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National Endowment for the Arts 


'••>J5 m -INSTITUTE of , - 

"v. Museum, library 


The Grapes 
of Wrath 






The Grapes 
of Wrath 




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Published by 

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Works Cited 

Excerpts from THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck, copyright 1939, renewed © 1967 by 
John Steinbeck. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 


We gratefully acknowledge artist John Sherffius for the cover portrait. 

Written by Philip Burnham, David Kipen, and Erika Koss for the National Endowment 
for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, D.C. 

Photo Credits 

Page iv: Book cover courtesy of University of Delaware Library, Newark, Del. Used by permission 
of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.; Dust storm, Library of Congress, 
Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USF34- 004052. Page 1: Dana Gioia, 
image by Vance Jacobs. Inside back cover © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Book? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: The Dust Bowl 16 

Handout Two: The WPA 17 

Handout Three: Migrant Farm Workers 1 8 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

-HE? 1 




e souis ot tne people 
grapes of wrath are filling and 
growing heavy, growing heavy 
for the vintage." 

— from The Grapes of Wrath 



Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment 
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American 
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, 
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes ofWrath. Each lesson has four 
sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, the Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Steinbeck's novel remains so compelling seven 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make these 
Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, time lines, and historical information. We hope this 
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

£^UACs B^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Read 
Reader's Guide (pp. 3-7; 10-11). Write about 
an important, view-changing book 

Homework: Chapters I -5 (pp. I -39).* 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Go to 
Write an essay how artists are influenced by 

Homework: Readers Guide essay, 
(pp. 1 4- 1 5). Chapters 6-9 (pp. 40-89). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Explore Steinbeck's use of parallel 
narration. Tel I story from the the point of 
view of one of the characters. 

Homework: Chapters 10-13 (pp. 90- 1 49). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Explore the antagonist Write about 
how myths inform characters. 

Homework: Chapters 14-17 (pp. 1 50-200). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Document figurative language in 
assigned chapters. Use metaphors in personal 
description of a road journey. 

Homework: Chapters 18-19 (pp. 20 1 -239). 

Page numbers refer to the Viking Penguin 2006 edition of The Grapes ofWrath 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Analyze three major symbols: the 
road, the West, and the grapes of wrath. 

Homework: Chapters 20-21 (pp. 240-284). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Map the transformation of 
individual Joads and the family as a whole. 

Homework: Chapters 22-24 (pp. 285-345). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS:The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Chart a time line of the novel. 
Invent an alternative ending. Read Readers 
Guide (pp. 1 2- 1 3). 

Homework: Chapters 25-26 (pp. 346-405). 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Develop an interpretation based 
on a theme: the individual against the 
corporation, the American dream, 

Homework: Chapters 27-28 (pp. 406-455). 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Great Book? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
novel and the voice of a generation. 
Examine qualities that make Steinbeck's 
novel successful. Have students review each 
others paper outlines or drafts. 

Homework: Finish essays. 

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The authors life can inform and expand the readers understanding of a 
novel. John Steinbeck reported on the Depression-era migrant workers 
of his native California for various newspapers and journals. A chronicler 
of the poor and dispossessed, he was a frequent visitor to migrant 
encampments, an experience that compelled him to write The Grapes of 
Wrath — the novel for which he won the 1 940 Pulitzer Prize and is best 
remembered today. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical 
criticism, looks through the lens of an authors experience. In this lesson, 
explore the author's life to understand more fully the novel. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the Big Read CD. Students should take notes as they listen. Ask them to 
present the three most important points they learned from the CD. To go more 
in depth, you might focus on the reflections of one particular commentator. How 
does his or her background shape his or her reading of the novel? 

Have students read the following essays from the Readers Guide: "Introduction to 
the Novel," "John Steinbeck (1902-1968),'* and "Steinbeck and His Other Works" 
(pp. 3-7; 1 0-1 I). Divide the class into groups. Each group will present a summary of 
the points in its assigned essay. Ask students to add a creative twist to make their 
presentations memorable. 

