Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

As I’m just wrapping up teaching this book with my juniors, I thought I’d write a review. The Grapes of Wrath is a classic, one of those books you should put on your bucket list. Don’t let its length scare you away, but know that the book is meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace rather than whizzed through during commercial breaks and smart phone beeps.

During the Dust Bowl era, Steinbeck traveled with a group of displaced farmers who, like many, were thrown from their land (either because the sharecropping model was no longer working or because they lost the mortgage on their own homes). Like many, they made a goal of traveling to California where, it was rumored, they could find work. This novel is a fictionalized account of Steinbeck’s own experience.

Packing an entire family into a customized car (the family includes Grandma, Grandpa, Ma, Pa, Tom, Rose of Sharon, Connie, Noah, Al, Ruthie, Winfield, and the preacher Jim Casy) as well as all their possessions, the Joads set out from Oklahoma to California. They’ve received a handbill claiming that there are orchards in need of workers to pick the profusely-growing fruits of the West Coast. What the Joads don’t understand is that the owners of these farms printed up many more handbills than they actually needed. When they arrive at California, there are many more workers than work, and the Joads find themselves competing for work, often taking a low-paying job for fear of starving (though with the wages they earn, starving is inevitable anyway).

The book really has two parts: the Joads’ journey to California and their experiences once they arrive. Each chapter of the Joads’ journey is broken up with an “interchapter,” a short essay in which Steinbeck describes an element of the journey experienced by the migrant workers. Chapter One describes (and personifies) the dust and the weather that caused the problems in the first place. Chapter Three, my absolute favorite chapter of any book, ever, describes a turtle crossing a highway. It’s a short chapter, but it’s ripe with symbolism, and as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that the turtle’s stubborn journey is a metaphor for the Joads’ (and the journey of all migrant workers).

My favorite part of the book is Steinbeck’s poetic style. The words roll off the page. But again, read the book when you have time to enjoy them. No sense in rushing such beautiful literature.

You can read the book from numerous perspectives—examining the juxtaposition of the interchapters, for example; examining the politics of the book (numerous times, the book was banned or frowned upon for suspected support of communism, though that’s not what Steinbeck was advocating); examining the metaphor Steinbeck creates between the Joads’ journey to California and Moses’ journey to free his people (they both cross a desert to reach a “promised land.”) But the angle from which I love to examine the book is that of the spirit of man. There’s nothing more inspiring than Jim Casy (yes, the initials are relevant) questioning religion and realizing that our definitions of “right” and “wrong” are often arbitrary, and, as Casy says, there’s just “what people do.” When we’re cut off from each other and not thinking about the consequences of our actions, that’s what’s not holy. When we think about fellow man, that’s holiness.

Tom Joad, the main character, could be considered a disciple of Casy. At the end of the novel, Tom leaves his family (for various reasons, but their safety is his primary concern—I won’t say more so as not to spoil the plot). But he tells his mother, “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere…I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad…I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they built – I’ll be there, too.” This speech embodies all that Casy has taught him–that we are all human beings, and we are all interconnected. The Transcendentalists would be proud.

Despite any of the various political ways people have read this book over the years, I love it for its celebration of the spirit of man. Tom, Ma, Casy, and Rose of Sharon especially embody this trait. The final scene, which is probably the strangest final scene of any work you will read, embodies this trait especially. I won’t give it away—you can look it up if you really want to. But what it comes down to is that mankind was meant to live, not just survive like animals, and despite oppression and hardship, he will ignite the flames of his spirit and use his life to leave a footprint of his existence and leave the world a little better than he found it.