The Grapes of Wrath Realism Quotes

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we will learn how Steinbeck represents realism, particularly social realism, in the 'Grapes of Wrath.' We also come to understand how nature effects the social economic status of tenant farmers.

Realism in The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is realist novel. This means that while Steinbeck incorporates things like metaphor, allegory, and symbolism, among other literary tropes, he doesn't evoke any sort of magical or unrealistic narrative threads in the novel. The Grapes of Wrath, like all works of realism, functions on the plane of reality, even though the narrative is a fictive one. With this in mind, it's helpful to understand there are various aspects of realism. In this lesson, we will focus on social realism, the depiction of society as it exists, and the realist depiction of the natural world and how it contributes to tenant farmers social economic status.

Social Realism in the Grapes of Wrath

Two Children Much Like the Boys Depicted in The Grapes of Wrath Passage Below
Children GD

Social realism isn't what we might think when we first here the term. That is, social realism isn't about a character's social life, their social media accounts, the social events they attend, or their popularity. Rather, it is the depiction of the economic and political systems which effect society. Steinbeck is a master of depicting the social struggles of the working class and impoverished during the Great Depression, which was a huge economic downturn from 1929 until the late 1930s. His details on the suffering and challenges the poor faced are unflinching, so much so that there's times we may have a hard time handling the difficult material he creates.

Because we know that Steinbeck based the Grapes of Wrath on tenant farmers during the Great Depression, we understand that the people he depicts in the novel are representations of actual real people. This understanding can make for a painful read at times, but it can also evoke empathy in readers, something which Steinbeck hoped to do at the time of the novel's publication, so as to bring awareness to the plight of the poor. Let's consider the following quote from Chapter 15 when a tenant farmer enters a restaurant with his two boys to barter for bread:

The boys edged in behind him and they went immediately to the candy case and stared in--not with craving or hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be. They were alike in size and their faces were alikeā€¦ He (their father) moved slowly down to them. He pointed in the case at big long sticks of striped peppermint. 'Is them penny candy, ma'am?' Mae moved down and looked in. 'Which ones?' 'There, them stripy ones.' The little boys raised their eyes to her face and they stopped breathing; their mouths were partly open, their half-naked bodies were rigid. 'Well no--them's two for a penny.'

Though this is may seem like a relatively uncomplicated quote, there's actually quite a lot going on here. The way the boys edge in behind their father shows their eagerness to see what's inside the restaurant, however their poverty has taught them not to even hope for the things they know their father cannot afford. And although Mae, the restaurant owner, is at first unwilling to barter for bread, once she decides to do so, knowing that she will take a loss on the sale, offers a kind lie to the father and takes a penny for two pieces of candy that were actually worth ten cents. The interaction between the father and Mae, and most importantly the behavior of the boys, tells us that each are struggling against economic restraints. That is, their social reality is one that makes affording necessities difficult, and parting with necessities at a lower cost, as Mae does, is also difficult. And yet, as Steinbeck so often shows, here is another example of the poor finding it in their heart to help other the poor.

The Natural World in The Grapes of Wrath

Corn Husk Blowing in the Wind

While Steinbeck's dedicated to representing life as it was lived during the time of the Great Depression, he was also very attuned with the land. That is, he wrote the land, wrote nature, as intricately as he did his characters. Consider the following quote from Chapter 1:

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