Questions are numbered by chapter:
1. What purpose is served by the opening description? What are qualities of its style?
Is nature presented as an evil force? What is the relation of nature to human life?
Is human society presented individually or collectively? What are its natural internal divisions – and what is its response to natural disaster? At the end of the novel, consider whether humans are presented as having progressed since the opening chapter.
2. What are the characteristics of the truck and its driver – and is there any correlation between the two? How are the physical and mental traits of Tom Joad described? What is the function of this scene? How would you describe the novel’s narrative voice?
3. What purpose is served by the incident describing the turtle? How is the oat grain conveyed across the road? Who tries to kill the turtle, and what may we deduce from this?
4. How is Casy first described? What is unusual about his face? His speech?
How had Ma and Granma responded to Casy’s preaching?
What psychological circumstances caused him to doubt his former calling and what are his new beliefs?
How does Tom respond?
5. According to the narrative point of view, what ultimately causes the evils of dispossession? Who are the “monsters”?
What comments does the narrator make on property? How do the tenants respond?
What is the nature of the tractor driver? Of tractoring?
6. In what condition is the house? What do we first learn about Ma?
What’s left alive? What does the turtle do, and why is this significant?
Who is Muley and why his name? What is Muley’s ethic concerning sharing and Casy’s response?
What do Muley’s memories concern? Why do you think the fire scene is included at all? How do the men respond to the sheriff and why? Who is he, and is this important?
What is the relation between this chapter and chapter 5? In general how are the descriptive interchapters and the narrative chapters related?
7. How are the attitudes and methods of jalopy dealers presented? What kind of profit do they make?
What opinion do they express concerning people in general?
8. How are Pa and Ma’s reception of Tom contrasted? What is Ma’s position in the family?
What does she ask Tom and on what has she been brooding?
Are Grandpa and Grandma presented as sympathetic characters? Pathetic? What function do they seem to provide in the story?
What are Grandma’s religious tendencies and how do they relate to her attitude toward Grampa?
What comments does Casy make in place of a blessing? How does Ma respond to this?
9. Can you note any biblicalisms in Steinbeck’s language, and what purpose do these serve? What is the presented as the relation of land and people? (p.96)
10.Who first begins to question California’s character of promised land? What is Ma’s philosophy concerning the future? What does Grampa want in Promised Land?
How is family government organized? Why is Casy himself going west?
What colors keep appearing in descriptions? Is the use of color symbolic? What significant alteration occurs in evening light?
Why isn’t the family truck portrayed as evil as other machines so far have been?
11. What are some biblicalisms in this chapter? What is presented as the spiritual evil inherent in tractoring?
12. Do you feel the authorial intrusion at the end of the chapter is appropriate? Steinbeck has been criticized for sentimentality – who would have been likely to make this charge, and is it valid?
How does one determine whether a passage or portrayal is sentimental?
13. How does Ma respond to their progress throughout the journey?
What is the significance of Tom’s use of Gila monster analogy?
When Grampa dies, why does Pa decide against following the laws for burial?
How does Ma treat Rose of Sharon’s fears? In what family attitudes does she take pride?
What attitudes toward death are conveyed in Casy’s “eulogy”?
What is the significance of the family’s relation with the Wilsons?
14. Why are Paine, Marx, Jefferson, and Lenin described as “causes” not “results”? What ideas did each present, and are these relevant to the novel?
15. Does Steinbeck feel kindly towards the American middle class of his day? What does he see as its vices?
What kind of car killed the child of the family going west?
16. In the novel’s world view, what kind of people seem to talk of self-improvement via correspondence courses?
What does Rose of Sharon claim that she wants, and what is the significance of Ma’s response?
What is the importance of the scene in which Ma threatens to attack her husband if he separates the family?
What is Tom’s philosophy concerning the future?
What is Casy’s response to what is happening, and what has been Tom’s reaction to Casy?
Which characters seem to appreciate Ma most? What comments has Tom made throughout on the subject of prisons?
What does Tom think of correspondence courses?
What is the significance of the scene with one-eyed man?
How much does Tom resist the extortionist campsite proprietor?
In general what are the attitudes towards the migrants expressed by non-migrants, esp. those who sell to them?
17. According to the novel, what patterns emerge as the people fuse into one collective body?
Does Steinbeck elongate proportionately the process of journeying west? Why?
