|Grapes of Wrath Introductory Notes
Grapes of Wrath (GOW) is both episodic and picaresque. There are three distinct sections in the novel – the leaving, the journey and life in California (episodic). Picaresque means that the protagonist – Tom Joad – is a rogue hero – not fully admiral and heroic, instead - fully human, one of us.
There is much symbolism and many ties to nature. We’ll discuss the meaning of these in class.
The setting is the Dust Bowl in the thirties. Episode one takes place in Oklahoma. The Joad family is a farm family, making their living from the land. Steinbeck’s style is lyrical and he has messages about relationship and change that he wants to convey – the book was banned some places because of these ideas.
The novel is an example of proletariat fiction – one of social problems and the ideas of social justice. It also strongly deals with the concept of American Dream.
The novel has an interesting form. There are chapters about the Joads and then there are the intercalary (interchapters) which give background and provide a larger context about what is happening. The support the narrative structure and give insight about what’s happening. The chapters on the Joads are like looking at the situation specifically in its impacton one family. The interchapters provide the sociological, historical, and economic insight to see the impact on the larger society. These comment on action in the story; sometimes they are symbolic – sometimes they foreshadow events.
Section One: Chapters 1-11; pages 3-150 – Oklahoma and the Land
Get started on this – probably quiz and assignment about the second week we are back.
Things to read for – meaning take notes.
Characters: You need to be able to identify each of the following characters – know some qualities and information about each.
Tom Joad, Jim Casy, Muley Graves, Pa Joad, Ma Joad, Uncle John, Noah, Rose of Sharon ( & Connie), Ruthie and Winfield, Grampa and Gramma.
These are some of the questions you’ll need to answer and to turn in.
1. Discuss the two characters you find most interesting or complex in this section and explain why.
2. Select two passages in this section that you find especially powerful or evocative of the historical time period, the life of the farmers, social, economic, political relationships of the period. Give us a reference – chapter, pages and paragraphs – so that we can follow your ideas.
Ex. Pp 5-7; paragraph 2 – end of chapter – especially the section:
“ The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men – to feel whether this time the men would break. …After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break…. The men sat still – thinking – figuring.”
I think this is especially powerful in conveying how family systems work and also the role of the father as economic provider and the mother as emotional caretaker of the families. I can get a strong visual of the women at the farmhouse, watching, checking the emotional barometer of their husbands. I think about the first time I saw my dad cry – it was a scary feeling because he was to “know” and be strong – and if he was crying it meant that things might not be safe. I strongly remember feeling unsure and wondering what it meant. I think Steinbeck reveals the painfulness and powerlessness of the eventual decision to leave the land. There seems to be a surface calm, but an underlying tension – a preparation for dramatic change that sets the tone for the novel.
3. Describe the structure of family “government” or decision-making. What are the key decisions the family must make. Who has great influence in the process.
4. Discuss how Steinbeck portrays American capitalism and its impact – give one or two concrete examples of where he shows this. Consider whom he sees as the “monster” – many options here.
5. Select two symbols or metaphors that Steinbeck creates, explain what you think the meaning of each is. Evaluate how well Steinbeck does with these symbols. (There are many from biblical to nature to characters. You might consider the title, the turtle, the dust Casy, Muley, Joe, the salesmen, the tractor, etc)
6. Select one way that Steinbeck communicates the ideas of the American Dream and how he sees it being impacted by the Depression and the Dust Storms. What’s the irony of Muley, Casy and Tom Joad hiding from Willy Feeley in Chapter 6?
7. Explain why Ma deals with the contents of the keepsake box as she does – connect this with interchapter 9 – “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? (120)” Explain what you think this means/foreshadows. Describe two things that you would take to define your past if you were required to suddenly leave it all behind. (Possessions not people or animals.)
8. Discuss how this section (an a theme we’ll continue) is both optimistic and pessimistic. Again, cite
specific references and examples. How/where does the chapter 11 fit into this? Who “owns” the land?
9. Pose a question/ area of discussion that you want others to respond to – EX. What’s the meaning/significance of Jim Casy doing women’s work in chapter 10, 146-147? Or What’s the meaning of the phrase “Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land.”
There might be some key idea/thought for you that I have overlooked – pose it here.
10. Connections – ask parents/grandparents about their families during this time period.