It’s Juan and welcome back to another book
So, today we’re going to talk about the
celebrated novel The Grapes of Wrath by the
American writer John Steinbeck.
The Grapes of Wrath was first published in
1939 and it is one of the best-known American
novels from the 20th-century.
And despite that, I didn’t read it until
The Grapes of Wrath was one of the classic
novels I wanted to get to this year.
I just thought it was high time I read it,
so I included it into my list of books to
read in 2021 but not only that, it was also
on my top ten list of books I wanted to read
If you want to check out what other books
I am most looking forward to reading in 2021,
I am going to link to my recent video about
But going back to The Grapes of Wrath, I had
heard only good things about this novel, so
my expectations were high.
And now I can say that I am glad I’ve finally
I am so glad I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath
that now I want to read more by Steinbeck.
What I like
I identify not so much with any of the characters
but with the author.
But because that probably does not make a
lot of sense, I am going to try to explain
it the best I can.
So, when I started reading the novel, I thought
it was good.
I could see why so many people love it.
Leaving the plot aside, for now, I love the
way the novel’s main character, Tom Joad,
And how through him, we get to know not only
the rest of his family but also the wider
reality of a certain portion of American life
in the early 20th-century.
I was plodding along nicely with the novel,
having a good time following the narrative
that chronicles how the Joads are forced out
of their native Oklahoma and their treacherous
journey to California.
I was also enjoying the characterization.
The Joads read like real people and not caricatures
or stereotypes of poor people.
The Joads came alive from me very early on
and I was glad to embark with them on a trip
through dusty roads and all kinds of weather
until they got to California.
But I only began to love the novel at a specific
I don’t know if this has ever happened to
You know, when you are reading a novel and
you are liking it just fine but then you get
to a specific episode and something clicks
Well, that doesn’t always happen to me when
I read, but it did happen with The Grapes
So, the novel is structured in such a way
that alternates plot chapters with intercalary
In the plot chapters, we follow the linear
narrative of Tom Joad coming back to town
in Oklahoma and joining his family on their
journey to California.
And relax, this is not a spoiler.
A spoiler would be if I told you what happens
to them, but I am going to leave that to the
end of this review and I will let you know
when I get to that, okay?
So, that’s the plot chapters.
Now, the intercalary chapters give us a wider
perspective of the plead of the characters
by giving us context that explains why they
must move, what they will encounter, etc.
Steinbeck interrupts the flow of the narrative
with that structure, but I would say that
the novel’s structure is one of the things
I enjoyed the most about this novel.
Anyway, I was talking about that moment when
everything finally clicked for me and I stopped
merely liking the novel and began to love
Well, that moment happened for me in one of
those intercalary chapters.
Specifically, in chapter 19.
Chapter 19 is where the narrator tells us
about the history of the state of California.
For the narrator, and I take the narrator
to be Steinbeck himself, the “success”
of California has to do with greed.
I love the way he explains that so clearly
and so directly.
Retrospectively, I could see that all those
intercalary chapters that I enjoyed reading
because they were so clearly written and full
of interesting information were, actually,
an integral part of the narrative.
You could skip them and only read the plot
chapters, but I think that would be a huge
And I realized that when I read chapter 19.
But I haven’t told you what The Grapes of
Wrath is about yet or why I think you should
So, let me try to address that now.
The novel is set during America’s Great
Depression that lasted roughly between the
Wall Street Crash in 1929 until the US joined
World War II in late 1941.
The novel begins in Oklahoma which was one
of the states affected by the Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl was a series of droughts and
dust storms that affected mainly Texas and
Many families who lived off the land in Oklahoma
migrated west to California because of the
In his novel, Steinbeck not only chronicles
the migration of a fictional family of “Okies”
as they were derisively referred to by Californians,
but also explores the reasons for their move,
the difficulties they must face along the
way, and what they will encounter once they
get to California.
And that is why the narrative structure that
alternates the plot and more general information
written almost as an essay works so well.
Steinbeck wants to talk about the socio-economic
situation of many people in the United States
and he wants to explore the reasons why people
like that must face poverty and discrimination.
Steinbeck could have written an essay about
But would an essay be read by as many people
as have read The Grapes of Wrath around the
And would an essay make readers sympathetic
to the plight of the American rural poor?