18.For what psychological reason does the wealthy man keep so much property? Was it acquired lawfully?
What is the significance of Noah's leaving the family at the California line--and of Granma's death? (Do these incidents evoke any biblical parallels?) Do you think the family was unfair to Noah? How do they accept his leaving?
Was does Ma mean when she talks to Rose of Sharon about nothing being a thing all by itself? Is her view at all different from Caesy's? What are the emotional consequences of this perception for her?
What religionist seeks to participate in Granma's death, and how are they presented?
With what kind of language and images are the services described? What is the significance of Ma wanting to hit the cop with a skillet?
What does Sarey Wilson want to tell Casy before she dies? Why was singing and silent prayer important to her?
How does Casy define sin (p. 247)? What one thing does no one have a right to do?
In the name of what, did Ma demand that Granma die in the moving truck? What does Casy feel about Ma's act, and why?
So far, which relationships in the book seem most important?
At the time Steinbeck was criticized for bluntness of sexual language. Are there any significant relationships in the book which are also sexual and / or romantic? Does this indicate anything about the theme of the novel? Which characters in the book are most defined by their sexual relations?
19. As shown in the novel, what is the difference between the desires of the poor and rich?
What form of resistance does Steinbeck feel is coming? What laws of property, resistance, and repression are being fulfilled in present events?
Are only the poor kind within the novel?
20. For what economic and political reasons are the migrants forced from camp to camp? What has Casy been feeling as he listens to their speech? (p. 275)
What constitutes the chief threat in this camp? How does Connie first reveal his reversion to selfishness and irresponsibility?
Why does Al want to go North alone? To find work alone? (p. 288) What has been his function in the novel?
What methods are used to coerce the men into ill-paid work? (p. 290 - 292)
Does Casy's response surprise you? What motive does he give for his action? (p. 293) What does Ma feel about the ethics of confession? (p. 295)
What is the significance of Tom leaving incorrect directions for Connie?
According to Ma, why will the people survive? What happens to the rich? In what future does she believe?
21. What is the theme of this chapter?
22. At this point, who has become the de facto head of the family?
Why have there been no preachers recently in the government camp? What is the importance with the scene with the small farmer?
Does Tom like physical labor?
Who are reds? (p. 328) -- What point is Steinbeck making?
What standards and values does Ma reveal in her excited response to the camp?
What familiar theme is stirred by the religious / epileptic woman's judgement of Rose of Sharon, dancing, and plays? By the angry woman's account of Salvation Army charity?
How is Ma's chasing away the religious intruder with a stick of wood a symbolic action? Is this similar to any of her former actions?
How does the manager deal with her impulses toward violence?
Towards what has her mind begin to turn and how do her reminiscences differ from those of Pa?
23. What does the Indian story reveal about the people who tell it? What kind of verbal entertainment do they like?
According to the narrative, what's wrong with the rich - radical - youth movie? What other pleasures are available?
What response does the speaker feel as he views the star and other worlds (p 362)?
What language describes the revival meetings? What motivates the preacher who speaks to the crowd?
24. How well organized are the committees for repelling invaders?
Who does Al behave towards women (p. 370)? Is he concerned with camp government?
What views of sexual morality are revealed in Ma's conversation with Rose of Sharon?
What does Pa think of as the solution to his problems -- and what are shown to be the inadequacies of his view?
How do other men respond to the man who suggests a parade with guns, and why is this significant?
25. What has happened to the crops? What is the significance of the metaphor of the grapes of wrath? Was it appropriate as a choice for the title of this book?
26.What does Ma feel has altered former sexual roles?
What does she say to Tom to about their relationship? What is perceived to be unusual about Tom?
What quality enables the camp to repel the deputies (p. 394)?
What are some of the psychological components of Uncle John's "sin" (p. 396)?
What does Al keep wanting to do? What does Tom think of him? What is the contrast in their response to animals?
When picking peaches, which family member tries to think of a more efficient way of working communally?
What theory of aid does Ma tell to the storekeeper as she leaves his store?
What happened to Casy in jail? Does Casy reason in abstractions or from the specific to the general?
What are some of the things which happened during the strike? Will the people betray their own strike leaders?
What does Casy say just before he dies?
Does Ma's response to Tom reflect any biblical passage? What does Ma think has happened to the family?