Writing Exercise 

Have students write a one-page response to a book that taught them something 
about a group to which they do not belong. If the book changed the way they see 
a certain group — a race, a religion, a social class, a subculture — have them discuss 
at least three ways they were changed. Have them exchange their writing with a 
classmate and present their books, ideas, and conclusions to the class. Get them 
thinking about how a novel might adjust their views. 

P] Homework 

Read Chapters I -5 (pp. I -39). Ask students to think about how the Oklahoma 
landscape shapes the lives of the people who live in it How does their own 
landscape shape the students' lives? When did their parents move to where the 
students are growing up now, and why? 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give rise to the dilemmas and themes at the 
heart of a novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating the intricate 
details of the time and place assist us in comprehending the motivations of 
the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical contexts to begin to 
explore the novel. 

The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, near the end of a decade that 
began with the worst economic collapse in American history. In the 1 930s, 
the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment and misery, 
especially in rural areas, and did not fully run its course until 1941, when the 
military and its contractors started hiring and drafting for World War II. 

In spite — or because — of economic hardship, Hollywood thrived. Bette 
Davis, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and the screwball comedies of 
screenwriters such as Dudley Nichols and Jules Furthman came on the 
scene. Over the airwaves, Americans listened to the jokes of Jack Benny, the 
adventures of the Lone Ranger, and the news reports of Edward R. Murrow 
and Orson Welles' broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Welles also created 
excitement in the fine arts, producing and directing classics on Broadway 
and Marc Blitzsteins opera "The Cradle Will Rock" for the governments 
Work Projects Administration. The WPA also funded a renaissance in 
American art and architecture by commissioning buildings, bridges, and 
murals across the country. Artists responded by creating both serious works 
that reflected the growing national crisis, and sophisticated popular 
entertainment that gave escapism a good name. 

Discussion Activities 

Have students read Handout Two. Then go to the NEA's Jazz in the Schools Web 
site at Bear in mind that Steinbeck spent much of his 
earliest royalties assembling a prodigious jazz collection. At the Web site, ask 
students to go to Lesson Two and play clips of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and 
Benny Goodman. See if they can identify patterns in the music. If possible, team 
with a music specialist to explore further the music of the 1930s. 

Writing Exercise 

Ask the students to write a short essay on the ways artists of the 2 1 st century are 
being influenced by the current political and social climate. In your essay, use 
specific examples of movies, books, or art. Are writers and filmmakers chronicling 
current events much as Steinbeck reported the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants? 
Why or why not? 

2J Homework 

Have students read Chapters 6-9 (pp. 40-89) for discussion during the next lesson. 
Also, have them read pp. 14-15 in the Readers Guide. Who is telling the story, and 
what is the value of having alternating voices in the narration? 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. This narrator can be a major or minor character 
in the novel. The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including 
ignorance and bias, into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator 
participates in the events of the novel, using the pronoun "I." A distanced 
narrator (often not a character) does not participate in the events of the 
story and uses third person (he, she, they) to narrate the story. This 
distanced narrator can be omniscient, able to read the minds of all 
characters within the novel. Ultimately, the type of narrator determines the 
point of view from which the story is told. 

The Grapes of Wrath is narrated in a "limited-omniscient" third-person 
voice. This narrator recounts the points of view and experiences of many 
characters, sometimes far removed from the Joad family. The narrator is 
"limited" because, in spite of this omniscience, the interior lives of the 
characters — their silent thoughts and perceptions — are not always revealed 
to the reader. 

Discussion Activities 

Steinbeck's narration alternates between the specific story of the Joad family and 
the larger story of all the Dust Bowl migrants. He accomplishes the latter through 
interchapters that he called "generals." Why would Steinbeck do this? Is the 
alternation consistent, or are there deviations? How does his focus on the 
migrants (for example, in Chapter 9) contribute to the point of view of the book? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to choose one character who has appeared so fanTom, Casy, Ma, Pa, 
Uncle John, Grampa, Granma. Have students rewrite the novel's beginning from 
this character's perspective. Have them think about how a story can be told from 
multiple perspectives. What might Steinbeck be trying to tell us by writing about a 
whole family and a whole community? 

