The Grapes of Wrath: Literary Criticism & Critical Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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

In this lesson, we will discover the reasons that critics both acclaimed and reviled Steinbeck's populist road journey. We'll learn why right-wing critics reacted negatively to the novel's sentimentality. Then, we'll explore the novel's critique of capitalism.

The Great American Novel?

How can a novel that exposes the strife of migrant farmers ruffle so many feathers? At first, the struggle of the Joad family to attain a healthy lifestyle seems like a noble pursuit. But, when juxtaposing Steinbeck's representation of migrant farmer rubs against the needs of landowners and politicians, it becomes clear how each side determines a political argument.

The Grapes of Wrath means a lot of different things to different people. As Robert Demott explains in his introduction to the 2006 edition, the novel is ''part naturalistic epic, part labor testament, part family chronicle, part partisan journalism, part environmental jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel.''

Steinbeck dramatizes the plight of migrant laborers fleeing the Dust Bowl
dust bowl

Critics hail The Grapes of Wrath on par with Faulkner and Hemingway, a classic worthy of the title of The Great American Novel. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, ''I can't think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.''

Left and Right

Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ignited a heated debate against left-wing and right-wing critics. Leftists, or Democrats and Liberals, supported the novel's themes of labor unionization and government support for the poor. Right-wing critics, conservatives, and Republicans denounced Steinbeck's sentimentalized portrayal of migrant workers. Conservative readers interpreted Steinbeck's support of poor farmers as a call to action in a factor of Communism.

Some said the novel advocated for the much-needed plight of the common worker. Others disagreed, arguing that American agriculture had already been pushed to limits. The migration of workers from east to west merely aggravated a problem that was already outpaced by labor conditions.

Let's take a look at the economic and political ramifications of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Contemporary Response

In its day, The Grapes of Wrath was met with mixed reviews. Those sympathetic to Steinbeck's 'Oakies' hailed the novel as a brilliant portrayal of Dust Bowl Depression-era America. But industrialists and right-wing politicians declared The Grapes of Wrath a revolutionary call to arms. They feared the novel would cause unrest and drive even more of the unemployed poor out west.

In his 1939 New York Times review, Peter Munro Jack notes the similarity between Steinbeck's 'revolutionary' story and those of Hemingway, Caldwell, and Faulkner. Jack calls the novel 'superb' and also 'angry.' Jack writes diplomatically, ''It may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration of an honest and splendid writer.'' This New York Times critic prophecies that ''Californians are not going to like this angry novel.'' And, he was right. The novel ruffled feathers among California farmers, politicians, parents, and librarians. They banned the novel in Kern County, burned a copy in a symbolic gesture and even petitioned Congress to have the novel formally removed.

The Grapes of Wrath also elicited a swath of negative reviews. Congressman Lyle Borden of Oklahoma called it ''a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind….Some have said this book exposes a condition and a character of people,…but the truth is this book exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author.''

Critics of Steinbeck's novel have never come to a conclusion as to the economic or political implications the author sets forth. In fact, the ramifications of Dust-Bowl America continue to impact society in the 21st century.

Reasons for the Negative Response

In the flurry of responses that followed the novel's release in 1939, contemporary critics latched onto two main aspects of the book: sentimentality and capitalism.

Steinbeck raises awareness and sympathy for migrant workers in his novel. This photograph by Dorothea Lange portrays their struggle


A sense of overwhelming sentimentality pervades the book, in the literary sense, an appeal to the reader's emotions and feelings over rationality. Steinbeck portrays his characters sympathetically, painting a vibrant picture of the plight of the migrant workers. At the same time, the novel fails to show the alternate point of view of industrialists who are also struggling to keep agricultural business afloat during the Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the plight of the migrant workers, struggling to find humane working conditions. Throughout, Steinbeck dramatized the journey west. Some say the narrative overemphasizes the poor workers to the detriment of the landowner's perspective.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account