The Grapes of Wrath: Plot & Structure Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will analyze the plot structure of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, ''The Grapes of Wrath,'' using the Freytag pyramid, a model of dramatic action that can help us better understand its plot structure.

The Grapes of Wrath and Freytag's Pyramid

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is the story of dispossessed tenant farmers, the Joads, who are forced to migrate west to find work. To some readers, the Joads' desperate journey can seem rambling and pointless, or even plot-less. However, it actually has a very conventional plot that becomes easier to see when discussed in terms of Freytag's pyramid. Freytag's pyramid is a model of dramatic action that can help us identify and describe the plot of The Grapes of Wrath.


Freytag's Pyramid


The first element of this model, exposition, introduces a reader to fundamental elements of the story: setting, characters, and the situation that a character or characters must resolve. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's exposition spans several chapters. He opens with a description of the drought-stricken Oklahoma landscape from which a family of tenant farmers, the Joads, will be forced to flee. He then introduces us to Tom Joad, who has recently gotten out of prison and is hitchhiking home to see his family. When he arrives home, he finds his family reluctantly preparing to leave as the drought-stricken farm is being razed by its owners. Early on, readers know where the story is taking place, who the Joads are, and what their main problem is.

Rising Action

Once the basic facts of the story have been introduced, the rising action ensues. Rising action is further development of the situation that has been introduced in the exposition. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads set out to find work, and the rising action is a series of events that occur as they make this journey. A particularly significant event is the discovery of handbills that advertise an abundance of work and relatively pleasant living conditions in the orchards of California. This prospect motivates the Joads to direct their journey towards these orchards, an action that creates a sense of anticipation in both the characters and the reader, as they all wonder if California will provide the Joads with the life they are seeking.


The climax of a story is an event that delivers on the promises that the rising action makes, and compels the main characters to deal with a problem introduced in the exposition and developed in the rising action. For the Joads, this climax occurs when they arrive at the orchards in California and the actual working and living conditions contradict their dream of comfort and prosperity. Once the Joads realize that they will face familiar hardships in this new setting, they are forced to confront the harsh realities of an economic system that does not value their labor.

Falling Action

The falling action of a story is an event or series of events that depicts the characters' responses to the climax. Casy, an ex-preacher and family friend who travels with the Joads, tries to organize a strike but is killed by employees of an orchard owner. In turn, Tom Joad kills one of Casy's assassins and becomes a hunted man. The Joads refuse to let Tom set out on his own for the good of the family, so they smuggle him out of the orchards and set out to find work elsewhere. They find work picking cotton and a boxcar to live in, and Tom hides in a nearby culvert. But soon people find out about Tom, and he leaves to protect his family.

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