Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Steinbeck’s best-known novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in 1939. It evokes the harshness of the Great Depression and inspires sympathy for the struggles of migrant farmworkers. The book became a classic in the United States.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

The Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers, travel to California in search of work after losing their land in the Dust Bowl during the Depression. While telling their story, Steinbeck inserts “interchapters” that describe the general living conditions of the 1930s against which the Joads’ personal struggle unravels.

Chapters 1–6 

In the middle of the 1930s Great Depression, a drought comes to Oklahoma’s farm country, creating a dust bowl where crops cannot grow. Farmers watch helplessly, wondering what they will do if the drought continues.

Tom Joad has served time in McAlester, the state prison, for having killed a man while defending himself in a fight. Released on parole, he hitchhikes to his family’s farm, and the truck driver who picks him up tells Tom that banks and landowners are forcing farmers and tenant farmers off the land. 

After a while, Tom gets off on a dirt road leading to his family’s farm and meets Jim Casy, a preacher who had baptized Tom when he was a boy. Casy tells Tom that he has given up preaching; he thinks that what people call the “Holy Spirit” is really the human spirit, and that true holiness is actually the ability to love all of humankind. 

He and Tom walk to the Joads’ farm, but find it deserted. The Joads have been evicted because farming is no longer profitable, and tenant farmers are no longer needed. One tractor can now do the work of several families, and the landowners shift the responsibility for the farmers’ dispossession onto the banks. 

Tractors appear, driven by men who were recently farmers and whom the banks now pay to flatten the terrain. One driver explains that he has taken the job to feed his family. He has orders to knock down the tenants’ houses with his tractor, even if the people have not yet moved out. 

A neighbor, Muley Graves, tells Tom that the Joads have moved in with Tom’s Uncle John and that the Joad family plan to migrate to California, as Muley’s family have done. Muley himself has refused to leave and lives as a fugitive. When a deputy sheriffs car approaches, the three men flee to Muley’s cave.

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Chapters 7–11 

Forced migration has caused a boom in the used car business. With little money and the necessity of acquiring a car, the farmers are easy victims of dishonest car dealers. Tom and Casy arrive at Uncle John’s, where they find Tom’s family preparing to leave for California, having heard that there is work there. 

After selling most of their belongings for $18, the family have bought an old dilapidated truck. When everything is ready for the journey, Tom’s mother, Ma Joad, persuades his father, Pa Joad, that there is enough room for Casy, who wants to travel with them. 

The group will include Noah, Tom’s mentally handicapped brother; Al, his younger brother; Rose of Sharon, Tom’s pregnant sister, and her husband, Connie Rivers; Tom’s youngest sister, Ruthie, and brother, Winfield; and Pa’s parents, Granma and Grampa. 

At the last minute, when Grampa refuses to go, they give him a sleeping medicine and load him on the truck.

Chapters 12–18 

U.S. Highway 66 is the road that leads from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to Bakersfield, California. Thousands of dispossessed farmers travel this route in their shabby cars, and it is on Highway 66 that the Joads meet Sairy (Sarah) and Ivy Wilson, a couple from Kansas whose car has broken down. 

At their first overnight stop—a field outside Oklahoma City—Grampa has a stroke and dies. Unable to afford an official burial, the family dig a grave and bury him themselves. A change begins to occur among people like the Joads, who learn that their individual problems are part of a larger group struggle involving all workers. 

Slowly, they become conscious of the injustices in life, and begin to think in terms of having lost “our” land instead of “my” land.

The Joads and Wilsons continue their journey across the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico. When the Wilsons’ car breaks down again, Tom suggests that he and Casy remain behind to fix it while the others continue in the truck. 

But Ma violently refuses to let the family break up. At a migrant camp, a ragged man tells the Joads that he is returning East from California, where conditions are actually worse than in the Dust Bowl. Casy, who remains optimistic, says that things may be different for them when they reach California.

As they travel through Arizona, the migrants establish a sense of community with other migrant families; they set up camps each night, find out if the water is good, sometimes entertain themselves with guitar playing, but usually go to bed early in preparation for the next day’s traveling. It is hot when they reach the California border; they set up camp beside a river near Needles and the Joad men go bathing. 

A man arrives with his son, en route to Oklahoma from California. He asks if the Joads have been called “Okies”—a term that once referred to people from Oklahoma, but which now means “dirty son-of-a-bitch.” 

