in, it can be harmful or helpful. This
is true for man, man can become both extremes– bad or good– depending on his
In closing, their journey west was filled with one tragic let-down after another. But
through every kind and generous action performed on the part of a Joad family member,
each one grew closer and closer to the entire new-found philosophy of caring for others as
much as oneself. This idea is profoundly evident and witnessed in the family; they are no
longer in concern for themselves but have found a place in the kindred of mankind.