23 Homework 

Have students read Chapters 10-13 (pp. 90- 1 49). Ask students to trace the 
motivations and development of the same character they chose for the writing 
exercise. Is the family itself a character in the novel? Have them keep track of each 
character's way of talking. What particularities do they notice in the phrases, word 
choices, and education of their chosen character? 


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The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The 
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great courage 
may be called a "hero. "A protagonist of dubious tenacity and questionable 
virtue is an "antihero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of 
the protagonists in an attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The 
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by 
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to 
highlight more clearly certain features of the main character. The most 
important foil, the "antagonist," opposes the protagonist, barring or 
complicating his or her success. 

The novel begins with Tom Joads release from prison. He is a convicted 
killer who acted in self-defense and has served his debt to society. Soon he 
joins his family for the trip to California. 

Many readers consider Tom Joad the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath, a 
man who struggles against violent instincts while standing up for the rights 
of the dispossessed. Several foils propel Tom into manhood. Reverend Casy 
speaks a language of pantheism and growing political awareness. Ma is a 
restraining figure, always reminding Tom of his checkered past and 
responsibility to the family. Even poor Muley, a solitary outcast on the land, 
unwittingly warns Tom of the consequences of social exile. These foils vie to 
lead Tom toward his final choices. 

Discussion Activities 

Who is the antagonist in The Grapes ofWrath? Is it the men who drive the 
tractors? Is it the bank officials who own the land? Or is the antagonist not a 
person at all, but the "monster" hounding the farmers from Oklahoma all the way 
to California? Are the protagonist and the antagonist in this novel in a fair fight? 
Can the Joads win, or are the odds stacked against them? 

Writing Exercise 

Steinbeck often alludes to myth to reveal something essential about his characters. 
Other times, he'll include a story within the novel. For example, he says that the 
Joads' first-born son, Noah,"was not stupid but he was strange" (p. 78), then 
Steinbeck tells the story of Noah's birth. Ask students to find another example of 
this technique, and consider the value of telling stories to develop a character. 

EJ Homework 

Have students read Chapters 14-17 (pp. 1 50-200). Ask them to find examples in 
the text where Steinbeck makes them see the landscape in a new way by 
comparing it to something else. For instance, challenge them to find moments 
where inanimate objects are compared to animate ones. 

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Writers often use non-literal language to invite readers to visualize events, 
view internal conflicts, glimpse social themes, or grasp abstract concepts like 
beauty, truth, or goodness. An author uses figurative or non-literal language 
to stretch our imaginations, challenging us to decode the references and 
meanings bound within images, similes, metaphors, and symbols. Such 
devices require a reader to participate actively in the novel, as the reader 
begins to (implicitly or explicitly) interpret non-literal elements of the story. 

Discussion Activities 

Divide the class into groups. Assign each group a selection of chapters from the 
novel so far, asking group members to identify figurative language used in those 
chapters. Students should specifically identify images, similes, and metaphors. In 
those chapters, how does the figurative language help tell the story? Have each 
group present its findings to the class, highlighting what it considers the best 
example. What is implied when a writer treats an inanimate object as if it were 
alive? Are there counter-examples where Steinbeck treats a creature as if it were 
a thing? 

Wa Writing Exercise 

Sometimes Steinbeck uses a mix of sensory images to introduce a metaphor: 
"The ancient Hudson, with bent and scarred radiator screen, with grease in dusty 
globules at the worn edges of every moving part, with hub caps gone and caps of 
red dust in their places — this was the new hearth, the living center of the family" 
(pp. 99- 1 00). Have students find some imagery in the text and make it into a 
metaphor, as Steinbeck makes the car into "the new hearth" in the passage above. 
When is an image merely an image, and when does an author place metaphorical 
weight on it? 