He explains that some of the landowners in California fear an influx of desperate, hungry Okies, and that many farms are inactive because some owners do not wish to encourage the arrival of more migrant farmers. 

The Joads decide to cross the desert that night, but Noah wanders away and is not heard from again after telling Tom that he wants to stay at the river. Ma is confronted by a hostile policeman who threatens to jail the family if they remain at the camp. 

They decide to move on, but Sairy Wilson, dying from cancer, is too sick to travel. When the Joads depart, they leave food and money for the Wilsons. Granma, who has grown progressively worse since Grampa’s death, dies during the night desert crossing. They go to the coroner’s office in Bakersfield and make funeral arrangements.

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Chapters 19–25 

The history of landownership in California is one of hungry settlers who took the land from the Mexicans, farmed it as squatters, then kept it for themselves. As generations passed, the hunger was forgotten, and the “landowners” who had once been squatters hired immigrants to work their farms. 

Soon the owners managed their properties only on paper, hiring other people to oversee the daily operations of the farms. Then came this new wave of migrants—people such as the Okies, whom the owners hated because the migrants were hungry and would do anything for food, even steal.

The Joads drive to the outskirts of Bakersfield until they come to a migrant camp, known as a “Hooverville,” one of many shantytowns that had sprung up across America during the Depression. 

There, the Joads meet Floyd Knowles, who says that too many people arrive for the available jobs, and this makes it easy for landowners to cut wages to almost nothing. He explains that policemen harass the migrants and uproot them from their camps so that the migrants will not be able to get organized as a group. Connie, discouraged by conditions in California, walks down the road and abandons Rose of Sharon.

A contractor arrives with news that men are needed on a farm in Tulare County. When Floyd insists on having a contract that guarantees certain wages, the contractor becomes angry and calls for the deputy sheriff. 

When a fight breaks out, Floyd escapes but Casy is arrested after taking the blame for everyone. Floyd warns Tom that the deputy had threatened to burn their camp that night if the workers refuse to go to Tulare. Hearing this, the Joads move on.

People who were once tenant farmers are now victims of hunger and hostility. Local people fear and hate migrants because they compete for jobs and cause wages to fall. But some of the property owners enjoy big profits and send out handbills to attract more workers. 

Because labor is cheap, large owners can afford to reduce prices, forcing smaller farmers out. These farmers join the procession of dispossessed people, and the line between hunger and anger grows thinner: The “grapes of wrath [anger] are … growing heavy for the vintage.”

The Joads drive to Weedpatch, a comfortable government camp run by migrants. When Tom looks for work, Timothy Wallace, another migrant who has had 12 days of work, offers to take Tom along with him. The sympathetic orchard owner, Mr. Thomas, tells them that the local Land Association and the local police plan to make trouble during one of the camp’s Saturday dances.

When three troublemakers arrive at the dance, the migrants successfully thwart the intruders’ plan to cause trouble. The Joads, however, are still unable to find more than a few days’ work.

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Chapters 26–30 

Realizing that they have run out of money and food, Ma insists that they leave Weedpatch and go find more steady work. They drive 35 miles to a peach farm, the Hooper ranch, where they are hired to pick fruit at five cents a box. 

There is a great crowd of people shouting at the fence; they are laborers who have been mistreated by the landowners, but a policeman tells the Joads not to pay attention to them. After working all day, the Joads earn only one dollar since many of the peaches which they have picked are rejected as being unripe. 

Tom finds Casy at the orchard, helping migrant workers organize a strike. A group of men approaches and Casy is killed. Tom kills one of the attackers, but the strike is broken. Unable to feed themselves on the new wages, and fearing that Tom will be captured, the Joads leave. Tom avoids detection by hiding near a cotton field where his family hope to find work. 

When the Joads arrive at the cotton fields, they move into a boxcar with another family, the Wainwrights, whose daughter Agnes soon becomes engaged to Al Joad. Ruthie endangers Tom when she brags to a girl in the camp that her brother has killed two men. Ma alerts Tom, who flees after telling her that he will help organize the workers.

Heavy rains add to the migrants’ hardships. The men struggle to feed their families, while the women watch anxiously, afraid that the men might break under the strain. The women realize that the men will survive only as long as their anger is stronger than their fear. Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child, and shortly afterwards, flash floods force the Joads to move to an abandoned barn. 

Here, they find a boy and his dying father, weak from starvation. Encouraged by an unspoken message from Ma, Rose of Sharon lies down beside the man, cradles his head in her hands, and breast-feeds him like an infant.

