Literary Naturalism in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Quotes

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will introduce literary naturalism and identify and explain some key quotes that demonstrate its influence in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, ''The Grapes of Wrath''.

The Grapes of Wrath and Naturalism

By the time The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, there had been a major shift in the way fiction was written. Beginning with the rise of industrialism in the late 1800s, many works of fiction explored the seemingly overwhelming influence of indifferent natural and social forces on human lives. They told stories in which characters tried to exert their will against such forces, usually unsuccessfully. They favored realistic, objective descriptions of characters and events over fanciful or experimental writing. This theme and this style was known as literary naturalism.

The Grapes of Wrath includes a narrator that seems sympathetic to the characters, a device not usually associated with naturalism. However, it does pit its central characters, the Joads, against a harsh natural environment and an oppressive economic system. Both of these are indifferent to the Joads' suffering and seem to dictate their behaviors to a large degree. This lesson will identify and explain some significant quotes that demonstrate the influence of naturalism in the novel.

Economic Determinism in The Grapes of Wrath

Throughout the novel, there are references to impersonal forces that control characters but cannot be resisted. One example is when representatives from 'the bank' come to repossess the land on which tenant farmers have been living for years:

''Sure, cried the tenant men, but it's our land…We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours….That's what makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.''

''We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.''

''Yes, but the bank is only made of men.''

''No, you're wrong there--quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.''

''If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.''

The bank, or the monster, as 'master' of men largely dictates the fate of characters in the novel. This concept of institutional forces controlling the behaviors of people is often referred to as determinism, a central idea in naturalist fiction. In The Grapes of Wrath, economic forces often seem to determine the fate of the Joads and others.

Environmental Determinism in The Grapes of Wrath

However, economic systems are not the only forces in The Grapes of Wrath that 'determine' the fate of its characters. Before they are preyed upon by the 'monster' to which they owe money, unpredictable natural events prevent them from making that money.

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