Steinbeck's Writing Style in The Grapes of Wrath: Language, Diction & Syntax

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will examine several aspects of significant language in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, ''The Grapes of Wrath'', and will provide examples and analysis of each.

Writing Style in The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath can seem like a chore to read if you think of it strictly in terms of plot. However, attention to Steinbeck's language can make the novel a more rewarding reading experience. The Grapes of Wrath does not simply relate the story of a migrant family fleeing their drought-stricken farm. Steinbeck makes the relationship between this family; the Joads, and the larger forces that have created their predicament by making careful and deliberate language choices. This lesson will identify and explain some of these choices.

Diction in The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck, like most writers, chooses his words carefully to achieve particular effects on readers. His word choice, or diction, in The Grapes of Wrath varies from chapter to chapter, as the story of the Joads alternates with a broader perspective that includes the masses of migrant workers forced to find work.

The chapters that focus on the Joads consist mainly of characters speaking in dialect, or speech that 'Okies' like the Joads might actually use. For example, words like 'probably' and 'family' become 'prob'ly' and 'fambly'. This makes the characters seem more like real people and draws the reader more deeply into their struggle. Steinbeck slowly develops his characters through these dialectal conversations.

In contrast, the intervening chapters move rapidly, using many verbs in short spans to quickly convey the activity of nameless others who suffer like the Joads. For example, Steinbeck writes: ''And the tenant men came walking...Some bought a pint...But they didn't laugh and they didn't dance. They didn't sing or pick guitars. They walked back to the farms...kicking the red dust up.'' In just these few lines, Steinbeck conveys a rich impression of a downtrodden people who are restless.

By juxtaposing the slow and arduous journey of the Joads with fast-paced impressions of the greater mass of dispossessed people, Steinbeck personalizes the large-scale economic injustice in the Joads' struggle, and he provides an overview of the many others who suffer along with them.

Syntax in The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck's syntax, or the arrangement of words in a sentence, often resembles that of the King James Bible, or the King Arthur tales, both of which were influences of Steinbeck's. For example, rather than saying that there were many people across the West looking for work, he writes:

''And they scampered about, looking for work; and the highways were streams of people, and the ditch banks were lines of people.''

Like the King James Bible, The Grapes of Wrath features numerous sentences that begin with 'And' and contain contain multiple appositive phrases; restatements or additional details, that also begin with 'and'. This syntax elevates the troubles of the Joads and other migrant workers to a grand and mythical scale, like the stories of gods and heroes that have been written in this same manner.

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