The Grapes of Wrath: Tone & Mood

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

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

Steinbeck's use of language in ''The Grapes of Wrath'' not only helps to set the tone of the piece, but also the mood. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look some of the tones derived from his writing, and moods the reader may experience.

The Grapes of Wrath

You can tell a lot about John Steinbeck and his novel from the language used to construct it. Steinbeck paints a true picture of the conditions of the Joad family, the central characters in the book, and the migrant workers through his use of descriptive writing that makes us feel as though we're traveling alongside the characters and experiencing their struggles.

The overall story of The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they're forced to leave Oklahoma and head west in pursuit of the American Dream. It's set during the time of the Dust Bowl (which damaged crops and bankrupted farms) and the Great Depression (which saw lots of job and economic loss). As such, you'd expect the tone and mood of the novel to be grim and even depressing, but there are other emotions coming from the author and out of the book's audience. Let's take a look at each category in this lesson.


The tone of a book is frequently described as how the author feels about what he's writing. Light-hearted, flowery words and phrases may tell you that the author is particularly happy or positive about the plot of a tale; angry, biting words tell you something else indeed. It's in the latter category where we find Steinbeck. Here are some tones you might pick up on while reading The Grapes of Wrath.

1. Anger: One thing is clear from Steinbeck's writing - he's angry. Angry at the circumstances, angry at the treatment of the workers, angry at the conditions of the migrant camps and angry with the institutions (like the banks) he felt further oppressed people during the time period illustrated.

2. Sadness: Very early in the book, Steinbeck describes a bleak outlook for the Oklahoma terrain, mentioning the country being 'gray,' the earth being 'scarred' and the 'last rain' to paint a depressed picture of the state of the Joads' situation. There's no sunshine mentioned, no birds and nothing green in Steinbeck's speech.

3. Desperation: We see desperation throughout the novel, but especially in Steinbeck's choice of choppy sentences, even sentence fragments, that seem to convey panicked characters on the edge between eating and not eating, between providing for their families and letting them suffer.

For example, in the book's 21st chapter, Steinbeck quotes a character explaining the lack of jobs: 'When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it, fought with a low wage. If that fella'll work for thirty cents, I'll work for twenty-five. If he'll take twenty-five, I'll do it for twenty. No, me, I'm hungry. I'll work for fifteen.'

4. Passion: There's no doubt that Steinbeck is passionate about the subject matter of the book. You may not know this without doing some background on Steinbeck, but he endured the travel west with a family and the conditions of the migrant workers to aid in writing his work. Steinbeck performed manual labor to finance his writing career. He took the plight of the migrant workers seriously and experienced some of it firsthand.


Think of the last magazine article you read. Was it a serious piece that made you think? Or, perhaps it was a lighter read or something heartwarming that left you feeling warm and fuzzy. Whichever it was, the author's writing probably had something to do with the mood you felt after reading it. Novels like Steinbeck's can generate the same type of emotions among its readers. Here are some moods you may derive from this work.

1. Sympathy: The realistic picture painted by Steinbeck, along with the very detailed account of everything from the characters' motivations to the description of their surroundings, offers a very bleak portrayal of the circumstances. You cannot help but sympathize for their situation and hope they're able to pull out of it.

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