Much has been said and written about the Dust Bowl, but if you want to get a visceral feel for how it all began and the way it affected the people who experienced it, you need go no further than the opening pages of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. 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. The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.
Steinbeck's novel follows the Joad family as they flee Dust Bowl Oklahoma for a new life in California. When the book was first published — 75 years ago Monday — it was a best-seller. But Susan Shillinglaw, an English professor at San Jose State University and author of the book On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, says it also came under fierce attack.
"Part of the shock, initially, was resistance to believing that there was that kind of poverty in America," she says. "Other people thought that Steinbeck was a communist, and they didn't like the book because they thought that that collective action that the book is moving towards — because it really is moving from 'I' to 'we' — was threatening to, sort of, American individualism."
As powerful as the book is in its portrayal of the Dust Bowl era, Shillinglaw says The Grapes of Wrath cannot be contained by its setting. She believes Steinbeck created a timeless myth.
"He saw dispossession as a theme and as a story much larger than, you know, the California story," she says. "So I think he always knew what he was about in terms of the sort of mythic parallels. Tom Joad's exit from the book, for example — you know, he exits saying, 'I'll be there wherever people are hungry' — so he kind of says: Throughout time, there's going to be a need for me. And that takes the book out of the 1930s."
Tom Joad's final words to his mother have echoed down the years, driven not in small part by Henry Fonda's portrayal of Joad in the 1940 film version of the book.
"I'll be all aroun' in the dark," Tom says. "I'll be ever'where — wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. ... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' — I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build — why, I'll be there."
Last fall, the California-based National Steinbeck Center sent three artists on the road to retrace the journey that the Joads took from Oklahoma. One of them was filmmaker P.J. Palmer.
"Every type of weather you can think of we experienced in those 10 days," Palmer says. "It's not a comfy ride, and so I don't understand how they pulled it off in the 1930s. It must have been really, really crazy."
Palmer is finishing a documentary on the trip.
"We really wanted to come out and sort of take the temperature of the country again," he says. "Steinbeck did it back in the '30s, and we decided to take that trip to sort of see what things are like now."
Much has changed over the decades. The land has been restored; they didn't see any destitute families on the side of the road. But they still came across many people struggling to survive: Poverty and homelessness persist.
"We met a lot of people out of work," Palmer says. "We met people who were kind of going through their own personal Dust Bowls. If it wasn't that they were unemployed or in an environmental disaster, they still had their own personal traumas and tragedies that they were working through."
Palmer interviewed some of the people they met along the way: a single dad caring for his son with cancer; a woman who lost both parents as a child and was trying to start life again after leaving prison; migrant workers who now live in the same camps the Joads found in California.
So it's no surprise that many can still identify with The Grapes of Wrath.
"People read their own stories into it because it's really about poverty," Susan Shillinglaw says. "It's about haves and have-nots, and that story is getting increasingly urgent. ... This is a story about people losing ground with every step of the way along Route 66 — that's a story that seems, like, really very contemporary."
Filmmaker P.J. Palmer says the book is also a story of survival and resilience — a powerful plea for people to work together with a sense of shared responsibility for those who have fallen on hard times.
"The scary part is that much of what happened we're forgetting," he says. "There's a reason why the New Deal happened. You know, I do understand that the country had gone through an enormous environmental disaster. It had gone through a major Depression. Hopefully we won't have to go through that again, but we still have these huge problems with people unable to work or find a job, and people who don't have a home, and we're sort of still stripping things back politically. ... And I kind of feel like: Did you guys read the book? Did you see the movie? Do you remember what happened?"
Seventy-five years later, The Grapes of Wrath still isn't universally loved — it remains one of the most frequently banned books in this country. But it's also a powerful reminder of a past that no one really wants to see repeated.
The I-Will-If-You-Will Book Club just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. They discussed the book's legacy with Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw over on Monkey See.
Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress
Father and sons walk through a dust storm in Cimarron County, Okla. (1936). Steinbeck writes: "The dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes."
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Dust Bowl farmer drives a tractor with his son near Cland, N.M. (1938). Steinbeck writes: "The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects ... monsters raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country ... through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines."
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Oklahoma Dust Bowl refugees in San Fernando, Calif. (1935). Steinbeck writes: "Suddenly they were nervous. Got to get out quick now. Can't wait. We can't wait. And ... frantically they loaded up the cars and drove away, drove in the dust. The dust hung in the air for a long time after the loaded cars had passed."
