The Grapes of Wrath: Protagonist & Antagonist

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

''The Grapes of Wrath'' tells the story of migrant workers during the Great Depression. In this tale, we see the roles of protagonist and antagonist filled by central characters and institutions. In this lesson, you'll learn more about each role.

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's exploration of migrant workers struggling to chase the American Dream is played out in his novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The tale follows the Joad family as they face the harsh realities of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and set out for California to make a better life. What they find in California is not exactly what they were hoping for.

As in most novels, several characters play important roles in helping readers understand the action. Two of the most important roles are protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the leading character and is often the hero or heroine; often this character is the leader of a cause that readers can support and identify with. On the other side of the aisle is the antagonist. The antagonist is who the reader likely perceives as the bad guy or the adversary of the hero: this is the person or entity that is opposed to, or struggles with, the protagonist of the book.

In the case of The Grapes of Wrath, there is an identifiable character that fits each role. Let's take a look at who fills the positions of protagonist and antagonist in Steinbeck's work.

The Protagonist

When we look for a protagonist in The Grapes of Wrath, we need look no further than Tom Joad. Joad is the main character of the novel and also the first character we're introduced to as the story unfolds. As the protagonist, Joad is the hero of this story.

Joad is the favorite son of Ma and Pa Joad and is characterized by his many layers of personality. On one hand, he is kind, good-natured, works hard for his family, and is a go-getter. On the other hand, he is hot-tempered and violent, having killed a man in a drunken fight and attacked a policeman in another incident.

As the novel progresses, Joad's perspective shifts from protecting and guiding his family in the here and now, to wanting to protect and guide the migrant workers in America now and into the future. At one point, he tells his mother he wants to help organize people and fight inequality. This process is termed an 'education of the heart', as he learns more about the situation he finds his family and others in, and works to change it.

Joad is viewed as a wise and morally just individual throughout the novel, despite some of his illegal activities. Joad's personal development throughout the novel helps him to shift his perspective from only his family to a new family that encompasses those he sees suffering around him. By the time the book ends, Joad has earned the respect of the workers and the continued respect of his family.

The Antagonist

The idea of an antagonist in The Grapes of Wrath is an interesting one because, depending on your outlook, it could be one of two forces - a physical one or a thematic one.

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