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John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath: “And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Texas,Oklahoma, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They rolled over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are starving. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.” This, just a small excerpt from Steinbeck’s novel, depicts the hardships and struggles that farmers faced during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is an excellent source of information for this time period and includes historical facts, themes, and intricate details of living conditions of the migrant farmers.

The name Dust Bowl is quite accurate. His descriptions of the Dust Bowl, the causes and what the “bowl” looked like, were precise according to Alan Brinkley’s text, The Unfinished Nation. Steinbeck and Brinkley both wrote that the worst drought in history had struck the Great Plains and lasted for a decade in the early 1930s. And at this time farmers had been tempted by high crop prices, which lead them to plow up the grass for more crop room and kept working the same crop, which eventually exhausted the soil. This and the lack of rainfall turned these regions into “virtual deserts,” and the great winds caused the dust to blow across the plains in clouds. Steinbeck went into great detail describing what this had looked liked. In his novel he described the Dust Bowl: “The wind increased, steady, unbroken gusts. The dusts from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds besides the fields . . . the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away.” For the people living in these devastated lands, this was a very accurate account as to what the “weather” was like for weeks and months.


In The Grapes of Wrath the story followed the Joad family from their home in Oklahoma to California. They were forced to leave their home behind in search of work and land. Along the way migrant farmers, like the Joads, faced food shortage, death, homelessness, Hoovervilles, and unemployment. According to lecture and Brinkley’s The Unfinished Nation, Steinbeck was precise in his descriptions of the events that he placed in his novel. Migrant farmers would leave their land behind in search of work. They would auction off all their belongings to raise money for their journeys that were to take weeks or months to head out west. “Okies,” a term that was used in Steinbeck and Brinkley’s writings, would often find harder times then what they had left. Disease along with starvation lead to many farmers’ deaths before even reaching the great land they were in search of. Camps along side the roads grew to little towns, known as Hoovervilles. Hoovervilles were named after Herbert Hoover because during his presidency, his actions caused poor economic conditions in the early 1930’s. All the migrant farmers could do was wander from town to town looking for work or any kind of relief. For the most part, migrant farmers never found what they were looking for out west and were lucky if they could pick fruit or other crops at very low wages that could never support a family.


Steinbeck’s most prevalent theme in The Grapes of Wrath was to never give up on your dream. The Joad family from the get-go was not given a good hand. They were forced to leave their land with very little money, all of the belongings they could fit into a small truck, including 13 family members, little food, and a long journey ahead. Ma Joad was the center of the family keeping them together with her dream, their dream, of a better life out west. No matter what hardship was thrown their way, she always stayed confident that they would eventually live their dream, in a white little house with fruit trees in the yard, out in California. Death, starvation, homelessness, poverty, no matter what the hard ache, Ma Joad saw the brighter side of things. In the time of the Great Depression, this was a hard theme to live by. It was easier for people like the Joads to give up and succumb to their situation without a fight. But Steinbeck did not let this family go down without a fight. This story was not a “rags to riches” story. There was no happy ending. I think that Steinbeck used this theme as a message to show readers that you have to look for the good in all the bad in order to survive. If Ma Joad hadn’t have had such a strong will to survive, the family would have fallen apart at the beginning. And another theme in this novel was, “No matter how poor you are, you always have something to give.” The Joads and the other families they encountered, like the Wilsons and the Wainwrights, were always willing to give to someone less fortunate, even if they had little for themselves. I think that Steinbeck wanted his readers to see this lesson of charity and spread it in their own lives. Throughout the book, even with the ending paragraph when Rose of Sharon gave her breast to the starving man, charity was an issue that Steinbeck touched, leaving me to believe that Steinbeck wanted his readers to learn and become charitable.


Steinbeck gives his readers an elaborate view into the hard times of migrant farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. His historical facts intermixed with reoccurring themes and a family trying to survive gives the reader an accurate understanding of the hard times people faced in the 1930s. Clearly, Steinbeck did not write The Grapes of Wrath to disillusion people and say that the Great Depression was an easy time to live in. He wrote this story to perhaps show the cold hard facts of life and that these were desperate times. Steinbeck did not close the novel on a happy note, because for the most part, families in this time did not ever make it to their dream. He wrote this story to give a reader a better understanding of this time and in my opinion, Steinbeck was very successful in doing so.