1939 novel is the wrenching story of the "Okies," the Oklahoma farmers dispossessed from their land and forced to become migrant farmers in California during the Great Depression. First regarded as a protest novel and only later as a work of art, THE GRAPES OF WRATH describes the Joad family's exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics. The novel has an unusual structure: chapters that present historical and social information that led to the present situation ("intercalary chapters") are interspersed with chapters of narration that focus on specific characters and develop the plot. Steinbeck emphasized that only through unity, dignity, family, and selflessness can people survive. Despite their grueling problems, the Joads move from a concern for their own welfare to a concern for everyone. This is especially obvious in the development of the main character, Tom Joad.
As the novel opens, Tom has returned home after serving a jail sentence. The Dust Bowl has decimated the region; foreclosures have forced the farmers off the land. Tom and the itinerant preacher Jim Casy decide to accompany Tom's family to California to find work. Tom's initial narrow concern only for his own problems slowly moves to a concern for his family unit (quickly augmented by the addition of others unrelated by blood or kinship) and by the end of the novel, to a concern for all the Okies. Thus, the family's literal journey West becomes symbolic of an acceptance of humanity. To Steinbeck, this inclusiveness is essential because the migrants' misery is caused by people who benefit from it -- the California farmers who deliberately degrade the migrant workers to keep them powerless -- not by capricious weather or simple ill fortune. Previous