The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

I had somehow avoided reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school—for which I’m glad, since it allowed me to read the book with a background not only of US economic history but also of European continental philosophy (specifically Hegel and Marx). I was surprised that I should have needed this last for context: I had not known how polemical is Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece.

The book, of course, follows the Joad family from the American Midwest to California in search of relief from poverty in work. Amidst the efforts of the family to make their way and survive (a plot which is conveyed excellently and sympathetically by Steinbeck) there are both explicit and implicit references and advocacy of a takeover by the farming and working class of the land from its legal owners. Though this is rarely more than an underlying theme in the book, it is, nonetheless, there, and it ironically acquires greater impact due to the selective nature with which the causes of the Great Depression are presented.

It’s not because of style that I only give it three stars (Steinbeck is excellent in his details, in scene depiction, and in the tension and release of his plot), but because the book, unfortunately, often presents an unnuanced perspective of the Great Depression. Granted, this may be intentional—one would not expect Tom Joad to approach his circumstances like an economist or a philosopher—but if Steinbeck was meaning us to interpret his characters’ experience with a critical or ironic eye, I could not see it. It definitely bears rereading, but I would only recommend or teach it with the same type of caveat and grain of salt I would use when teaching Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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