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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

This is the story of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers. Unless you've spent a good deal of time in the rural South and Southwest, you've probably never met anyone like them. They are tough people, but not insensitive. They have strong feelings, and when you see all they have to endure, you end up admiring them.

At the beginning of the novel, the Joads have been thrown off their farm by the bank that owns the land. A long drought has made farming unprofitable, and so the Joads, who have occupied the land for more than a generation, cannot stay. According to handbills they've seen, good jobs are plentiful in California. When we first meet the Joads, they are about to join thousands of other poor families on an 1800-mile trek West.

Just before they leave, the second oldest son, Tom, rejoins the family after having spent four years in prison. He brings with him a former preacher, Jim Casy, who has recently given up his worship of a divine God and now believes that the holy spirit can be found in people's love for one another. Casy's idea becomes a major theme in the novel.

The Joads buy a used truck and pile it high with their belongings. At the last minute, however, Grampa Joad refuses to go. He cannot tear himself away from the land of his roots. Knowing that they must stick together, the family numbs the old man with medicine and loads him onto the truck. But not long after, Grampa dies and is buried alongside Route 66, the main road west. while crossing the desert on the last leg of the journey to California, Granma dies too.


Between the chapters that tell the story of the Joad family, we find so-called intercalary, or interchapters. Usually odd-numbered, these interchapters tell the story of the Dust Bowl and the migrant workers' life on the road. Taken all together, the interchapters show us the social and historical background of events in the story. They also are Steinbeck's way of expressing his opinions about some of America's social ills in the 1930s. His viewpoint is crystal clear: Steinbeck sympathizes with the migrants and condemns the banks, the police, the landowners, and anyone else who contributes to the migrants' plight. But he also believes that, in spite of maltreatment, the poor and dispossessed workers have a nobility and inner strength that will assure their survival. He advocates the need for workers to band together: in their unity they will find the power to claim their rightful place in American society.

Once in California, the Joads discover the truth of the rumors they heard en route: as migrants they are not welcome; there are too few jobs. When they can find work, the pay is so low that they can barely afford food. They are forced to settle in squalid camps called Hoovervilles. In one camp Tom Joad gets into a fight with an abusive deputy. When the sheriff comes to arrest Tom, Casy offers to go to jail in his place. After a time they find a government-run camp where life is fairly decent, but they can't find jobs nearby. So they move to a peach-growing area where pickers are needed. As they drive into the Hooper Ranch to claim jobs, they notice an angry crowd at the gate. That night Tom discovers that the crowd is a group of workers on strike and that Casy is the strike leader. Casy convinces Tom that all the working people must stick together.

A band of thugs hired by the ranch owners kills Casy. In the melee, Tom strikes and kills one of Casy's murderers. But Tom's face is gashed. To keep Tom from being caught, the family conceals him between mattresses on their truck, and flees the Hooper Ranch. Next, the Joads settle in a camp made up of abandoned railroad boxcars. Tom's little sister Ruthie brags in public about her fugitive brother, forcing Tom to hide in a cave. Finally, he decides to go off on his own and carry on Casy's work.

The Joads find work picking cotton, but huge rains cause floods. The family has no food and little hope. The oldest daughter, Rose of Sharon, gives birth to a stillborn child. As the book ends, Rose of Sharon, realizing that people need each other to survive, breast-feeds a dying stranger.

 

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