Greed & Selfishness in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Meaning

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

''The Grapes of Wrath'' is a story of the Joad family and their journey to find work and success during the Great Depression. This lesson focuses on how greed and selfishness play a part in the story.

Tough Times

During the Great Depression, life was hard for many people in the United States. Jobs were lost, pay was cut, and it created challenging days. Times were especially hard in areas of the Dust Bowl where the Joads family lives in The Grapes of Wrath. The Joads experience the greed immediately at the beginning of the novel from the banks, and continue having to deal with those willing to hurt others for money, power, or desperation.

Interestingly, the greed portrayed in the novel caused controversy later on because the actual banks and California farmers did not like how they were depicted in the fictional novel. Let's take a look at some examples.


From the beginning, the generosity of the Joad family is evident when Tom shows up at Jim Casy's and asks if he can stay and eat. This provides a stark contrast to the banks behavior and greed. As the farmers became poorer in the Dust Bowl, banks started to use tractors to farm the land, requiring significantly less people, and generating them more money. Although the messengers sent by the bank to kick people off their land were usually kind, the effect was devastating.

The greed continues as the Joads travel to California and experience the hatred and greed of the landowners and cattle-farmers. The landowners had sent out flyers all over the United States so that a flood of workers would come pouring into California.

This allowed them to pit the workers against each other, which meant that they could pay meager wages, because someone was willing to take it. If one man took 20 cents and hour, another would ask for the job at 15 cents and hour, because meager wages were better than none.

This greed caused severe conflict not only among the landowners and the workers, but also with the police and the workers. Early on we get a preview of this conflict when someone recounts their experience to the Joads: ''That's what you think! Ever hear of the border patrol on the California line? Police from Los Angeles--stopped you bastards, turned you back. Says, if you can't buy no real estate we don't want you. Says, got a driver's license? Le's see it. Tore it up. Says you can't come in without no driver's license.''

The police felt the migrant workers were coming in and taking money from the proper taxpayers. This greed makes the police violent, even killing workers, and sending many to jail to get them away from the farms.


A great example of selfishness in the story is when the young Connie abandons his wife, Rose of Sharon. He acts in the beginning like he is devoted to her, but once he realizes the situation in California, he leaves his wife and unborn child for the hope of better prospects. ''Connie's eyes were sullen. 'If I'd of knowed it would be like this I wouldn' of came.'''

Although the reason is definitely fear, Connie is being selfish; he refuses to support his wife and child.

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