The Grapes of Wrath Themes: Overview & Examples

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will provide an overview of major themes in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' John Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the struggles of the Joad family during the Great Depression.


The Grapes of Wrath can seem like just a long, sad story about a family that suffers misfortune after misfortune and never really recovers. However, within the tale of the Joad family's migration from the drought-stricken fields of their Oklahoma farm to backbreaking labor and poverty in the orchards of California, Steinbeck addresses many larger ideas, or themes, that can enhance our understanding and appreciation for this bleak novel. Let's take a look at a few of the most significant themes and how they are expressed in the novel.

Capitalism and Dehumanization

Among the most prominent themes in The Grapes of Wrath is the dehumanizing nature of capitalism. Throughout the novel, many characters are forced to act against others for their own economic interests. Steinbeck's narrative voice also criticizes this system more directly in the short chapters that punctuate the story of the Joads. The forces of capitalism are often depicted in terms of machines or monsters, with humans both rich and poor as the victims.

For example, in Chapter 5, tenant farmers watch as a man on a tractor approaches to bulldoze their homes. Initially, Steinbeck writes that he 'did not look like a man' and 'he was a part of the monster.' But as he draws near, the farmers recognize the man as a neighbor and ask him why he is coming to destroy their homes. He explains that he needs a wage to feed his family, so he continues his work. He seems to regret what he is about to do, but he feels he must serve the 'monster' for his own family's survival.

The nameless 'great owners' that Steinbeck refers to throughout the novel must also rationalize the injustices of low wages for harsh work. They do this in differing ways. As Steinbeck puts it, 'Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves.' This larger something can be thought of as the economic forces of capitalism, the 'monster' that acts as a dehumanizing force.

Individual Interests vs the Common Good

There are many instances in The Grapes of Wrath where people, like these 'great owners' or the wage-earner on the tractor, are alienated from others by pursuing their own interests. As Steinbeck writes, 'the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.'' However, there are also groups of people in the novel that support each other for their common good.

One example of this theme is in Chapter 22, in which the Joads arrive at the Weedpatch camp, where they find refuge from the harsh conditions of the road. Here, Steinbeck depicts families gathering to share meals, tell stories of common troubles, and help each other find work. They elect their own managers and police, and they can either pay or work for their rent. This is one of many instances in the novel that bears out Ma Joad's statement that 'If you're in trouble or hurt or need--go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help--the only ones.'

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