27. Why does Ma forgive Ruthie for publicizing Tom's crime -- who else has held the same belief that evil results from ignorance or inevitability?
What does Tom recount of Casy's speech? Why wasn't it enough to be part of the one big soul in the wilderness? What is meant by the passage from the preacher?
If Tom is killed, where does he believe will he be? Does Ma agree?
What is Ma's theory of sexual differences (p 467)? What is her metaphor for life?
28. What do the men mean by commenting that horses are fed when not working?
Is it appropriate that rains should appear near the end of the novel?
29. Is the novel a simple progression downward -- why or why not?
Does this chapter represent the lowest point of the Joads’s fortunes so far? What is Al's response to the flood crisis, Uncle John's, Pa's? What has caused the baby's death?
What is the meaning of Uncle John's invocation to the dead baby? What does Ma say about her past belief that the family should be first?
Summarize what you think are Ma's attitudes and behaviors toward other people. Have there been changes in Rose of Sharon's character -- if so, from what? How has Ma treated her daughter?
What is the significance of the final scene? What would you say have been some of the implications or messages embodied in this narrative?
If you have heard Woody Guthrie’s rendition of “The Ballad of Tom Joad,” do you think it conveys something of the spirit and ethos of the story?
What are some experiences of Steinbeck's life which prepared him to write this novel? Do you think there are any autobiographical features of its sentiments or plot?
Possible Essay Topics on The Grapes of Wrath
1. According to Steinbeck’s narrative, in what ways can and should men resist economic exploitation? Develop Steinbeck's philosophy of resistance to evil using scenes from the book which exemplify what should and shouldn't be done.
2. Is the final scene a satisfactory ending -- does it draw together the themes of Grapes of Wrath? Can you think of a reason why the final scene should emphasize Rose of Sharon, not an important character until near the end? Does this reveal anything concerning the novel's theme?
3. Sexuality and religion are interrelated topics in Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck presents two forms of religious attitudes, the universal / humanitarianism of Casy and the sectarian enthusiasm of the preachers and pious encountered along the way.
What does each believe about the good or evil of human life and how does each respond to the existence of sexual drives? Give examples of the responses of the pious to sin -- eg. Granma, Uncle John, the holiness sect at Granma's death, the preachers in the government camps, the woman who accosts Rose of Sharon, and Casy before his uncalling.
Does Steinbeck imply any correlation between an emphasis on sin and sexual repression? With what forms of language and imagery are religious services described? What do these contrasts reveal about Steinbeck's attitudes concerning sexuality and religion?
4.Who or what is the novel's protagonist -- discuss through defining the novel's themes and progressions. Is it possible to have a compound protagonist, and if so, what are the advantages and pitfalls of this choice?
5.Develop your views on how the novel's formal structure [ eg. Epic journey progression, tripartite division, general descriptive chapters alternating with Joad narrative] is designed to present its themes. Also you might comment on how Steinbeck's stylistic mannerisms (much description of natural processes, biblicalisms, loose repetitious language, simple sentences, etc.) relate to the novel's content.
6.What are Steinbeck's views on property, concentration of wealth, and social class? What does he see as the causes of economic evils? -- explain how the novel is structured to present these views.
7.There are many biblical parallels in the novel; if these are not ornamental effects but intrinsic to the theme, explain their appropriateness. Do the biblical parallels with specific characters aid in defining the function of these characters in the novel? Give examples.
8.Some characters develop during the novel while others remain constant -- is it generally the important or the unimportant characters who develop? Discuss one character through describing his / her development or failure to develop, or through contrasting with other characters. (Eg. What is the function of Al, Rose of Sharon; do Ma's views develop or alter; what is Tom's relation to Ma, Casy, Al?)
9. How does Steinbeck deal with the problem of sexual roles -- to what degree does he accept / reject / or alter traditional definitions? Are there changes in family structure throughout the novel? (After Tom leaves, who constitutes family?)
10. How are animals used in the novel? What do the responses of various persons to animals reveal about their own character?
11. Casy is a significant figure --- discuss parallels with Christ, the importance of his ideas to the novel, his position relative to others, and so on.
12. Discuss how Steinbeck presents the agrarian poor versus the middle and upper classes: what are the qualities of Steinbeck's "people", both in separate families and when living communally?
What forms of music, conversation, entertainment, and law do they naturally favor? How do they feel about other minority groups, such as the Indians?