I highly doubt it.
Steinbeck wrote a novel but used an unusual
structure to make sure that readers did not
lose sight of the importance of what they
The Grapes of Wrath is not about a bunch of
The Joads are a decoy to get readers to put
themselves in the shoes of those dozens or
hundreds of families who work off the land,
but who didn’t own it, so they were a force
to leave their homes to find land to work
on in one of the nation’s richest states.
Steinbeck does not spare us any details of
the suffering these people experienced, but
through the clever structure of the novel,
he makes sure that we understand this is not
to do with their character, but it is something
that they are powerless over.
I think that is revolutionary in American
fiction where normally the individual is celebrated
and there is very little thought about the
But Steinbeck is smart because he stills zeroes
in on one family.
There is still one main character.
So, he uses all the tricks a good novelist
has to tell us an important story.
The Grapes of Wrath could have been a pamphlet,
but the fact that it not only isn’t that
but that it is also a great novel (one of
the best I have ever read at least) is a testament
to his talent as a novelist.
I think every decision Steinbeck made about
his novel was right.
And one of the biggest successes of The Grapes
of Wrath is its main character.
Tom Joad is the kind of literary hero that
most readers would empathize with and root
He is far from perfect.
For instance, he can get violent, but everything
he does in the novel is morally justified.
Okay, there is a lot more I would like to
say about this novel, but I can only do that
if I talk about the plot in more detail.
So, if you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath
yet or don’t want to hear any spoilers,
you should probably stop watching this video
right about now.
Because between now and the end of this video
I am going to talk about the plot of The Grapes
of Wrath, its characters, and some of its
themes in a lot more detail and there will
be some spoilers.
So, if you don’t want any spoilers, you
have been warned: you should stop watching
now and I’ll see you again soon, I hope,
for another book review.
Okay, for those of you who are still here,
I am going to summarize the plot of The Grapes
of Wrath now.
The narrative begins with our hero, Tom Joad,
making his way to the farm his family runs.
He has been released from prison after four
He was in prison for manslaughter.
Along the way, Tom meets a former preacher,
Jim Casy, who joins Tom on his trip back home.
Tom is shocked to find no one at the farm.
Luckily, an old neighbor, Muley Graves, shows
up and clarifies what is going on.
He tells Tom that most of the families, including
Tom’s, have been evicted and are due to
head to California to find work.
He also tells Tom that his family is now at
So, the next day Tom and Jim go there where
they indeed find the rest of the family.
But only just because when they get there,
Tom’s family are packing up to move to California.
They intend to work as fruit pickers when
they get there.
Tom and Jim join the family on their long
journey to California on an old truck.
Soon after they leave, Grampa Joad passes
Then, the family encounters many others traveling
west in the same pitiful conditions and because
of the same reason.
The Joads meet a married couple, Ivy and Sairy
Wilson, who help them with Grampa’s funeral.
The Wilsons’ car has broken up, but they
can fix it with the help of the Joads.
Both families decide to make the rest of the
However, Sairy is so sick that she decides
she cannot continue beyond the California
The closer they get to California the more
the Joads hear about how there is also unemployment
But because they have made it so far and there
have nowhere else to go, they decide to keep
going as planned.
Soon after they arrive in California, Granma
Joad passes away.
The Joads try to find work in vain, they even
struggle to find food, and they are forced
to move to different camps.
I need to open a parenthesis here.
When the Joads arrive in California, I kept
imagining those horrible camps for migrants
that you see on the news.
And I am not just talking about the US southern
border or places in the Mediterranean.
There is one such camp here on my island right
now and I don’t understand how that is the
best we can do.
As long as people continue to be forced to
leave their homes and are received by prejudice
and violence (both physical and symbolic)
in so many parts of the world, I think The
Grapes of Wrath will continue to speak to
It is heartbreaking.
But let’s go back to the novel.
The family or what remains of it without grandpa
and grandma don’t stay together for long
under those horrible living conditions.
Their oldest son, Noah, leaves, and so does
Connie, who is married to Tom’s sister,
Rose of Sharon.