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Dust Bowl families paid 50 cents a week to stay at this auto camp north of Calipatria, Calif. (1937). Steinbeck writes: "Because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together ... they shared their lives ... and the things they hoped for in the new country."
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Dust Bowl refugees camp along a highway near Bakersfield, Calif. (1935). Steinbeck's matriarch, Ma, says, "All we got is the family unbroke ... I aint scared while we're all here, all that's alive, but I ain't gonna see us bust up."
Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress
Workers harvest cabbage in California's Imperial Valley (1937). Steinbeck writes: "A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch."
Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes from “The Grapes of Wrath” to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Grapes of Wrath as a Political Statement
John Steinbeck’s novel is clearly located in a specific time and place, reflecting the experiences and concerns of Americans who lived during the Great Depression. Steinbeck portrays the acute suffering of people by paying close attention to small details and bringing them to the attention of the reader. The effect of this narrative strategy is that it elicits deep empathy in the reader for the plight of the people that Steinbeck describes. Write an essay in which you develop an argument with regards to the idea of The Grapes of Wrath as a political statement. State your belief that Steinbeck did or did not want to make a specific political statement by writing this novel. If he did, identify what his political motives were by citing specific images and evidence drawn from the text. If he did not, indicate what you believe his intentions were in writing about such a dark and difficult period in American history.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Land and Place as Characters in The Grapes of Wrath
Land and place are much more than passive settings in The Grapes of Wrath. Despite the harshness of the landscape, it becomes the backdrop against which a wide range of human concerns are able to be identified and considered. Among these concerns are the differences between people who know the land intimately and respect it, and those who do not. Write an essay in which you explain the significance of land and place and the ways in which they become characters in The Grapes of Wrath. You may wish to consider the first two passages listed in the Quotes section (below) as your jumping off point, as these set up the fundamental contrast between the types of people that Steinbeck wishes to portray by analyzing the role that land plays.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: People as Refugees
Steinbeck portrays the “people in flight" as refugees, albeit refugees who are fleeing conditions in their own country for better conditions in the same country, which is not the common definition or condition of the refugee. The choice to portray the people affected most deeply by the Depression as refugees seems deliberate and significant. Write a persuasive essay in which you develop an understanding of Steinbeck’s reasons for describing people as refugees. Include a treatment of the effects of this choice on the reader’s understanding and interpretation of the novel.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Importance of Community in The Grapes of Wrath
The people who are described in The Grapes of Wrath are bound together by their shared circumstances. As a result, there is a community of refugees that is created, people who might otherwise not have been in contact or community with one another. Write an explanatory essay in which you describe how community is created in The Grapes of Wrath. Be sure to identify the effects of the emergent community relative to the characters, the plot, and the reader. You may wish to examine specific passages in which the formation and character of the loose communities are described.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Repetition
Steinbeck uses a number of literary techniques and resources to emphasize the conditions of the people that he describes. One of these techniques is the use of repetition. There are many instances in the novel in which words are repeated or images are repeated in order to emphasize conditions and circumstances. Write an analytic essay in which you examine repetition and its effects as a narrative strategy. Alternately, you may wish to choose one or two words or images that are repeated frequently and examine their significance in the wider scope of the novel.
This list of important quotations from “The Grapes of Wrath” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements from “The Grapes of Wrath” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text by John Steinbeck they are referring to.
“For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates; and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all of these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth…that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis." (2233-2234)
“But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of itself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land." (2234)
“66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and n ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and the come into 66 from…side roads….66 is the mother road, the road of flight." (2234-2235)
“It is a terror between towns. If something breaks—well, if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets a part and walks back and—how much food we got?" (2235)
“Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses…." (2235)
“It ain’t that big. The whole United States ain’t that big. It ain’t that big. It ain’t big enough. There ain’t room enough for you an’ me, for your kind an’ my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat. Whyn’t you go back where you come from?" (2236)
“This is a free country. Fella can go where he wants. That’s what you think!" (2236)
“Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars—wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?" (2237)
“And here’s a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true, and it’s funny, and it’s beautiful. There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. They build a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them rode in the sedan and seven on the trailer….They got to California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them." (2237)
“The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever." (2237)
Reference: Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 2232-2244. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.