45 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide


The Grapes of Wrath is a 1939 novel by American author John Steinbeck. It centers on the Joads, an Oklahoma family evicted from their farm following the 1930s dust storms which ruined local crops. Losing their land, the Joads travel to California to seek work. On their journey they encounter hardship, prejudice, and police intimidation. However, when they get there, things become worse. They must stay in squalid camps and discover that work for migrants is scarce and poorly paid. Further, except for a brief stay in a government camp, they face harassment by the authorities. When protagonist Tom Joad kills a policeman, who murdered his friend for organizing a strike, he must go into hiding, leaving the family forever. The novel ends with torrential rain destroying the last of the family’s belongings, forcing them to seek refuge in a barn with a starving man and his child.

This guide uses the Penguin Classics edition of the text published in 2000.

Plot Summary

Tom Joad has just been released from prison and is travelling to his parents’ house in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. On the way he meets Casy, the ex-preacher of the community. Tom finds that his old family home has been abandoned and encounters a man called Muley, seemingly the only person left in his village. Muley tells Tom that his family have moved to his Uncle John’s place having been evicted by the banks like the rest of the local farmers. Arriving next at his Uncle’s, Tom discovers that the family bought a truck and are planning to migrate to California for work. They sell whatever they cannot take with them and then set off.

Travelling west on highway 66 the Joads meet a couple, the Wilsons, whose car has broken down. Al, Tom’s brother, offers to help with their car after they let the Joads’s dying Grampa in their tent. They agree to travel together. However, on the road, the car breaks down. After debating whether Tom, Al, and Casy should stay behind while the others go ahead, they agree that they will all wait while those three get parts to fix the car. Waiting in a nearby camp, they encounter a strange “ragged man.” He tells them that he is returning from California, where his wife and children starved to death.

The Joads stop by a river just outside the California border. They meet a man and a boy returning home eastwards who tell them how badly the migrants are paid in California. They also reveal how much the locals hate the migrants. The Wilsons stay behind as Sairy Wilson, Mr Wilson’s wife, is dying. When the Joads cross into California, they find that Granma died on the way. They then stop at a miserable and squalid migrant camp. A man named Floyd tells Tom about the exploitation suffered by the migrants, and how any resistance to it is met with police violence. A police officer tries to arrest Floyd when he challenges a labor contractor who wants workers for picking in the north. Floyd asks him how much he will pay them. This causes an altercation in which the officer is punched and Tom is forced to hide, with Casy taking the blame and being arrested for the incident.

The family then moves to a government camp. Conditions there are better, with running water and protection from the police. The camp even has a Saturday night dance, which agents of the landowners try to disrupt, causing a riot and giving the police an excuse to destroy the camp. However, the Joads must move due to lack of work. They end up as strike-breakers on a peach farm with protesters outside and with pitiful pay and conditions. When Tom goes to see the protestors, he meets Casy again who reveals that they are striking over wage cuts. Tom and Casy are then chased by police. When an officer hits and kills Casy, Tom responds by killing his assailant. The Joads escape from the ranch and find new work picking cotton while Tom hides nearby. When his identity as the officer’s killer is accidentally exposed Tom is forced to leave the family permanently. Before this, he tells his mother that he will now become an activist and fighter for the rights of the migrants. Rainstorms then cause the Joad’s new home in a box car to be flooded. They seek refuge in a barn on a hill. There, they meet a boy sitting beside his starving father who needs milk to live. Rose of Sharon, one of Tom’s sisters who recently delivered a stillborn baby, lets the man drink milk from her breast.