The Grapes Of Wrath Essay Introduction

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.

The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck Jr; also wrote under the pseudonym Amnesia Glasscock) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter. See also The Chrysanthemums Criticism, John Steinbeck Short Story Criticisim, John Steinbeck Literary Criticisim (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21, 124.

The following entry presents criticism on Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is distinguished by its lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Written after Steinbeck produced a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma and Arkansas farmers facing poverty and starvation due to the Great Depression and severe drought of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar of controversy and was one of the most commonly banned books of its time because of Steinbeck's obvious socialist sympathies. Nonetheless, the novel remains one of the most admired and studied works of social protest fiction of the twentieth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the supposed Eden of California after drought and economic depression cause their small family farm to collapse. They are joined by Jim Casy, a former preacher, now disillusioned with religion, who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community that must work together for the greater good, and who inspires the Joads's son Tom to support the cause of the working poor. Interspersed among the chapters dealing specifically with the Joads are chapters in which Steinbeck took a broader, more universal approach to illustrate the full force of the tragedy of the migrant farmers—commonly and disparagingly referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies”—of the 1930s. Simultaneously symbolic and journalistic, these chapters provide a historical overview of the events of the time not only for the displaced farmers but also for American society as a whole, which, according to Steinbeck, must bear the responsibility and the consequences for its callous treatment of the working poor. During the course of their travels, the family's dog is hit by a car, and both of the grandparents die. Then Rose of Sharon, the Joads's pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. When the Joads—and all those like them—finally make their way to California, they expect to find themselves in a kind of paradise with plenty of well-paid work available. Instead they find an oversaturated work market where they are forced by hunger and desperation to work as scabs in migrant camps. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by a thug who works for the farm owners, and Tom Joad, who has already violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, must go into hiding after killing Casy's murderer. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life.

Major Themes

The Grapes of Wrath is in one sense a documentary account of American socioeconomic events of the 1930s. Photojournalists recorded the suffering of the people of the Dust Bowl region, and Steinbeck was strongly influenced by the widely published photographs, including those in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Steinbeck's interest in the plight of farmers in the face of rapidly encroaching agribusiness and his sympathy for union organizers became important themes in the novel, along with the struggles of the average person against big business. But beyond the depiction of historical events is Steinbeck's symbolism. Jim Casy, although he is a reluctant preacher, serves as a Christlike figure, leading the Joads and the workers to consider the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Ma Joad, with her considerable inner strength, and Rose of Sharon, particularly in the final scene of the novel, are earth-mother symbols who instinctively understand their roles as nurturers. This religious symbolism—both Christian and non-Christian—pervades the novel. Images of exodus, plague, and the search for paradise, as well as of the sanctity of the land, dominate the farmers' travels to the West.

Critical Reception

While The Grapes of Wrath is praised by most critics for the universality of its themes, it is sometimes faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Initial reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. With its political implications now defused, critical study of The Grapes of Wrath has more recently focused on Steinbeck's religious and nature symbolism and the role of his female characters, which earlier critics had considered stereotypical and one-dimensional. But regardless of critical opinion, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the most respected modern American novels.


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