The Grapes of Wrath Setting: Description, Importance & Analysis

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, you will learn about John Steinbeck's ability to immerse the reader into his world of 'The Grapes of Wrath' by showing the suffering of the land and the humanity of the Joads.

The World of The Grapes of Wrath

Think about your own home--what endears it to you and makes you never want to leave it behind. Now imagine the sun burning the land and wind kicking up dust clouds so severe that they creep their way into every part of your home, making it impossible to survive. This is the world we enter in The Grapes of Wrath, a novel with the incredible power to create an entirely new world. When we read this novel by John Steinbeck, we put our own world on pause, so to speak, and get lost in Steinbeck's.

Born in America at the turn of the century, Steinbeck often drew the worlds of his stories from real-life historical events. He was a master novelist who knew how to make his created worlds come alive. His attention to detail and carefully descriptive scenes in The Grapes of Wrath immerse his reader into the Dust Bowl, a time of severe drought which caused dust storms across the Great Plains. Also happening during this time was the Great Depression, a ten-year period (1929-1939) of economic downturn in the United States. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joads, a family of Oklahoma farmers as they grapple with the fallout of these two catastrophes. By leaning into Steinbeck's scenes and descriptions, we come to more fully understand the farmers' humanity.

Visualizing the Dying Land

Dying Land of the Dust Bowl

The Grapes of Wrath opens with a scene of Oklahoma land growing green under the gentle rains of the spring, only to become scorched and starving by the end of May, with the summer months still to come:

Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled… Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again. (1-2)

This opening description of the Dust Bowl does more than simply tell us that a drought hovered over Oklahoma, killing the crops and turning the land to dust, but shows us how the drought slowly destroys the land. By showing us how the Dust Bowl crept upon the land and its inhabitants, rather than simply telling us, Steinbeck offers his reader a visceral experience.

Leaving Home

A Home Left Behind in the Dust Bowl
DB homes

After the Joads lose their land, as they are unable to grow the crops that paid for it, they pack their things and set out to California to find work. This seems fairly reasonable considering that drought has made it impossible to farm in Oklahoma. The harsh living conditions of a Dust Bowl-stricken Oklahoma prairie make the promise of a lush and welcoming California seem ideal. And yet, despite the rationale for loading up their truck and leaving, it is painful to leave one's home, especially under such trying circumstances as the Joads found themselves in:

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