Steinbeck uses metaphor when he writes the following: "66 is the mother road, 
the road of flight" (p. 1 18). Have students write two paragraphs about a road trip 
they have taken, using several examples of figurative language to color their 
account of the journey. Encourage students to include metaphors as well as 

EJ Homework 

Have students read Chapters 18-19 (pp. 20 1 -239). Ask them to think about what 
California represents to the Joads. Challenge them to bring to class three quotes 
from the text that will help examine the Joads' views of California. 


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Symbols are interpretive keys to the text. The craft of storytelling depends 
on symbols that present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most 
frequently, a specific object will be used to represent (or symbolize) a more 
abstract concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non- 
literal or figurative meaning attached to the object above and beyond face 
value. Symbols are often found in a novel's title, at the beginning and end 
of the novel, in an important action, or in the name or personality of a 
character. The life of a novel is perpetuated by generations of readers 
interpreting and re-interpreting the main symbols of the novel. By decoding 
symbols, any reader can reveal a new interpretation. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

To summarize, a symbol is an object or action that suggests additional meanings. 
Use this class period to analyze three major symbols in the novel: the road, the 
West, and the grapes of wrath. 

The Road: Route 66 

As America's major east-west road, Highway 66 was also known as "Route 66," 
"The Mother Road," and "The Main Street of America." A trip from Oklahoma to 
California was not taken lightly in this pre-interstate era. Focus on the description 
of the road in Chapter 1 2: "66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust 
and shrinking land." How does this tone change by the time we reach Chapter 2 1 ? 
What has changed in the Joad family? 

The West 

For Americans, the West in general and California in particular have symbolized a 
new life, or promised land. Building on the homework from Lesson Five, why did 
so many families in the 1 930s — including the fictional Joad family — pin their hope 
for a better life on California? Pay particular attention to Chapter 18, when the 
Joad family reaches Tehachapi and sees the vineyards and orchards for the first 

The Grapes of Wrath 

Steinbeck's title quotes from Julia Ward Howe s "Battle-Hymn of the Republic," a 
famous Civil War anthem associated with the anti-slavery movement. Howe's 
allusion to "the grapes of wrath" comes from the biblical books of Deuteronomy 
and Revelation. From what you have read so far, do you think Steinbeck chose a 
good title? Does it have patriotic, religious, and political connotations? (Students 
will read the famous passage "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are 
filling and growing heavy" when they reach Chapter 25.) 

C Homework 

Read Chapters 20-2 1 (pp. 240-284). Students should return to their original Joad 
character from the homework in previous lessons. How has their character 
changed? If their character has died, ask them to consider the ways that the death 
has affected other members of the Joad family. 

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Lesson Seven 



Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist undergoes profound 
change. A close study of character development maps the evolution of 
motivation, personality, and belief in each character. Still, the tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. 

As the novel unfolds, we see Tom come to the defense of a principle larger 
than just himself. He learns to protect others against crooks, cons, 
vigilantes, and violent cops. He uses the toughness he developed in prison 
to shepherd the Joads to the "safety" of California, stepping in to take on 
the roles of family members who die, or leave, or lose authority. In this way, 
Tom grows into the role of family provider. 

Discussion Activities 

Which members of the Joad family undergo a change in the course of the novel? 
Divide the class into groups and assign a member of the family to each. Have each 
group find examples where the character has changed by the time he or she 
reaches California. What causes this change? Does any character fail to evolve? If 
so, why? Are the Joads responsible for what happens to them? Have a 
spokesperson report the groups findings to the class. 

Writing Exercise 

Have students focus on and write about Tom, Ma, Casy, and Rosasharn, the novel's 
main characters by the end of the novel. Students should consider these four 
characters in pairs, since Tom follows Casy s example, while Rosasharn emulates 
Ma. How are Tom and Casy, or Ma and Rosasharn similar? How are they different? 