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Ma Joad: Strong, loving matriarch; tries to hold the family together. Has a dream of living in a little white cottage. Insulted when the policeman calls them Okies; hurt when Noah separates from the family and when Connie abandons Rose. Learns at the Hooper ranch to depend on fellow migrants when in need. Embodies the philosophy of Jim Casy by showing compassion to strangers andextending the meaning of “family” to include all humankind.

Pa Joad: Tenant farmer who has been evicted from his farm. At first, concerned only with himself; as the novel develops, he learns about the need for cooperation with others.

Tom Joad: Ex-convict; protagonist (main character). At first, he is self-centered; later, he devotes himself to helping other people; tries to form a labor union that will protect the poor and exploited.

Jim Casy: Former preacher, rejects traditional religious beliefs. Has native intelligence, but is unable to express thoughts clearly. Thinks people need a sense of community and humanity that goes beyond the individual; believes all human souls are part of a larger soul. Attempts to bring individuals together into a labor union; killed in the process.

Noah: Eldest Joad son; brain damaged at birth. First of the Joads to leave the family unit.

Al Joad: Younger Joad son; age 16. Preoccupied with sex and cars. Becomes engaged to Agnes Wainwright.

Ruthie and Winfield: Youngest Joad children; age 12 and 10.

Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn): Tom’s pregnant sister; probably 18 or 19. Thinks almost exclusively in terms of being a mother.

Themes and Ideas

1. Religion

Traditional, orthodox religion is seen in a negative light since it encourages individuals to remain isolated and self-centered: Uncle John is preoccupied with guilt over his role in the death of his wife; a migrant woman sees everything in terms of sin and punishment.

Casy abandons orthodox religion in hopes of finding a deeper awareness of life and the universe. The understanding that he finally achieves is not “antireligious,” but rather a way of translating religion into responsible, humane action.

2. Transcendentalism 

When Casy says that “maybe all men got one bigsoul ever’body’s a part of,” he argues that humankind as a whole is more important than any one individual. Casy goes so far as to argue that perhaps there is no sin, that everything people do is “holy.”

His ideas are close to those of the 19th-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who abandoned traditional religious thought and argued the idea of an “Oversoul”—a collective unity of souls that transcends or goes beyond the individual soul.

Like Emerson, Casy comes to believe that people discover life’s true meaning only when they see their connection to other people and learn to love them. Casy’s belief is expressed in the growing sense of unity among the migrants and other dispossessed people.

3. Agrarianism 

The novel reaffirms Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Steinbeck emphasizes the importance of a unified, sharing attitude between humans and the earth. Industrialized farming is unfavorably compared to the simple way of farming by people whose lives depend on food from the land.

Tractors, land corporations, and bankers reflect the alienation and corruption that result when landownership and farming become a business. Migrants believe that the land belongs to those who work it and draw sustenance from it. This attitude is contrasted with that of landowners who allow their lands to lie dormant while others are hungry, and with absentee ownership that exists only to make a profit.

4. Communism

Throughout the novel, migrants are wrongly accused of being “Reds,” or Communists. There is no direct evidence in the novel that a larger political influence lies behind the migrants’ attempts to organize and protect themselves. Their ideal is not communism, but a communalism or a vague form of Christian socialism where people work together for the benefit of all. Tom explains to his mother that the union with other people gave Casy’s life a new meaning: “His little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.”

5. Isolation and Loneliness

Tom Joad, Casy, Muley Graves, and Uncle John are all isolated figures. Having been isolated in prison, Tom continues through most of the novel to be something of a “loner.” Casy feels that his life as a preacher has isolated him from the real meaning of life; his intense quest for understanding is paralleled by his growing bond with other people.

Muley Graves is “just wanderin’ aroun’ like a damn ol’ graveyard ghos’.” Similarly, Uncle John is described as the “loneliest … man in the world.” Steinbeck highlights the loneliness of these individuals against the backdrop of the larger isolation of the migrants as a whole, “out lonely on the road in a piled-up car.”

6. Family and The Education of The Heart

Ma Joad views the family unit as being more important than any individual member. She works throughout the journey to hold the family together while also learning to extend the meaning of “family” to include others: she convinces Pa to take Casy along, feeds hungry children, and prompts Rose to breast-feed a dying man.

