John Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath and Other Works

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

Born in Salinas, California in 1902, novelist John Steinbeck is one of the most widely-read American writers. Discover the plot, themes and characters in his best-known novel, 'The Grapes of Wrath,' as well as Steinbeck's other key works. Updated: 08/25/2021

John Steinbeck

Most of us don't own a time machine. That's a bummer, but the next best thing can be a book that transports us to a different place and time. And one of my favorite places to visit is Northern California in the early 20th century. Why? Because that's the world of John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. He grew up and lived for many years in the Monterey Bay area. This area may be about as close to Eden as you'll find. There's terrific farmland, beautiful scenery and, of course, the Pacific Ocean. Steinbeck would immortalize the area in a multitude of novels.

We're going to spend a little time on The Grapes of Wrath, his most notable work, then quickly review the rest of his impressive literary legacy.

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  • 0:05 John Steinbeck
  • 0:51 The Grapes of Wrath
  • 2:23 Style and Themes
  • 4:21 Other Major Works
  • 7:54 Lesson Summary
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The Grapes of Wrath

Many people consider The Grapes of Wrath to be Steinbeck's greatest novel. In fact, it won the National Book Award, a Pulitzer and helped earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize.

Published in 1939, it's the tale of the Joad family. Tom Joad is the central character, but his entire family is part of the story. They're tenant farmers from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. When their crops are destroyed in the Dust Bowl, they decide to head west for the promise of greener pastures in California. They hope to become fruit pickers there.

But everyone else who is suffering seems to have the same idea. The road is clogged with other poor travelers. They meet all kinds of fellow 'Okies,' as they're derogatively called, either heading the same way or returning after not finding what they'd hoped for.

When they get to California, the Joads find that there's a surplus of workers and the big corporate farmers are running the show. They move from camp to camp, but as newcomers, they get shunned by their fellow laborers. There are just not enough jobs to support everyone who arrives in California.

There are arguments over whether the workers should organize into unions or not. Meanwhile, the authorities threaten to run them all out. The Joads finally find decent work picking fruit, but then they realize they were hired as strikebreakers.

Tom Joad undergoes a transformation and realizes his destiny is to lead the workers and help them organize. Doing so, though, means abandoning his family. The novel ends with them no better off than when they started, though there is a glimmer of hope for the future.

Steinbeck's Style and Themes

The themes in The Grapes of Wrath are not unusual for Steinbeck. One of the things I like most about Steinbeck is that you could boil down his style and themes to one word: 'America.' His work is quintessentially American. I mean, what is more American than heading west to California in search of a better life? And many of Steinbeck's characters are seeking the elusive American dream.

But let's break up this overarching America notion into a few key parts. First, social protest is pervasive in Steinbeck's work. He often wrote about the downtrodden in society, particularly farmers and migrant workers, like the Joads.

Related, Steinbeck's works are particularly attuned to the issues of humanity and the cruel ways we treat those who are different from us, whether because of class, foreignness or something else. One of my favorite lines from The Grapes of Wrath that conveys this idea is about the meaning of the term Okie: 'Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum. Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it.' Here, a word that could have been a badge of pride for Oklahomans becomes a slur.

Then there's realism. I think of it like this: Steinbeck's characters and plots are true to life. Their situations and struggles are very grounded. Similarly, Steinbeck's prose is direct and straightforward. Though some novels are experiments in form, his language is usually very accessible. And Steinbeck's stance on the issues he presents is rarely ambiguous.

There's also naturalism. Steinbeck loved America's landscapes and he portrayed them vividly. Long before I ever lived in Northern California, I felt I knew the farms, mountains, beaches and towns from their representations across his works.

Finally, but no less important, are issues of family. The Grapes of Wrath isn't just the story of Tom Joad; it's the story of the Joad family, a multigenerational clan. In Steinbeck's works, families can be torn apart, or their familial bonds can form the characters' core.

Other Major Works

Let's do a quick tour through Steinbeck's other major works, focusing on their styles and themes and how they fit into his literary legacy.

His earliest major work is 1935's Tortilla Flat. This is a bit of a silly collection of stories about a group of Mexican-American guys and their meandering misadventures in Monterey County. They're good-natured souls; though they'd much rather drink than work. There is an underlying commentary on the social issues facing the Mexican-American community, which gives a little weight to the novel.

In many ways, 1936's In Dubious Battle treads the same ground as The Grapes of Wrath. It's about striking fruit workers in California and their efforts to organize. While the American communists are fighting for the laborers, there is criticism of their motives. The oppressive capitalist system, though, is the true villain of this story.

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