EJ Homework 

Have students read Chapters 22-24 (pp. 285-345). Ask them to begin thinking 
about how Steinbeck has organized the events that make up the plot, and 
whether the story so far points to a likely resolution. Students should come to 
class with what they think are the two most important turning points so far in the 


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The Plot 

The author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase 
suspense, and inform character development. The timing of events, from 
beginning, to middle, to end, can make a novel predictable or riveting. A 
plot, propelled by a crisis, will reach a climax and close with a resolution 
(sometimes called denouement). Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the 
author to defy time while telling the story. A successful author will keep a 
reader entranced by clever pacing built into the story, sometimes 
confounding a simple plot by telling stories within stories. 

There are many moments in the novel that can be seen as turning points: 
the bank's eviction of the tenant farmers, the deaths of Grampa and 
Granma, Noahs and Connie s desertions, the revival of hope when the 
Joads arrive at the government camp, and the scuffle with the deputies. 

Discussion Activities 

Use the homework assignment from the last lesson to have students present the 
most important turning points in the novel. Ask them to refer to key passages 
from the novel, explaining why this moment is significant. What consequences 
does this turning point have for our main characters — Tom, Ma, or Casy? 

Have students read "The Novel at the Movies" on pages 12-13 in the Readers 
Guide.Then have them imagine they are making a movie of the novel. Tell them 
they have to cut certain scenes from the novel because of limited running time. 
Divide the class into groups and have each suggest two scenes that could be 
dropped. How does cutting the scene change the structure? Does it improve the 
story? Have students explain the reasons for their choices. 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to anticipate the novel's ending. Have them write several paragraphs 
describing what could become of the Joad family if they stay in the government 
camp. Ask them to consider whether the Joads at this point seem likelier to be 
doomed or saved. 

E3 Homework 

Have students read Chapters 25-26 (pp. 346-405). Will the novel end on a tragic 
or comic note? Can they predict any particular tragedy or triumph for a main 

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I I 


Themes of 
the Novel 

Profound questions raised by the story allow characters (and the reader) to 
explore the meaning of human life, and extract themes. Themes investigate 
topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians, scientists, 
historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual freedom 
versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political justice, and 
spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A novel can shed light on these 
age-old debates by creating new situations to challenge and explore human 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises. 
Using historical references to support ideas, explore the statements The Grapes of 
Wrath makes about the following themes: 

The Individual Against the Corporation: "It happens that every man in a 
bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it The bank is something 
more than men, I tell you" (p. 33). 

1 . Who — or what — is most responsible for the plight of the Joads? Bankers? 
Tractor drivers? Landowners? Or nature itself? Have students explain their 
answers in detail. 

2. What actions does Steinbeck advocate to fix the Joads' dilemma? 

The American Dream: Grampa says:"Gonna get me a whole big bunch of 
grapes off a bush, or whatever, an' I'm gonna squash 'em on my face an' let 'em 
run offen my chin" (p. 83). 

1 . What happens to Grampa's dream? Does anyone in the family find it? 

2. What are "the grapes of wrath" in Steinbeck's novel? 

Redemption: ". . .The on'y thing you got to look at is that ever' time they's a 
little step fo'ward, she may slip back a little, but she never slips clear back. . .an' 
that means they wasn't no waste even if it seemed like they was" (p. 384). 

1 . Are Casy's words borne out by the novel, or are they meant to be sad and 

2. How do the struggles of each of the Joads change them as individuals? 

[J] Homework 

Have students finish reading the novel. Ask them to begin their essays, using the 
"Essay Topics" at the end of this guide. Outlines are due at the next class. 