Without being aware of it, Ma represents the philosophy of love and compassion for others that Casy struggles to put into words and that Tom (as his disciple) finally achieves. Ma, like others in her family, undergoes an “education of the heart”: She comes to grips with the reality that “the fambly’s breakin’ up” and realizes finally that “if you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”

She learns that survival depends on an ability to adapt to new surroundings, and shows that the Joad family’s “education of the heart” is complete only when they are able to give up the isolation of the clan and unify themselves with other humans.

Steinbeck’s message is that individuals must come together as families (“The family became a unit”), and families must join forces as a larger “family” of people helping each other (“The twenty families became one family”).

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1. The Grapes of Wrath

The novel’s tide is taken from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (second stanza), with its militant spirit that urges an oppressed group to strive for victory over its oppressors. On a symbolic level, the migrants cluster together, like grapes, in their shared misery and anger (wrath).

They survive persecution, hardships, and exploitation only because of their invincible courage. There are many biblical references to the grapes of wrath. For example, in the book of Revelation, the evil people who follow after Babylon (wickedness) will “drink of the wine of the wrath of God” and will be tormented.

In the novel, this happens to the wealthy landowners in California, whose exploitation of the migrants leads ultimately to the workers’ protests and strikes. Grapes are also a symbol of fruitfulness, bounty, and promise for the future. Grampa says, “Grapes. There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of.”

2. Christian Symbolism  

The Joads, like the Israelites, can be viewed as an oppressed, homeless group in search of the Promised Land. Jim Casy has withdrawn from the Church, as Christ withdrew from the old religion. Casy has “been a-goin into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out sumpin” and is in the process of forming a new set of “religious” beliefs based on the idea of love and unity among humans, similar to Christ’s.

Casy has the same initials as Christ, feels the same zest for teaching, gives himself up as a sacrifice when Tom is about to be arrested, and is killed, symbolically, in the middle of a river, as in the biblical crossing over Jordan. Christ’s last words before dying were: “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” Casy’s last words to his murderers are : “You fellas don’ know what you’re doin.”


1. Masterful storytelling and vivid imagery

Steinbeck’s prose is both poetic and powerful, painting a vivid picture of the Joad family’s journey and the struggles of migrant workers during the Great Depression. The novel’s imagery is especially striking, evoking both the beauty and the brutality of the natural world, as well as the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in American society.

2. Timely and thought-provoking themes

“The Grapes of Wrath” remains relevant today for its themes of poverty, injustice, and the exploitation of marginalized communities. Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism and his call for social justice are as urgent now as they were when the novel was first published over 80 years ago.

3. Impactful historical context

As a work of historical fiction, “The Grapes of Wrath” provides a window into the social and economic conditions of the 1930s, including the Dust Bowl and the mass migration of Oklahoman farmers to California. The novel’s depiction of this period in American history has influenced popular understanding of the era, and has inspired social and political movements to fight for workers’ rights and economic justice.


1. Heavy-handed political messaging

Some readers may find the novel’s political and social commentary to be heavy-handed and didactic, with characters delivering long speeches that feel more like political manifestos than natural dialogue. While these messages are central to the novel’s themes, some readers may find them to be overly didactic and detract from the story’s emotional impact.

2. Stereotypical characterization

Some critics have argued that the novel’s portrayal of migrant workers and Oklahoman farmers relies too heavily on stereotypes and fails to capture the complexity and diversity of these communities. For example, some have criticized the novel’s depiction of the Joads as stoic and self-sacrificing, arguing that this portrayal ignores the agency and resilience of migrant workers in the face of adversity.

3. Outdated language and cultural references

As a work of historical fiction set in the 1930s, “The Grapes of Wrath” includes language and cultural references that may be unfamiliar or offensive to modern readers. For example, the novel includes racial slurs and outdated language regarding gender and sexuality that may be uncomfortable or triggering for some readers. While it’s important to read the novel in its historical context, some readers may find these elements difficult to reconcile with contemporary values and beliefs.


“The Grapes of Wrath” is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by John Ford in 1940. The novel’s themes of poverty, injustice, and the struggle for survival continue to resonate with readers today, and its portrayal of the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity remains as relevant as ever.

About The Author

John Ernst Steinbeck (1902–68) was born in Salinas, California. He wrote novels and short stories. He attended Stanford University (1920–25) and worked as a labourer during the Depression. 

John Steinbeck is the author of Tortilla Flat (1935, his first major popular success), In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), East of Eden (1952), and others. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. His works deal with the human struggle to maintain dignity in the face of social injustice and loneliness.

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