The Grapes of Wrath: Summary, Characters & Themes

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a gritty, realistic look at life in the Dust Bowl in America during the Great Depression. This lesson will focus on the summary, characters, and themes of The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath was written in 1939 and portrays life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and remains a classic of American literature.

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

Plot of The Grapes of Wrath

Tom Joad has been incarcerated for the past four years for murder. On parole, he heads home to Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Before he get there, he meets Jim Casy, who used to be a preacher. Casy accompanies Tom to his home, which is abandoned.

At the empty house, an old friend, Muley Graves, stops by. Muley tells them that tenant farmers have been evicted, the drought has ruined the farms, and dust storms are driving people away from Oklahoma. Many people have left for California, including Muley's family. The Joads are still in town, staying at Uncle John Joad's house.

The next day, Tom and Casy go to Uncle John's house. Tom is received with joy by his mother, Ma Joad, his father Pa Joad, Grampa, Granma, his brothers Noah, Al, and Winfield, his sisters Rose of Sharon and Ruthie, and Rose of Sharon's husband, Connie Rivers. The Joads are preparing to move to California. Grampa refuses to leave, but they drug him with cough medicine and put him into their old car.

The journey is unpleasant. The Joads meet Ivy and Sairy Wilson, a couple who are also heading west. The Wilsons let the ill Grampa take a nap in their tent, where he dies of a stroke. The men bury him, and the two families decide to caravan to California.

But the Wilsons' car dies. The families camp while Tom and Al work on the car. A man at the campsite claims there are no jobs in California. Worried, the Joads and the Wilsons press on.

When they cross Arizona and drive into California, they meet people who tell them that there are no jobs in California and the residents there hate the migrants. Noah tells them he's not going any further and leaves.

Ma is worried about Granma, who is very ill. Sairy is also very ill, and Ivy tells the Joads to go on without them. They do, but Granma dies in the car. The Joads drive to Bakersfield. The Joads then go to a campsite called Hooverville. There, they meet Floyd Knowles, who warns them that jobs are very scarce and the whole system is corrupt.

A brawl breaks out between Floyd and a contractor and quickly involves the police. In the chaos, Casy kicks a policeman until he is unconscious. Casy is arrested. When the chaos settles, Connie has abandoned the family, and Rose of Sharon, who is pregnant, is inconsolable.

The family goes south to Weedpatch, where there is a job picking peaches. Here, Tom meets back up with Casy, who has been picketing to protest the low wages. Soon, Casy and Tom are caught by authorities. Casy is killed when someone hits him in the head with a pick-axe. Tom is badly beaten, but he pulls the pickaxe from Casy's head and kills the man who killed Casy.

Now Tom is a wanted man, so the family leaves. They decide to camp in an abandoned boxcar while they work picking cotton. In an altercation with a bully, Ruthie shouts out that her brother has killed two men. Tom says a tearful farewell to his family and leaves.

That winter, a flood starts just as Rose of Sharon goes into labor. The baby is born dead while the water rises. The Joads leave the boxcar, though Al decides to remain with his new fiancée. They find an abandoned barn. Inside are a man and a little boy. The father is near death from starvation, as he's been giving all his food to his son. Rose of Sharon lets him drink her breastmilk, saving his life.

Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl
Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl

Characters in The Grapes of Wrath

Tom Joad is a tough guy who often reverts to his fists, or whatever tool is handy, in a fight. But he's also a great big brother, full of advice, and kind to strangers. He doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the Joad family.

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