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Free Study Guide-The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck-Free BookNotes
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Major Themes

The first theme is an outcry against the ill treatment of all migrant workers. Through the story of the Joads, the novel vividly reveals the horror of their existence and the effects of poverty on them. Steinbeck is pleading, in general, for an end to man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Specifically, he calls for a more humane treatment of the migrant worker.

Tom Joad's growth in insight illustrates another of the main Themes in the novel. Tom symbolizes the Biblical theme of growth, the assertion that the continuation of life requires rebirth and that all people have the potential of growth (rebirth). When Tom comes out of prison, he is selfish and individualistic, although he has a strong love for his family. His experiences in California, coupled with the influence of his mother and Casy, increase his wisdom and greatly change him from his selfish ways. He learns to embrace Casy's concept of the Oversoul and becomes aware that he has to be concerned not only with his own family's welfare but also with the welfare of all families. He hopes to translate Casy's philosophy into action and is quite willing to sacrifice his life for others families. By the end of the novel, he has truly gone through a "rebirth." His new knowledge offers a hope for the future, an end to the miserable level of existence that is portrayed throughout The Grapes of Wrath.

Minor Themes

The novel reveals Steinbeck's belief that humanity must adapt to the changing environment in order to survive. The landowners will have to adapt to new rules of humanity if they expect to peacefully retain and farm their land.

The novel is also preoccupied with the theme of love of the earth. The earth imagery performs a dual function of signifying love and of signifying endurance. Both these qualities are embodied in the character of Ma Joad.

The theme of familial survival also underlies the narrative action of the entire novel. During the tough journey to California, Ma Joad acts as the cohesive force who keeps her family together.

The theme of human dignity is also significant in the novel. The hardships of the migrant way of life thrust the problem of survival, at an animal level, on the Joads. Despite their hardships, the Joads always act proudly. Although they are concerned about survival, in terms of their search for food and shelter, they maintain a sense of human dignity.


The Grapes of Wrath is a tragic story of the dispossession of the Joads, and the predominant mood is dark and gloomy. But there are also moments of light-hearted humor, which provides relief and restores faith in the human ability to survive against all odds.

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