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Literature / The Grapes of Wrath

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"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. If Casy knowed, why, 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 an' they know supper's ready. And when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build — why, I'll be there."
Tom Joad

A 1939 novel by John Steinbeck, winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. The book makes a strong political statement (of the social liberal kind), and is pretty much the antithesis of anything by Ayn Rand. The story follows the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma hit by the dust bowl that travel all the way to California (losing the grandparents along the way) to find jobs on farms. Sadly, they discover that work conditions are horrid and farms are overpopulated and people are paid poorly. The content and themes of The Grapes of Wrath made it very controversial in its day, and it remains divisive more than eight decades after its publication. What isn't denied is that the novel was extremely influential.

Adapted into a film only a year after it was published. It was directed by John Ford and starred Henry Fonda, in what is considered to be among the finest works from both legends. Ford regular John Carradine also appeared in the film, while Jane Darwell earned the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance as Ma Joad. The movie was considered to be the Great American Film before Citizen Kane was rediscovered in the late '50s. Steinbeck himself considered it an improvement on his book. Also adapted into a play in 1988. The Steppenwolf Theater's 1990 version starring Gary Sinise and Lois Smith was filmed and aired on PBS's American Playhouse on March 22, 1991.


  • Aerith and Bob: The Joad family: Tom, Sr. (Pa), Uncle John, Tom, Al, Noah, Ruthie, Winfield... and Rose of Sharon.
  • The Alcoholic: Uncle John normally stays away from alcohol, sex, and other such things, but when he gets drunk, he gets really drunk.
  • The Alleged Car: Pretty much every one that the Okies use to go to California. Subverted with the Joad's car; Al's careful selection in the beginning, as well as his and Tom's technical know-how mean that they never have any real trouble with the truck.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • The book version has in its third chapter a tortoise trying to cross a road and getting run over by a truck. In the fourth chapter, we meet Jim Casy, who's described as having a "long head" and a "beaked" nose.
    • Connie is described as resembling a coyote.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Steinbeck uses Bible quotes when they agree with what he's trying to say, but states that Christianity, as Casy used to practice it, has a lot wrong with it.
  • Author Tract: And plenty of Author Filibusters, too. A few do fit into why the Joads are going through such trouble, but most of them pop right out of left field. Also a reminder that Tropes Are Not Bad.
  • Badass Preacher: Jim Casy. Not only does he offer support and consolation to Tom's family even though he's not officially a preacher anymore, but later he even takes the fall for a crime he didn't commit.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Well, definitely the former half of it. The book attempts a justification: in California at this time, they were paid per arrest, with no deduction for arresting the wrong person.
  • Barefoot Poverty: The tractor driver said that his youngest kid never had any shoes.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: And it destroys the lives of the poor people of Oklahoma. It leads to farmers driven off their lands, because the tenant system is no longer profitable. It leads to employers exploiting mass unemployment by paying the workers the lowest wages possible - if they don't accept it, ten other men are waiting for the same job. It leads to food being destroyed to drive prices up, while people are literally starving to death nearby.
  • The Casanova: Al Joad. He is seen all over the novel chasing different women, to the point where he's ready to abandon his family for a girl he had just met.
  • Central Theme:
    • Capitalism Is Bad.
    • The saving power of family and fellowship.
    • The dignity of wrath.
    • The multiplying effects of both selfishness and altruism.
  • Childhood Brain Damage: Pa Joad blames himself for his son Noah's slowness as he tried to deliver him on his own, and ended up distorting his head.
  • Crapsack World: America during the Great Depression wasn't a happy place, and the Dust Bowl had it especially bad.
  • Dirty Cop: All of them, being completely owned by the wealthy capitalists. They routinely violate people’s constitutional rights, presume that everyone is guilty of a crime without any evidence, tell Blatant Lies about the circumstances of arrests, are implied to make up charges on the spot if someone tries to expose a scam, and essentially act more like the Gestapo or NKVD than any American police officer is expected to be.
  • Doomed Hometown: The Depression and the Dust Bowl destroy countless communities in Oklahoma.
  • Dwindling Party: Starting with the dog, the Joads and the people traveling with them leave the party one by one. While some of the characters don't actually die, their departures are treated almost as seriously, given the book's emphasis on family and community.
  • Empathic Environment: At the end, it begins to rain heavily when the cotton crop is picked through and the pickers are out of work.
  • Epiphora: In this particular sentence:
    The big sycamore by the creek was gone. The willow tangle was gone. The little enclave of untrodden bluegrass was gone. The clump of dogwood on the little rise across the creek-now that, too, was gone.
  • The Film of the Book: A very successful one, amply considered a classic.
  • Forced from Their Home: Many families in Oklahoma, including the Joads end up homeless after the bank foreclosed on their house.
  • Friend to All Children: Uncle John. One of the ways he makes up for his guilt over his wife's death is by being especially kind to children. In Hooverville, he can't bring himself to eat his dinner because of the starving children watching.
  • Funetik Aksent: To the point where Rose of Sharon's name is rendered as "Rosasharn" in dialogue.
  • Gas Mask Mooks: The tractor drivers in the movie, looking distinctly inhuman. The one who talks to Muley Graves just wears goggles, however.
