The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

First on the reading list this year I wanted to revisit one of my favorite books.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  • Published in 1939. 
  • Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel category.
  • Aggregately ranked as the 27th greatest fiction book of all time by The Greatest Books (thegreatestbooks.org). 
  • Appears on many reading lists, often cited as a must-read book.

The first time — required reading in high school 

Like many people, I first read this book in high school as required reading for my English class. I associate The Grapes of Wrath with Ms. Rob, my high school English teacher. I have to stop for a second and reflect on the impact she had on me.

Our homework was to read chapters of the book. We’d then discuss it the next day in class. Ms. Rob would lead the discussions. She would help explain certain parts, provide further insight, or ask thought-provoking questions. That’s all fairly routine, though.

It was her passion for the book — for the words, stories, and characters. That’s what inspired me. She would read us passages from the book with such reverence, oration, and enthusiasm. It was like a prominent actress reciting lines from a stage play. You couldn’t help but take notice. She brought the stories to life. I’ll never forget it. 

We read other books that year in school, but they didn’t have an impact on me like this one. It was the combination of Ms. Rob’s passion and John Steinbeck’s story. That’s what helped it stay with me all these years later.

The second and third times — required reading as an adult

After reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time in high school, it became my favorite book. Not that I had read many books by then, but it was my favorite nonetheless. I then read it again a couple of years later. 

In December 2019, I set out to read the book for a third time, 20 years since the first time I read it. I’ve only read two books more than once — both by John Steinbeck — and never read the same book a third time. Obviously this book means something to me.

I now have a broader perspective from when I first read this book. A broader perspective in both my reading experience and life experience. It will be interesting to see if this book is still one of my favorites.

A brief overview

Set during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family. The Joads were forced to leave their small house and farm. Changing conditions in the social, political, climate, and economic landscape forced the move. The eviction pushes them from Oklahoma westward toward California. A better life is promised to await the Joads and thousands of similar migrant families. The journey, and later the destination, tests their faith, self-respect, and the bonds of humanity.

The family suffers setbacks and trials along the way. Legal difficulties. Ability to find work. Unfair wages and financial troubles. Health issues. Family dynamics. Weather, among others. The family teters on the edge of breaking down. Some family members decide to leave, others die by the grace of God. By the end, the ones still alive are no more than skeletons of their former selves.

They meet others along the way. Some people offer kindness, hope, devotion, and reaffirm the decency of mankind. Others show prejudice and hatred. Exploitation. Unfairness and distaste. The duality of man is felt in every chapter.

The family discovers that this journey goes beyond life-or-death. Survival takes every ounce of perseverance they can muster — and even then, will it be enough?  

What it means to me

Filled with symbolism, imagery, social commentary, and life lessons, John Steinbeck wrote one hell of an American novel. We’re all on a journey. Maybe it’s not as important as the Joads’ journey; or maybe it’s even more so. It’s the journey that defines us. The destination is often irrelevant. 

Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath may be one of the most important books of the 20th century. Even after 80 years, it still resonates. The journey of the Joad family isn’t that different from some of the struggles of today.

I find myself with the Joads on their journey. I’m no longer a passive reader in this story. I’m traveling with them, working alongside in the fields, and camping down for the night wherever we can. When they have a setback, I feel a lump in my throat and breathe a sigh of discontent. When they have a brief uptick in their situation, it gives me hope. And, when their journey finally comes to a bittersweet end, I’m thankful they made it as far as they did.

I found the ending this time to be more emotional than in previous readings. (If you’ve only seen the movie, know that the book ends much differently.) It takes a certain amount of life experience to really feel it and get it. I didn’t have that life experience the last time I read the book. This time, I certainly had more, although I still have a long way to go.

John Steinbeck weaves such a realistic and memorable story. It’s nearly impossible not to empathize with the characters. The story transcends time and place; is it the 1930s or 2020s? Make a few minor substitutions and the story could very well happen today.

Rarely does a story stay with me like this one. When the time is right, I’ll read this book again. I’ll be in a different time and place, but still on a journey. Maybe even the same journey as now. When my own journey gets tough or uncertain, I often pick up my copy of this book. I flip through it to find inspiration and strength in its words. If the Joads can survive that, surely I can make it through this.

There’s a reason why I return to this book. (I have to think that Ms. Rob from high school is a big part of that reason.) This book serves as a roadmap and a compass. I don’t think John Steinbeck realized the impact this book would have — especially 80 years later. It’s a classic American novel for a reason, and it’s still one of my favorites.

Final note

As an aspiring writer myself, I have a new appreciation for books from this time period. Can you imagine writing, editing, and printing books back then? Technology has made the process so much easier. Typing, copy and paste, spellcheck, saving files — it’s routine by today’s standards. In 1939, it was not. It was a manual process and much more difficult. Even if you don’t enjoy classic books, appreciate the effort it took to create them.


An essay by Jason S. Sullivan, 01-28-20 (updated 02-06-20)

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