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What Makes 
a Great 

Novels illustrate the connections between individuals and questions of 
humanity. Great stories explore the mysteries of our daily lives, while 
placing those conflicts in the larger picture of human struggle. Readers 
connect with the story as the writers style communicates the plot, 
characters, and themes. By creating opportunities for imagination, and 
reflection, a great novel affects many generations of readers, changing lives, 
challenging assumptions, and forever breaking new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, in 
groups, other books that include some of the same characteristics. Do any of 
these books remind them of The Grapes ofWrat/i? How so? How not? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does 
Steinbeck create through the Joads? What kind of voice is in the interchapters? 
Does the novel speak for more than one man, and more than one family? What 
does this voice tell us about the concerns and dreams of the generation that 
experienced the Great Depression? 

Divide students into groups and have each decide on the single most important 
theme of the novel. Have a spokesperson from each group explain the group s 
decision. Write these themes on the board. Do all the groups agree? 

Writing Exercise 

Write a letter to a friend, perhaps one who does not like to read, and explain why 
The Grapes ofWrath is worth reading. Make an argument for why the novel still has 
meaning, even if the Depression is now a distant memory. 

Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist with outlines, 
drafts, and arguments. Have each student pair up with another to edit outlines 
and/or rough drafts. Provide students with the characteristics of a well-written 

22 Homework 

For next class, finish essays and present arguments to the class. Celebrate by 
participating in a Big Read community event. 

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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the "Discussion Questions" in the Readers Guide (pp. 16-17). Advanced students can come 
up with their own essay topics, as long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays 
are provided here. 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a stated thesis, argument, or idea about the 
novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis 
and supporting reasons should rely on references to the text. 

1 . Steinbeck writes in Chapter 3 about nothing 
more than a turtle crossing a highway — a turtle 
that later reappears in the novel. Why does 
Steinbeck devote such an elaborate account to 
such a mundane event? What does the turtle 
represent, or foreshadow? 

2. Steinbeck says of the age of commercial 
farming, "Men ate what they had not raised, had 
no connection with the bread. The land bore 
under iron, and under iron gradually died" 

(p. 36). Imagine the land as a character in The 
Grapes ofWrcTtri. What does it look like? What 
is its past? How does it change during the 
novel? Is it still alive by the end? 

3. Tom Joad learns how to write in prison. But 
"ever' time Pa seen writin'," he tells Muley, 
"somebody took somepin' away from 'im" 
(p. 54). What role does writing and education 
play in Steinbeck's novel? Is it ever used on 
behalf of the Joads? How is it used against 
them? What would the Joads have thought of 
The Grapes ofWrath? 

4. The Joads and their fellow travelers are forced 
to buy and sell everything within reach: cars, 
plows, a loaf of bread, a cup of water, a place to 
camp. As Steinbeck writes, "Merchandising was 

a secret to them" (p. 97). What does Steinbeck 
say about the world of business? Do the Joads 
ever come out on the better side of a bargain? 
Is there any such thing as a fair deal in the 

5. Ma tells Tom, "We're the people — we go 
on. . .a different time's comin"' (p. 280). Is Ma 
right? For the migrant workers of America, 
did a different time ever come? Is the Joad 
experience still a part of the American 
landscape? How can we tell? 

6. Violence, either real or threatened, is a part 
of everyday life for the Joads. Are they 
violent among themselves? Is their violence 
premeditated? Does it achieve its goal? Find 
examples of where their violence is justified 
or unjustified. 

7. "Woman can change better'n a man," Ma tells 
Pa. "Woman got all her life in her arms. Man 
got it all in his head" (p. 423). Who adapts 
better during the journey to California, the 
Joad women or the Joad men? How do their 
responses to success and disaster differ? Are 
there times when men and women use their 
best talents in collaboration? 


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Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1 . Photo Gallery: Ask students to find 
Depression-era photographs of rural farm 
workers, as in the work of Walker Evans and 
Dorothea Lange. Ask them also to look for 
photos of contemporary migrant workers in 
the U.S. from recent periodicals. They should 
try to find pairs of photos that echo or 
contrast with each other in subject or spirit. 
They should be able to discuss the 
photographs they bring, and point to details 
that explain why they chose them. Have 
students exhibit this "gallery" at a local library. 

