The popular, prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath uses realism to personalize and explore the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The novel is structured to alternate between chapters that focus on the Joad family and more informational intercalary chapters that provide greater context for what is going on. These chapters may throw some students off, but can be used to analyze how Steinbeck interweaves symbols and themes throughout the novel. The intercalary chapters are great for fostering class discussion about how this literary technique enhances the overarching narrative of the Joads' migration.

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joads' struggles with drought, economic troubles, and changes to the agriculture industry that drive them to make the difficult migration west; thus, it is a perfect book for helping students understand the hardships farmers endured during that time period. It would be a wonderful work to pair with a history lesson on the Dust Bowl.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 464 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 680
  • Publication Date: 1939
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9 – 10

The Grapes of Wrath begins with Tom Joad, recently released from jail, hitchhiking his way back to his Oklahoma farm and finding it abandoned. This disheartening scene sets the tone for the time period and for the novel, when drought and dust has made farming nearly impossible and when the economy is in turmoil due to the Great Depression. It is rumored that there is plenty of space and jobs out west, so the Joads and many other families embark on a journey to California. The trip is rough and dangerous, and, once they reach The West, the family realizes it's not as advertised.

Content warning: The Grapes of Wrath contains some profanity and racially derogatory language.

Objectives for Teaching The Grapes of Wrath

  • Discuss how Steinbeck structures his novel and what he gains or loses by structuring it in that fashion.
  • Trace the fragmentation of the Joad family.
  • Discuss what makes the novel so enduring long after the historical circumstances that inspired it have faded.
  • Analyze the ways in which foreshadowing builds suspense.
  • Consider Steinbeck's treatment of unionism and the role of government in regard to migrants.
  • Trace the novel's themes of family, spirituality, and connection to the land.
  • Identify and analyze the symbols used throughout the novel.

Your students will love:

  • Learning about the Great Depression in an interesting way
  • The vivid imagery

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding the ending's symbolism, specifically Rose of Sharon nursing the starving man
  • "Prose Poems" as alternating chapters
  • The "country folk" dialogue
  • The slower pace

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Dialect
  • Dramatization
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Juxtaposition
  • Personification
  • Point of View
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

Family — The novel illustrates how important family is for survival and how family includes not only blood relations but also an entire community bonded by similar circumstances.

Related Works:

Lies and Deceit — Another important theme is how lies are used to spread false hope and manipulate people in order to take advantage of their desperation.

Related Works:

Religion — Characters question their faith in a higher power when they face such tremendous hardships; however, the novel also focuses on the significance of spirituality and the ways religion unites and inspires.

Related Works:


  • National Book Award
  • Pullitzer Prize for Fiction


A critically acclaimed, prize-winning film version starring Henry Fonda was released in 1940 and is available on DVD. In 1989, the film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

External Resources

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