John Steinbeck

The Depression Writer

The 1930s


The 1930s was radically different from the 1920s in mood as well as in expression. The Wall Street crash of 1929 set the tone for the writing of the decade and the great Depression began. The 1930s was a truly dark time. Banks failed, factories closed, and the agriculture withered. As the Depression spread, life became a nightmarish experience of a struggle for survival for millions of people. Economic disaster and the wretched workless existence for the masses of the people brought home to the realization that the system might have collapsed. 三十年代的作家关心社会和广大群众的生活和斗争,呈现出 与二十年代不同的面貌。在思想内容上,摒弃孤独、疑虑和 迷惘的个人色彩,完成由“我”到“我们”的改革。

I. Life story

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California. His father was a government official, and his mother a school teacher. He attended Stanford University without graduating. He worked as a farm laborer, a seaman, a newspaper reporter, a bricklayer, a surveyor and a migratory fruit-picker. Steinbeck began writing novels in 1929, but he garnered little commercial or critical success until the publication of Tortilla Flat《煎饼坪》 in 1935. Steinbeck frequently used his fiction to delve into the lives of society’s most downtrodden citizens. A trio of novels in the late 1930s focused on the lives of migrant workers in California: In Dubious Battle, published in 1936, was followed by Of Mice and Men in 1937, and, in 1939, Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. Other important writings: The Moon is down (1942), East of Eden (1952), The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

The Grapes of Wrath

1. Background

During the early 1930s, a severe drought led to massive agricultural failure in parts of the southern Great Plains, particularly throughout western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. These areas had been heavily overcultivated by wheat farmers in the years following World War I and were covered with millions of acres of loose, exposed topsoil. In the absence of rain, crops withered and died; the topsoil, no longer anchored by growing roots, was picked up by the winds and carried in billowing clouds across the region. Huge dust storms blew across the area, at times blocking out the sun and even suffocating those unlucky enough to be caught unprepared. The afflicted region became known as the “Dust Bowl.”

By the mid-1930s, the drought had crippled countless farm families, and America had fallen into the Great Depression. Unable to pay their mortgages or invest in the kinds of industrial equipment now necessitated by commercial competition, many Dust Bowl farmers were forced to leave their land. Without any real employment prospects, thousands of families nonetheless traveled to California in hopes of finding new means of survival. But the farm country of California quickly became overcrowded with migrant workers.


Jobs and food were scarce, and the migrants faced prejudice and hostility from the Californians, who labeled them with the derisive epithet “Okie.” (对于流动农业工人的蔑称,尤指30年代期间来自俄 克拉荷马州的流动农业工人 ) These workers and their families lived in cramped, impoverished camps called “Hoovervilles,” (胡佛村:20世纪30年 代大萧条时期为破产者和赤贫者,在城市边缘建造 的简陋的帐篷) named after President Hoover, who was blamed for the problems that led to the Great Depression. Many of the residents of these camps starved to death, unable to find work.

Story plot

It tells the story of the migration of Joad family from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to California. The farmlands which the Joad family and other families live on are deserted and all the inhabitants are “tractored” from the land. Most families have to head for California to look for work, because they have seen handbills advertising fruit-picking jobs in California. The journey is full of bitterness and pain, some of them passing away (grandpa/grandma) and all of them suffering the scarceness of food and dwelling place. But, the family is not in total despair, due to the humanity that triumphs. (Tom Joad / Jim Casey/ Mother / Rose)

Major characters:
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Tom Joad: Four years in prison (he was accused of manslaughter), he claims, has molded him into someone who devotes his time and energy to the present moment. The future, which seems illusory and out of reach, does not concern him. Of course, Tom, who exhibits a rare strength, thoughtfulness, and moral certainty, is destined for more than mere day-to-day survival. Tom undergoes the most significant transformation in the novel as he sheds this carpe diem及时行乐 (seize the day) philosophy for a commitment to bettering the future. During their journey west, Tom assumes the role of Jim Casy’s reluctant disciple. The former preacher emphasizes that a human being, when acting alone, can have little effect on the world, and that one can achieve wholeness only by devoting oneself to one’s fellow human beings. The hardship and hostility faced by the Joad family on their journey west serve to convert Tom to Casy’s teachings. By the time Tom and Casy reunite at the cotton plantation, Tom realizes that he cannot stand by as a silent witness to the world’s injustices.