2. Explore the historical period of the 1 930s by 
creating posters that provide in-depth 
information on what was happening in the 
following artistic disciplines: music and jazz, 
theater, painting and sculpture, photography, and 
dance. Display these posters in classrooms 
around the school. 

3. Ask students to produce a scene in which they 
put Tom Joad on trial for murdering a man with 
a pick handle. They should write the dialogue 
and perform the parts of the characters who 
testify. The scene can be produced at a student 
assembly and include a discussion afterward. 

4. Have students write a newspaper article 
describing the eventual fates of any of the Joads 
alive at the novels end:Tom, Noah, Connie, Al, 
Ma, Pa, Rosasharn. Students should use their 
imaginations, but base their stories on what 
they know about their subject from the novel. 
Have students display their articles at a local 
library or bookstore. 

5. Ask students to imagine they are government 
officials reporting on the conditions of 
California migrant workers during the 
Depression. Have them write a report on what 
they find among the workers at one of the 
stops along the Joads' journey: Sallisaw, Santa 
Rosa, Needles, Bakersfield, Weedpatch, or the 
cotton camp. Ask them to explain the causes 
of the situation in their report and offer 
practical solutions. 

6. Host a screening of Nunnally Johnson and John 
Fords movie version of The Crapes of Wrath at 
a local theater. Invite a scholar to come to the 
screening and lead a discussion afterward about 
the adaptation of the novel. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



The Dust Bowl 

The Dust Bowl catastrophe began with a plow and 
a dream. The escalating price of wheat during 
World War I encouraged the cultivation of large 
areas of the Great Plains previously used only for 
grazing. Through the 1 920s, farmers confident in 
the bounty of the American heartland plowed 
under an area of 100 million acres, including parts 
of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New 

Farmers plowed the marginal land and reaped 
good harvests for years. But when cattle and sheep 
were returned to the land in the late '20s, they 
overgrazed soil that had already been loosened by 
cultivation. The native grasses that retained water 
were plowed under or eaten and rubbed away by 
livestock. A serious mistake in land management, 
the planting and overgrazing of the Plains needed 
only a small push to become a full-fledged disaster. 

That push came in 1 93 1 when the rains stopped. 
Within three years, the central Plains region 
became a vast desert. High winds blew loose Plains 
soil as far as the East coast, darkening closer cities 
under "black blizzards." On a dry, windy day the 
sun could hardly be seen, and the dirt collected in 
drifts. In 1935 the area was dubbed a "dust bowl" 
by the Associated Press, a grim name that never 
went away. It became the worst drought in 
American history. 

By mid-decade, the federal government was 
working to restore the land. Through progressive 
practices like contour plowing, crop rotation, 
shelter belts, and strip plowing, agriculturalists 
strengthened the Great Plains against human abuse 
and unfriendly weather. By the early 1 940s, the 
area was already recovering. 

The legacy of the Dust Bowl was harsh. About a 
quarter of the area's population, perhaps as many as 
two million people, left the land. Some 200,000 
ended up in California, where they accepted the 
ill-paid stoop labor of migrant workers. It was the 
most concentrated migration in United States 
history. When Woody Guthrie sang, "I'm a-goin' 
where them dust storms never blow, blow, 
blow,/An' I ain't a-gonna be treated this way," 
("Blowin Down This Road"), he sang for a 
heartland population that had become refugees in 
their own country. 

During the Dust Bowl years, what early explorers 
had dubbed "the Great American Desert" — the 
North American interior — lived up to its name. 
The Dust Bowl was not simply the result of 
prolonged drought but the consequence of 
humans and nature unwittingly working in concert 
toward a disastrous end. 


National Endowment for the Arts 


The WPA 

The Work Projects Administration (WPA), 
originally called the Works Progress 
Administration, was the largest government agency 
established to fight unemployment during the 
Great Depression. From its inception in 1935 as 
part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, 
the agency was responsible for refurbishing 
America's road infrastructure, erecting buildings 
and bridges, improving airports, developing the 
arts, and giving millions of its employees an honest 
wage and a job in the broken American economy. 