Do you feel that Steinbeck romanticizes his people or is this a balanced presentation? By contrast, what are the corrupt qualities of the clerical / mercantile lower and upper middle classes? What is significant about the speech of the people and why is there emphasis on not talking too much, on not taking correspondence courses, etc.? Are there limitations to this view?
13. Discuss the theme of human relations in Grapes of Wrath. Which persons are able to form bonds with others and what are the philosophical - human significance of these bonds?
You might discuss a single relationship -- Ma - Tom, Ma - Rose of Sharon, Tom - Casy, Ma - Casy -- or show the contrast between two relationships. Does Al have important ties with anyone? Are any of the sexual relationships in the novel important? What constitutes the bond of union?
Steinbeck's Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Prize, 1962
. . . The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams, for the purpose of improvement.
Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit -- for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion, and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
(On the Nobel Prize):
They are offered for increased and continuing knowledge of man and of his world -- for understanding and communication, which are the functions of literature. And they are offered for demonstrations of the capacity of peace -- the culmination of all the others.
. . . the door of nature was unlocked and we were offered the dreadful burden of choice. We had usurped many of the powers once ascribed to God. Fearful and unprepared, we have assumed lordship over the life and death of the whole world, of all living things. The danger and the glory and the choice rest finally in man. The test of his perfectibility is at hand.
Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, Saint John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: in the end is the word and the word is man, and the word is with man.
On Sentimentality in the Novel:
. . . "The epithet 'sentimental' may easily be used as a club to beat people we don't like. I have no desire to use it as such, for the truth is that most English and American novelists are sentimental. We are a sentimental people, and when we rebel against conventional sentiment we get sentiment in reverse . . . ." (McElderry, "The Grapes of Wrath: In the Light of Modern Critical Theory", College English, 1944, in Donohue, A Casebook on The Grapes of Wrath)
Other worthwhile selections from Donohue’s Casebook:
Carey McWilliams, "California Pastoral"
Peter Lisca, "The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction"
Griffin and Freedman, "Machines and Animals: Pervasive Motifs in The Grapes of Wrath"
Jules Chametzky, "The Ambivalent Endings of The Grapes of Wrath"
On Title "The Grapes of Wrath" -- Julie Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," 1861
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on,
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on. Chorus, etc.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. Chorus, etc.
On Steinbeck's Ideas
Some Antecedents of Steinbeck:
Upon the foundation of this old American idealism Steinbeck has built. But the Emersonian oversoul had seemed very vague and very ineffective -- only the individual had been real, and he had been concerned more with his private soul than with other people. The Grapes of Wrath develops the old idea in new ways. It traces the transformation of the passive individual into the active participant -- the idealist becomes pragmatist. The first development continues the poetic thought of Walt Whitman; the second continues the philosophy of William James and John Dewey.
To sum up: the fundamental idea of The Grapes of Wrath is that of American transcendentalism: "Maybe all men got one big soul every 'body's a part of." From this idea it follows that every individual will trust those instincts which he shares with all men, even when these conflict with the teachings of orthodox religion and of existing society. But his self-reliance will not merely seek individual freedom, as did Emerson. It will rather seek social freedom or mass democracy, as did Whitman. If this mass democracy leads to the abandonment of genteel taboos and to the modification of some traditional ideas of morality, that is inevitable. . . . .
But at this point the crucial question arises -- and it is "crucial" in every sense of the word. What if this self-reliance leads to death? What if the individual is killed before the social group is saved? Does the failure of the individual action invalidate the whole idea? "How'm I'm gonna know about you?" Ma asks. "They might kill ya an' I wouldn't know."
The answer has been suggested by the terms in which the story has been told. If the individual has identified himself with the oversoul, so that his life has become one with the life of all men, his individual death and failure will not matter. . . .
For the first time in history, The Grapes of Wrath brings together and makes real three great skeins of American thought. It begins with the transcendental oversoul, Emerson's faith in the common man, and his Protestant self-reliance. To this it joins Whitman's religion of the love of all men and his mass democracy. And it combines these mystical and poetic ideas with the realistic philosophy of pragmatism and its emphasis on effective action. From this it develops a new kind of Christianity -- not otherworldly and passive, but earthly and active. (Frederick Carpenter, "The Philosophical Joads", College English, 1941)