Jim Casy

Jim Casy (the ex-preacher, the first man Tom Joad met after released from the prison) redefines the concept of holiness, suggesting that the most divine aspect of human experience is to be found on earth, among one’s fellow humans. As a radical philosopher, a motivator and unifier of men, and a martyr, Casy assumes a role akin to that of Jesus Christ—with whom he also shares his initials. Indeed, Casy comes to believe so strongly in his mission to save the suffering laborers that he willingly gives his life for it. Casy’s teachings prompt Tom Joad’s transformation into a social activist and man of the people.

Ma Joad

A determined and loving woman, Ma Joad emerges as the family’s center of strength. Regardless of how bleak circumstances become, Ma Joad meets every obstacle unflinchingly. Time and again, Ma displays a startling capacity to keep herself together—and to keep the family together—in the face of great turmoil. Ma articulates this best, perhaps, when she wordlessly directs her daughter to breast-feed the starving man in Chapter Thirty. With her indomitable nature, Ma Joad suggests that even the most horrible circumstances can be weathered with grace and dignity.


Man’s Inhumanity to Man Steinbeck consistently and woefully points to the fact that the migrants’ great suffering is caused not by bad weather or mere misfortune but by their fellow human beings. Historical, social, and economic circumstances separate people into rich and poor, landowner and tenant, and the people in the dominant roles struggle viciously to preserve their positions. In his brief history of California in Chapter Nineteen, Steinbeck portrays the state as the product of land-hungry squatters who took the land from Mexicans and, by working it and making it produce, rendered it their own.

Now, generations later, the California landowners see this historical example as a threat, since they believe that the influx of migrant farmers might cause history to repeat itself. In order to protect themselves from such danger, the landowners create a system in which the migrants are treated like animals, shuffled from one filthy roadside camp to the next, denied livable wages, and forced to turn against their brethren simply to survive. The novel draws a simple line through the population—one that divides the privileged from the poor—and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.

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Humanity of Man In the face of adversity, the livelihood of the migrants depends upon their union. As Tom eventually realizes, “his” people are all people.

The Dignity of Wrath


The Joads stand as exemplary figures in their refusal to be broken by the circumstances that conspire against them. At every turn, Steinbeck seems intent on showing their dignity and honor; he emphasizes the importance of maintaining self-respect in order to survive spiritually. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of the novel. The Joads have suffered incomparable losses: Noah, Connie, and Tom have left the family; Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn baby; the family possesses neither food nor promise of work. Yet it is at this moment that the family manages to rise above hardship to perform an act of unsurpassed kindness and generosity for the starving man, showing that the Joads have not lost their sense of the value of human life. Steinbeck makes a clear connection in his novel between dignity and rage. As long as people maintain a sense of justice—a sense of anger against those who seek to undercut their pride in themselves—they will never lose their dignity.


The structure is dictated by the Bible. The 30 chapters fall into 3 sections, with the description of the drought in the first ten, the journeying in chapter 13 through 18, and the remaining 12 devoted to a narrative of the life of the migrants in California. These three sections correspond to “The Exodus” story in the Old Testament. The Exodus tells about the bondage of the ancient Jews in Egypt, their escape out of it and journeying toward Canaan迦南(《圣经》故事中称其为上帝赐 给以色列人祖先的 "应许之地",是巴勒斯坦,叙利亚和黎巴嫩等地的古称 ). The Jews went to Egypt in search of food and, having stayed for some 400 years, became the slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Their suffering was such that God sent Moses as his prophet to lead them out. This Moses did, and the great host traveled through the desert toward Canaan, only to meet with bitter resistance there. The Joad family comes from the Oklahoma desert, crossing the big Death Valley desert and into California, the land of hope for them.


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