Connie doesn’t even care that his wife is
Apart from the overcrowded and dirty camps
they are forced to stay in, there is a lot
of hostility and violence in California.
Often the campers are vicious to each other
and when it comes to the local population,
they are a mix of angry and afraid at the
“Okies” as they refer to these newcomers.
To make things worse, there is little work
to be found, and what little there is pays
hardly enough for workers to survive.
Tom and other men want to unionize to improve
the migrants’ working conditions.
There is a fight about this involving the
Jim Casy, the former preacher who joined the
Joads before they embarked on their journey,
knocks the sheriff off and is arrested.
The police want to burn the camp down.
So, the Joads move to a government-run camp,
which turns out to be a more welcoming place.
But there’s trouble on the horizon.
One day, Tom overhears a conversation at work
and finds out that the police want to stage
a riot in the camp so they can then have the
perfect excuse to shut it down.
Tom organizes with other men and they prevent
The Joads like living in the camp but their
stay there is not sustainable as there simply
isn’t enough work.
So, they leave once again.
They do find work as fruit pickers and earn
a decent wage.
There is a reason for this: the landowners
hired them to break a strike by their workers.
In the meantime, Jim Casy is freed from jail
and one day Tom runs into him.
It turns out that Jim is now organizing workers,
which has earned him the animosity of some
of the landowners.
The police kill Jim in front of Tom to which
Tom reacts by getting violent and killing
one of the officers.
Tom runs away and hides from the police.
In the meantime, the Joads move to a cotton
The younger daughter, Ruthie, tells a friend
that her brother, who has killed two men,
is now in hiding.
Ma Joad is afraid the police might find her
son, so she asks him to leave.
Tom does that but he wants to continue Jim’s
job trying to get the migrant workers to organize
The cotton season ends so the Joads are, once
Also, there is a flood.
And to make things worse, Rose of Sharon gives
birth to a stillborn baby.
Ma takes what remains of the family to a dry
When they get there, they see a boy and his
father who is dying of starvation.
The man is starving because he has given what
little food he had to his son.
Rose of Sharon because she has just given
birth is lactating.
Ma Joad has Rose of Sharon nurse the starving
And that is the last scene of the novel.
The Grapes of Wrath is an epic where the heroes
are not even ordinary people.
They are miserably poor.
They don’t have anything.
They are desperate.
They face sickness, the death of close relatives,
abuse, they suffer violence.
And yet, those who stay within the family
are willing to share what little they can
with other people.
We see that clearly in that shocking and symbolic
ending where Rose of Sharon, who has just
lost a child, is willing to breastfeed a stranger,
a grown man who would otherwise die of starvation.
But the Joads are not special in this.
Other migrants are just as generous and good,
like the Wilsons they met on the road, or
even that dying man at the end who was willing
to sacrifice himself so his child could survive.
But not all migrants are good.
Some of them are just as mean as the local
landowners or the police in California.
Even some members of the Joad family, like
Noah or Rose of Sharon’s husband, leave
their family to their own devices selfishly.
However, I don’t think we could judge those
people so lightly.
Who knows what I would do if I was ever unfortunate
enough to find myself in a similarly desperate
I think all judgment should be reserved for
the hate-filled local populations.
I understand their fear but clearly, they
have too easily forgotten where they come
Particularly the landowners who, as Steinbeck
describes in chapter 19, only got to be landowners
because they or their not long-lost ancestors
took the land from the existing Mexican population
when the US expanded westward in the 19th
Of course, those earlier Hispanic populations
had, in turn, also stolen the land from the
indigenous populations before.
Steinbeck does a great job at showing us the
bigger picture and contextualizing everything
The novel ends on a hopeful note.
Despite all the humiliations they suffer,
the Joads and others like them, have dignity.
And they show the power of solidarity among
Something that sounds revolutionary but shouldn’t.
And Steinbeck can convey all of this through
art and not through a dry political pamphlet
that many people could dismiss as “socialist”.
I am impressed by all of this and would recommend
The Grapes of Wrath to absolutely everyone.
But now I would like to hear what you think
about this great novel.
So, please let me know in the comments section
I’m signing off now.
So, thank you for watching.
I hope that you are all doing very well and
hope to see you again very soon for another
Bye for now!