Places: The Grapes of Wrath

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1939

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Dust Bowl

*Dust Grapes of Wrath, TheBowl. Central region of the United States that was devastated by great dust storms during the 1930’s. The first part of The Grapes of Wrath is set in Oklahoma, at the center of the Dust Bowl. Tom Joad returns from four years in prison to find that his family has lost its farm, and many of his neighbors have been made homeless by the banks and land companies that have taken over their farms when the tenants could not keep up with their payments through several disastrous seasons. Lured by handbills distributed by West Coast growers, Tom and his family begin the long trek from the devastated Dust Bowl to the promising fields of California.

The epic structure of the novel becomes a triptych of Oklahoma/journey/California. In the intercalary chapters–those interchapters of the novel, such as five and fourteen, in which Steinbeck gives important sociohistorical background–he explains what happened to this land and why, and how the loss of their farms led thousands of “Okies” to leave for California.

*Route 66

*Route 66. Highway leading out of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas toward California. This narrow strip of highway, bordered by hamburger stands and gasoline pumps, is the escape route for the Joads and other families hit hardest by the Depression. It is also the place where they come together and form extended families moving westward. In the evenings, in their makeshift camps, “a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family.” Route 66 is thus the setting for one of Steinbeck’s major themes, which is how communities form and provide strength for all their members. As the Joad family loses members along the way, Ma Joad emerges as the leader and helps shape a larger, matriarchal family as others join them. “They ain’t gonna wipe us out,” she says. “Why, we’re the people–we go on.”


*California. Site of fruitful fields and bountiful crops. Steinbeck describes the Joads’ first sight of the San Joaquin Valley’s rich farming land in almost biblical language, as he does in other passages in the novel: “The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses.” The contrast to Oklahoma’s impoverished farms could not be stronger; however, Steinbeck makes it clear in intercalary chapters 19 and 21 that similar economic and agronomic policies are exploiting the land and its people in both locales, and that “when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.” This second theme–that of revolutionary socialism–emerges in The Grapes of Wrath, not in the Dust Bowl, but in California, where so many migrants have been drawn to the harvests by the promise of work that they see their wages steadily reduced because of the surplus of workers. The Okies are thus transformed from tenant-farmers to migrant workers. The next step, Steinbeck says, is certain: “On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.”

Steinbeck shows no California cities in the novel, but reveals the contrast between the bountiful fields and the “Hoovervilles,” the temporary camps in which migrant workers are forced to live without adequate water or sanitation in California’s great Central Valley. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation,” Steinbeck writes. “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Steinbeck’s thematic metaphors, including his novel’s title, grow directly out of the land he describes.


Weedpatch. Government-run camp for migrant workers located below Bakersfield in central California (based on the Arvin Sanitary Camp) where the Joads stay for several weeks. Weedpatch is the emotional high point of the novel, and a clear contrast to the Hoovervilles. When the Joads arrive, they are greeted by migrants like themselves who run the camp with efficiency and care. The community theme in the novel is thus reinforced in these chapters, culminating in the festive Saturday night dance. Given a chance, Steinbeck is showing, people will manage their own affairs well and work for better lives. The local land owners want the camp removed and try to cause a disturbance at the dance, however, for Weedpatch gives people hope for a better life and reveals that they only want the same opportunities as other Americans.

Pixley peach farm

Pixley peach farm. Dirty migrant cabins and a depressing contrast to living conditions at Weedpatch. When the Joads are forced to leave Weedpatch in order to find work farther north, they arrive at a peach farm where the owners have reduced wages so low that workers go on strike. It is here that Jim Casy–the labor organizer who travels west with the Joads–is killed and Tom leaves the family to join the organizers fighting the terrible conditions for migrant workers in California.


Boxcar. Last home of the Joads in the novel. Drawn by the promise of cotton picking, the depleted Joad family ends up living in a boxcar with other displaced families. It is in a field near which Tom says good-bye to Ma with the promise that he’ll always be near: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. . . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there.”

Black barn

Black barn. Last shelter for the Joads. Forced out of the boxcars by torrential rains, the family seeks shelter in a barn on higher ground, and the novel ends when Rose of Sharon, whose own baby is stillborn, suckles a dying old man and smiles “mysteriously” across the barn. In the biological metaphor that defines the novel, life is being nurtured even at this last site, and hope for the people survives.

BibliographyDitsky, John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. In addition to important essays on the novel’s composition, critical reception, and other topics, this collection provides contemporary reviews of the novel and useful maps of the 1936 Dust Bowl, westward migration in the 1930’s, Route 66, and a government camp.Donohue, Agnes McNeill. A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968. Contains thirty-seven discussions of the novel as both a social document and as literature. Also reprints Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and suggests topics for studying or writing about the novel.Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986. A fresh and intelligent discussion of Ma Joad, Granma Joad, and Rose of Sharon as “indestructible women” who hold the family together. This study opens ground for feminist consideration of Steinbeck’s works.Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1938-1941. Edited by Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989. Steinbeck’s journals and correspondence while writing the novel are valuable resources for studying the cultural, historical, and literary origins of the book, as well as the author’s creative process. DeMott provides an insightful introduction to these materials.Wyatt, David, ed. New Essays on “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Five essays covering Steinbeck’s portrayal of human history as an organic process, Ma Joad’s character, the novel’s relationship to journalism, and the propagandistic aspects of John Ford’s 1940 film version of the novel.
Categories: Places