When The Grapes of Wrath was published on March 14, 1939, it created a national sensation for its depiction of the devastating effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. By the end of April, it was selling 2,500 copies a day-a remarkable number considering the hard economic times. In May, the novel was a number-one best-seller, selling at a rate of 10,000 copies a week. By the end of 1939, close to a half million copies had been sold.
A Chapters 1-11: Leaving Oklahoma
The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they leave the dust bowl of Oklahoma for a better life in California. The narrative begins with Tom Joad hitchhiking across the Oklahoma panhandle to his parents’ forty-acre farm. Tom has just been paroled after serving four years in prison for manslaughter. He meets ex-preacher Jim Casy, who is alone and singing by the side of the road. Casy recounts his own fall, his doubts about the saving grace of religion, and his growing sense of a collective human spirit. When the two men arrive at the Joad farm, they find it abandoned. A neighbor, Muley Graves, explains how the banks have repossessed the family farms, forcing people to leave. The smell of their dinner brings the sheriff, and the men have to hide in the fields.
A Jim Casy
Jim Casy accompanies the Joad family on their journey from Oklahoma to California. He is a former preacher who has given up both Christian fundamentalism and sexuality, and is ready for a new life dedicated to helping people like the Joads. He is honest, compassionate, and courageous. Casy’s new “religion” is based on love and a belief in each person’s soul as well as an all-inclusive soul, the “Holy Spirit” of humanity. As critics have noted, these nonsecular views of humanity can be traced to the transcendentalist philosophy of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Casy is a new convert to this transcendentalism.
The Joads experience many hardships, deprivations, and deaths, and at the end of the novel are barely surviving. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel is optimistic. This positive feeling is derived from the growth of the Joad family as they begin to realize a larger group consciousness at the end of the novel. The development of this theme can be seen particularly in Ma Joad; from her focus on keeping the family together to her recognition of the necessity of identifying with the group. “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do,” Ma says in the final chapter.
A Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice (“he”/“she”/“it”). What is particularly significant about this technique is that the point of view varies in tone and method, depending on the author’s purpose. The novel’s distinctive feature is its sixteen inserted, or intercalary, chapters (usually the odd-numbered chapters) that provide documentary information for the reader. These chapters give social and historical background of the mid-1930s Depression era, especially as it affects migrants like the Joads.
A Troubles for Farmers
The story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath begins during the Great Depression, but troubles for American farmers had begun years before that. Having enjoyed high crop prices during World War I when food supplies were short and European markets were disabled, American farmers borrowed heavily from banks to invest in land and equipment. After the war, however, prices for wheat, corn, and other crops plummeted as European farmers returned to their businesses, and American farmers were unable to repay their loans. Thus, in the 1920s, while much of the country was enjoying economic good times, farmers in the United States were in trouble. Banks began to foreclose on loans, often evicting families from their homes. Families who rented acreage from landowners who had defaulted on loans would, like the Joads, be evicted from their homes. The situation, of course, became much worse after the stock market crash of 1929.