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Summary Article: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)
From Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's epic Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the Great Depression, tells the story of the Joads, once independent farmers but now Dustbowl refugees, migrant laborers on the road to California after the bank forecloses on their Oklahoma farm. Their story translates the epic myth of the Western frontier, the settler's struggle for a piece of land and a share of the American Dream, into the harsh economic, social, and political realities of 1930s America. Controversial, even inflammatory, on its initial publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was a monumental bestseller despite being banned in countless libraries, publically burned in Bakers field, California, and denounced as communistic propaganda in the United States Senate. Seventy years later it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year in almost every major language in the world.

With its radically progressive social agenda The Grapes of Wrath permanently redefined the nation's moral and political center as few works of fiction ever have. It critiqued market capitalism, arguing that Americans should not go hungry when farms produce abundant food or live without homes when foreclosed houses stand vacant. It documented abuses of migrant workers in California's fields and orchards, and supported labor's right to organize for a fair, living wage. It showed the importance of humanitarian relief programs and safety nets for the old, the frail, children, the homeless, and the unemployed, and argued that the rule of law should give as fair a deal to the powerless as to the well to do.

In addition to its progressive social agenda, Steinbeck's novel is deeply ecological in its analysis, detailing the consequences of a largely man-made environmental disaster, and suggesting the then radical notion that government land-use policy should not be solely under the control of corporations. The Grapes of Wrath also prefigures by half a century many of today's most important ecological concepts. Like all of Steinbeck's books, it emphasizes the interdependence of all life; the idea, as he puts it in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, that “man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknown” (Log 217). Steinbeck drew much of the novel's philosophical orientation from his long time friend and intellectual collaborator, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, whose pioneering study of Pacific coast intertidal habitats, Between Pacific Tides, had just been published. Preacher Casy's emphasis on the interconnectedness of human culture and the natural world draws its inspiration from Ricketts's holistic philosophy. “There was the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn't separate no more,” Casy tells Tom. “We was one thing. An’ there was me an’ the hills an’ there was the stars an’ the black sky, an we was all one thing. An’ that one thing was holy” (Grapes of Wrath 83).

The Grapes of Wrath also addresses what Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson identifies in his 1984 memoir, Biophilia, as the human need to connect emotionally with other species, a need denied by science's long-standing taboo against “subjectivity” in its reporting. For Wilson the artist's narrative subjectivity can “re-enchant” the natural world — a necessary step toward changing human-environmental interactions. “It is time,” he wrote, echoing not only Steinbeck, but Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic, “to invent moral reasoning of a new and more powerful kind, to look at the very roots of motivation and understand why, in what circumstances and on which occasions we cherish and protect life” (Biophilia 138-39). Steinbeck directly politicizes these scientific “objective” and personal “subjective” ways of seeing the environment. For the banks, the Oklahoma land is an economic investment, fueled by non-farming speculators and government wheat subsidies, causing a frenzy of plowing-under the grasslands until the price dropped out and the soil eroded:

The bank — the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size…. The tenant system won't work any more. One man and a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it.

But you'll kill the land with cotton.

We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies [35].

Steinbeck contrasts this view of the land with how a farmer knows that same land: as memory, as narrative, as community. As farmer Muley tells Tom and Casy, “the place where folks live is them folks” (55). Humans are inseparable from the environment they inhabit because they have invested it with meaning, because their minds are filled with its stories. The land is enchanted, filled with our ghosts, our culture, our history, and to destroy it is to destroy something human about ourselves. The whole, Steinbeck reminds us, echoing Wilson, is more than the sum of the parts:

… nitrates are not the land, nor phosphate; and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not the man, nor salt nor water, nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis.

The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch, that man who is more than his elements knows that the land is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know or love, understands only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and himself [117].

Another way this difference between dead objectivity and living subjectivity manifests itself is in relation to animals — the turtle Tom picks up for the kids and then lets go when they leave for California, the Joad dogs, the dog killed by the speeding car of a rich tourist, the rabbits and snakes that repopulate the abandoned farms, or the horses no longer needed behind the plows:

And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws clamp on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse [117].

Yet even as their houses and possessions are being tractored under, Steinbeck's migrants adapt and survive. Here, too, the novel's holistic and organic descriptions of communities interacting with and adapting to their immediate surroundings are patterned on biological models. Even before the Joads leave Oklahoma, Steinbeck metaphorically roots the coming diaspora in biology, the struggle for survival, and the reproduction of species:

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken dry grass, and the heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog's coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse's fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep's wool; sleeping life waiting to be dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man's trouser cuff or the hem of a woman's skirt, all passive, but armed with the appliances of activity [18].

So, a pregnant Rose of Sharon climbs up on the old Hudson truck, attaching herself on top like the clover burrs and thistles to better the chances of her seed's survival.

As the migrants push westward along Route 66, the shift from the personal and individual “I” to the collective and communal “we” is also given a biological metaphor: “This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows ‘We lost our land’” (152). A similar metaphorical use of biology occurs in Chapter 17, again illustrating the collective response to a perceived threat: “In the daylight,” Steinbeck writes, “they scuttled like bugs to the westward, and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to water…. They huddled together, they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (194). This theme runs throughout Steinbeck's novel. “Every night a world created,” described with the same sensitivity and reverence for detail that he and Ricketts had once brought to the Pacific tide pools — a habitat of water, a river bank, a spring, an unguarded faucet, some flat land to pitch tents, a little brush to build a fire, a garbage dump to scavenge supplies, but most importantly, the interconnected biological and human communities that bind us together.

  • Astro, Richard. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist. University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis, 1973.
  • Beegel, Susan F.; Susan Shillinglaw; Wesley N. Tiffany (Eds.) Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches. University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa, 1997.
  • Benson, Jackson. The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. Penguin Books New York, 1990.
  • Owens, Louis. The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land. Twayne Boston, 1989.
  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism. Peter Lisca; Kevin Hearle, eds. Penguin Books New York, 1997.
  • Steinbeck, John. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. iking Press New York, 1962.
  • Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, De Mott, Robert , Ed. Viking Press New York, 1989.
  • Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA, 1984.
  • Michael Zeitler
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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