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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Themes


In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck explores multiple universal ideas. Although minor themes are also explored in the text, Steinbeck presents three major themes: Individual versus Community, Selfishness versus Kindness, and Meekness versus Wrath. Each theme consists of a duality, in which one idea or attitude is contrasted with its opposite. Also, each theme interrelates and thereby influences the other themes.

Individual versus Community

Individual versus Community is the most important theme in The Grapes of Wrath. At the beginning of the novel, Tom Joad embodies individualism. He is an outsider in society, a person just released from prison who focuses on his own business and no one else's. The truck driver who gives Tom a lift soon finds this out. Tom resents the driver's prying questions and wishes he would mind his own business. Throughout the novel, Tom talks about just focusing on the problems of today. He even gives this advice to his mother when she worries about the future of her family. Also, many other characters are shown as individuals who do not concern themselves with the problems of others. For instance, in Chapter 5, the tractor driver plows over the homes of tenant farmers even though he is a son of one of these farmers. The driver excuses this action by saying, "Three dollars a day ... I got a wife and kids. We got to eat." So for some of these individualists, personal or family necessity drives them to act in ways that hurt others.

Steinbeck develops the idea of community on two levels: family and humanity. Ma has a fierce desire to keep her family together. With increased resilience, she takes Tom's advice and focuses on the problems of each day without looking too far into the future. Ma combines this attitude with a kindness and determination toward her family that strives to keep them together. However, as the hardships of her family and other migrants get worse, Ma sees the need to expand her community beyond her family to the common people. She exemplifies these ideals when she supports Rose of Sharon's decision to breastfeed a starving man.

Tom also changes from an individualist to a person committed to serving the community. His love for his mother and other family members allows him to reach beyond himself to others. Tom is somewhat influenced by Ma's ideas about the strength of the people. "We're the people that live," she tells him. "They ain't gonna wipe us out." However, the strongest influence on his transformation is the former preacher, Casy. Through Casy, Steinbeck presents his view of the human community. Casy sees all people as being part of one soul. This relates to the idea of the "oversoul," a concept discussed by transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson that asserts that a universal spirit unites all living things. When people join together for the common good, they have the strength to overcome oppression. Eventually, Tom understands and accepts these ideas.

Selfishness versus Kindness

Steinbeck contrasts several examples of selfishness and kindness throughout the novel. The main proponents of a selfish attitude are the major landowners and the Bank and their desire for increased profits. These entities focus only on getting profits; they do not care how they abuse others. Owners and the Bank force tenant farmers to leave their homes. Also, they intentionally attract many more workers than jobs available to keep wages down and prices up. As a result, people are torn from their homes, families are broken apart, people live in deplorable conditions, and some people starve to death. Those who work for these selfish entities become robots, mechanically doing their work without any concern about how they are harming others. They even commit heinous crimes, like destroying oranges instead of letting starving people eat them.

Contrarily, Steinbeck presents various examples of kindness. These acts often take place between common people helping one another during hard times. The Wilsons and Joads help one another and thereby form a small community as they travel together toward California. The waitress that helps the migrant family with food is another example. The Wilkie family offers work to Tom, even though doing so means less work for them. Mrs. Wainwright helps Ma deliver Rose of Sharon's baby, even though she has no family ties with the Joads.

Kindness is the glue that holds the community together. Kind people in the government camp encourage an efficient, strong, and caring community. Casy brings migrants together to lead a strike because of his concern for their welfare. Also, Casy dies a sacrificial death for the good of the migrants, which is the ultimate kindness. By performing the ultimate kindness of breastfeeding the starving man, Rose of Sharon symbolically forms a community with humanity. In contrast, selfishness tears communities apart. This is evident when large landowners destroy the community of tenant farmers by forcing them off their land. In California, landowners constantly want to keep the migrants moving to prevent them from joining together and forming a unified community. Keeping migrant workers oppressed and weak enhances their selfish goals.

Meekness versus Wrath

The meek attitude of the migrants allows landowners and the Bank to exploit them. Migrants become docile puppets controlled by the landowners, who act as puppet masters. The landowners and the Bank have created an elaborate system for their own advantage. In Oklahoma, owners force tenants off their land, thus creating thousands of people who are unemployed. In California, landowners attract these people to their large farms. By doing this, the landowners create high unemployment, which enables them to have their crops picked for a very low price. The meekness of the migrants allows them to be exploited within this system. As a result, the migrants are constantly abused, and some even starve.

For Steinbeck, migrants can rebel against this system by using their anger, or wrath. Anger, however, is a volatile emotion. Tom gets angry when pushed around by authority figures, and he lashes out in ways that get him arrested, thereby making him ineffective. Steinbeck's answer is for people to channel their anger for the common good. Ma shows this ability when she uses her anger to stand up to her family and keep them together. When the mob stops the Joads near the Hooverville, both Tom and Ma get angry. However, Ma sees the need to control her anger and Tom's anger as well. Lashing out at the mob would do more harm than good. When Tom kills the policeman that killed Casy, he commits murder, which is not in the common good. Also, this action could easily get him arrested and bring trouble to his family. However, when Tom hides out, he comes to understand Casy's ideas. By doing this, he can focus his anger toward a cause that serves the common good.

Because the migrants are oppressed, wrath builds in their souls. Chapter 25 ends with the line, "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing." For Steinbeck, this idea is so important that he titled the novel The Grapes of Wrath. The author sees this wrath as providing the impetus that will unite people to fight against oppression. Tom, Ma, and Casy all feel this wrath and use it for the benefit of the community. In the government camp, migrants are angry with the police for trying to break up the dance. However, they use their anger to focus on working as a community to prevent any future disturbances.

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