  • Good Samaritan: Casy is the most prominent, but there are quite a lot of them, particularly in the original book. They're half the point of the story.
  • Happily Ever Before: In the book, the Joad family must endure the harsh conditions of the farms, while on the film they just find a good government-run camp and live Happily Ever After.
  • Honest John's Dealership: A chapter describes a car dealership that sells old, crappy cars at outrageous prices to the migrating farmers.
  • Inherent in the System: One of the main messages of the novel is that injustice and inequality are inherent in a capitalist society. Chasing the tenants off their land is something nobody really wants, but yet it's done, because the financial system doesn't allow an alternative. As a bank executive puts it:
    The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.
  • Iron Lady: Ma Joad. She exemplifies all the traits but, most importantly, manages to hold the family together through sheer force of will alone. Mellower than most examples.
  • Just Following Orders: The tractor driver who talks to Muley Graves notes that Graves' anger to him for betraying his people is all very well, but he has a family to feed as well; if he quits in outrage, all that'll happen is the banks will hire someone else to do his job, and he and his family will merely end up starving along with everyone else.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Rose of Sharon is cynical and pessimistic throughout the novel...but at the end, when only she can save the day, she does.
  • Last-Second Chance: Casy attempts this on a strikebreaker, who promptly bashes his head in.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Julia Ward Howe's hymn, which in turn was inspired by Revelation 14:19–20.
  • Ludd Was Right: Zig-zagged. The farmers are driven away from their lands because a man with a tractor can do the work of a dozen families. Working the land with tractors is described negatively; people lose contact with the land, and become machine-like, unfeeling, uncaring. However, it's later stated that the real problem is not technology, but that the people who work the land don't own it.
    Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good—not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours.
  • Messianic Archetype: Jim Casy. His initials are J.C., he sacrifices himself and goes to jail instead of Tom, and his last words before he's murdered are: "You don't know what you're doing", mirroring Jesus's words about his executioners ("Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."). Tom Joad at the end.
  • My Greatest Failure: In the book, John's wife had died years before after what he'd dismissed as a stomachache turned out to be much more serious. His every action is driven by remorse and atonement, and his self-hatred is such that even other characters consider it whiny.
    Uncle John shook his head over his plate. "Don't look like we're a-gonna get shet of this here. I bet it's my sin."
    "Oh, shut up!" Pa cried. "We ain't got the time for your sin."
  • No Ending: Tom is gone, a fugitive, and what's left of the Joad family is still in California, their fate uncertain.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: The irascible, foul-mouthed and senile Grampa Joad.
  • The Promised Land: California. Subverted in the fact that everyone else had the same idea of going there, and the Okies are blocked from getting anything decent out of it, forcing them to settle with labor camps.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Virtually every baddie. Discussed in a tragicomic scene where a fellow forced off his farm tries to figure out who he should shoot in revenge.
  • Rabble Rouser: The corrupt Sheriff's department sends agitators to try to cause a riot at the government-run workers' camp. The workers spot the agitators and see them off without trouble.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Two unnamed characters discuss this trope. The conversation mostly serves to highlight how ridiculous the trope sounded during the Great Depression, when a substantial part of the population had trouble affording food.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: As the Great Depression starts hitting the Joads, it's Tom's bumbling, senile grandparents who are the first to die.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog
  • Significant Monogram: Jim Casy, a Christ figure with the initials J.C.
  • There Are No Good Executives: They run their refugee camps like concentration camps (to the point of forbidding workers from leaving), lie about everything, and even employ child labor despite it being illegal. It’s implied that the only reason they’re hiring the Okies is to break strikes. The government-run sanitary units in the film have none of these problems because they are subject to regulation.
  • Title Drop: Comes at the end of the 25th chapter: "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
  • Unnamed Parent: Tom's parents are referred as Ma and Pa. Pa's name is also Tom, but Ma's name is never revealed.
  • Walking the Earth: Tom Joad at the end. Could almost be the Trope Namer.
  • What Is Evil?: Casy provides a rare heroic example. He believes in helping others, but he's no longer so certain that there's anything wrong with, say, free love.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: The Joads, our protagonists, are mostly saintly and caring, as are some of the other people they meet on their journey. Meanwhile, the opposition they encounter are not outright villains, but just people doing their jobs under a broken system.

Tropes unique to the 1940 film:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The film cuts out the book's ending, where Rose of Sharon's baby ends up stillborn and she ultimately breastfeeds a man dying of starvation, instead choosing to end the story with Tom's departure from his family and his promise to act as a force for social justice.
  • Chiaroscuro: A gorgeous example in the scene early in the film where Tom comes to his family's home after dark, finds it abandoned, and goes looking around with only a single candle to light the scene.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Noah Joad. In the book, he decides he cares more about the river the family stops by than the family cares for him and leaves; in the movie, the scene is still present but the aforementioned part is not, and Noah simply vanishes.

Alternative Title(s): The Grapes Of Wrath