The American Dream in The Grapes of Wrath: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson we will learn the meaning of the American Dream as represented in ''The Grapes of Wrath.'' First, we'll examine various interpretations of the Dream. Then, we'll explore John Steinbeck's critique of it.

What is the American Dream?

The American Dream - some call it a myth, others call it a destiny. But for American author John Steinbeck, it was a failed promise. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck shows how unemployment and social inequality make the American Dream unattainable.

The basic idea of the American Dream is synonymous with the belief that all citizens should be free and have equal opportunity for success. It's encapsulated in the phrase ''life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness'' - an American citizen's 'unalienable' (non-negotiable) rights as stated so eloquently in the U. S. Constitution.

America's founding fathers believed fervently in the opportunity and equality of every citizen. Rejecting the rigid English social system, Americans promoted religious freedom, upward mobility, and equal access.

But even in the early days of the Republic, the American Dream rubbed up against contemporary practices of slavery (race discrimination) and women's rights (women couldn't vote).

Modern Interpretation

Today, American citizens benefit from Constitutional amendments that confirm equal citizenship based on race and gender. But even with the judicial, economic, and social changes that have taken place in the past hundred years, many believe that the American Dream is just a fantasy.

Several important works of literature from the early 20th century mark the emergence of a remarkably pessimistic tone in regard to the Dream. Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and Arthur Miller's A Death of a Salesman (1949) suggest that, for many Americans, the good life is no longer achievable.

The Dream Alive in California?

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck questions whether California really is a 'promised land.'

First of all, this resonates with the destinations of sacred scripture like Jerusalem and Mecca. It also relates to the American drive toward westward expansion. The notion of manifest destiny, associated with the belief that God granted white men the authority to settle the continent, designates the territories of California and the Pacific Northwest as the promised land. When all is said and done, the Joads head west in hope of finding wealth and prosperity in California.

After all, why would the fliers lie about the work needed there? Ma says to Tom, ''Your father got a han'bill on yella paper, tellin' how they need folks to work. They wouldn't go to that trouble if they wasn't plenty work. Costs 'em good money to get them han'bills out. What'd they want ta lie for, an' costin' 'em money to lie?''

Missouri family of five broke down on U.S. Highway 99 in the vicinity of Tracy, CA. ~

In the process of packing and loading up the jalopy, Ma Joad imagines what their life will be like in California: ''I like to think how nice it's gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An' fruit ever' place, an' people just bein' in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees. I wonder-that is, if we all get jobs an' all work-maybe we can get one of them little white houses. An' the little fellas go out an' pick oranges right off the tree. They ain't gonna be able to stand it, they'll get to yellin' so.''

Ma Joad describes the American Dream as the opportunity to achieve a good, full, rich life. Her unflappable faith kindles the whole family's hope that things will soon get better.

Individualism Interferes With the Dream

However, this belief that Americans have the right, even destiny, to occupy land across the continent established a trend toward individualism, a social theory upholding the right of any 'one' man to stake a claim on property. But individualism has its limits.

As Steinbeck notes in The Grapes of Wrath, individualism works to the detriment of the common man. The struggle of the migrant laborer illustrates how the American Dream has gone awry. Under the control of individualist economics, he insinuates, the common worker will starve. In economic terms, that philosophy strips rights from the common good, placing power instead in the hands of a wealthy few.

Depression-era Breadlines. A long line of people waiting to be fed. New York City, 1932.
bread line

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