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The Grapes of Wrath Narrator

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will examine the perspective, voice, and some important functions of the narrator in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, ''The Grapes of Wrath.''

Narrative Perspective and Voice in The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family's migration from drought-stricken fields in Oklahoma to the promising orchards of California during the Great Depression. This tale unfolds slowly, with rich descriptions of landscape and extensive dialogue between characters. The novel is narrated entirely in the third-person. This means that the action of the novel is related by an outside observer with an omniscient perspective. This narrator refers to characters with pronouns like he, she, and they, rather than using the 'I' voice of one of the characters (first-person), or a narrator that refers to 'you' (second-person).

Third-person narrators can seem distanced and detached from the plight of their characters; however, this is not the case in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck's narrator frequently and passionately expresses frustration with the economic institutions that have impoverished the Joads and others like them. Let's take a closer look at the tone of this narrative voice, and three of its functions in the novel.

Narrator as the Voice of Wrath

The Joads and other migrant workers face numerous hardships, but the characters bear these challenges stoically. They worry, but they continuously try to overcome their difficulties. Some characters, like Casy and Tom, gradually come to the conclusion that organized action against their oppressors is necessary, but this realization comes to them slowly.

The narrator, in contrast, seems angry from the start and is always advocating resistance to the ''great owners'' that exploit the migrant workers. He strongly condemns the economic system that has impoverished the Joads, declaring:

''There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.''

He goes on to make a statement that could be seen as a threat to those who have flourished under this same system, warning them that ''the line between hunger and anger is a thin one '' and that ''the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.'' In other words, the anger of those who have been exploited will soon 'ripen', and will come to bear on those who have an abundance of resources. Here, the narrator acts as the voice of wrath for the collective.

Narrator as Moral Guide

In the novel, the economy is depicted as an inexorable force that dictates the actions of the characters, most of whom have a limited understanding of it. The narrator, however, is savvy to this force and knows that its effects could be lessened if the wealthy were not so selfish and short-sighted.

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