By 1935, America had some twenty million people 
on government relief. The WPA paid heads of 
families on relief for a thirty-hour work week. The 
agency employed both blue- and white-collar 
workers, who did everything from building zoos 
and writing books to laying sewers, landscaping 
parks, and paving airport runways. 

The WPA is well remembered for its contribution 
to American arts and letters. One program was the 
Federal Writers' Project, an ambitious venture that 
produced, among other things, a series of 
comprehensive state and regional guidebooks. The 
American Guide Series offered cultural essays, 
automobile tours, historical reflections, 
photographs, and more. The Writers' Project also 
produced extensive folklore research, including 
interviews with many former slaves recorded in the 
Slave Narrative Collection. 

The WPA's reach in the arts extended far beyond 
the written word. Through the Federal Art Project 
(FAP), unemployed American artists were hired to 
decorate and create murals for public buildings 
such as schools, libraries, and post offices. They 
created some 200,000 works of art during the 
FAP's tenure. Among the artists who worked for 
WPA were Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, 
Willem de Kooning, and Jacob Lawrence. 

WPA photographers also captured the visual saga 
of America in the Great Depression. They depicted 
urban and rural life of the 1 930s and extensively 
documented programs including the Federal 
Theatre Project, another artistic arm of the WPA. 
Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans took the best- 
known photos of the Depression, those showing 
poverty in rural America, under the direction of the 
Farm Security Administration, a sister relief agency 
created under the New Deal. 

The WPA employed over eight million people 
during its existence, including writers Saul Bellow, 
John Cheever, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, and 
Zora Neale Hurston. By the time the agency 
disbanded in 1943, it had bequeathed a legacy, 
both economic and artistic, that would benefit 
generations of Americans with its documentary 
precision, its enormous scale, and its human touch. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Migrant Farm Workers 

Land in America is plentiful, but not always cheap. 
Those who cannot afford to buy it often work it 
for a wage. Tenant farmers cultivate a plot of land 
and pay a portion of the harvest to the owner, as 
do the Joads before the beginning of The Grapes 
of Wrath. But migrant farmers and laborers occupy 
a rung further down the ladder, traveling seasonally 
and getting paid by the bushel to do painful and 
dehumanizing "stoop labor." 

Since subsistence farming began to wane during 
the late 1 9th century, cheap migrant labor in 
America has been in constant demand. The people 
taking migrant jobs have belonged to many 
different groups: whites like the Joads, African 
Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, 
and Latinos. The Depression-era photographs of 
Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol, Walker Evans, 
and others made the grim faces of migrant farmers 
a permanent part of the collective American 

During the Depression, American citizens 
desperate for work did most of the migrant labor. 
Due to the labor shortage caused by World War II, 
however, the Bracero Program brought five million 
Mexican agricultural workers to the United States, 
beginning in 1942. The program ended two 
decades later, when a rash of accusations and 
lawsuits regarding human rights abuses were filed 
against the American and Mexican governments. 

In the 1 960s, the United Farm Workers brought to 
light the conditions of migrant laborers. Led by 
Arizona-born Cesar Chavez, the union organized 
protests, marches, and boycotts to educate the 
American public about who was picking their 
produce and the conditions in which they lived. 
In the 1970s, an estimated seventeen million 
Americans participated in a successful boycott of 
non-union grapes. 

In more recent years, right-to-work legislation and 
a surplus of labor have prevented most migrant 
farmers from unionizing. Though estimates vary, it 
is safe to say that more than two million migrant 
farm workers labor in Americas fields — most of 
them Spanish-speaking and at least 100,000 of 
them children. About a third of the total are U.S. 
citizens who live a hand-to-mouth existence. Their 
average education stops at the sixth grade, their 
lifespan ranks substantially below the American 
norm, and the majority of them have incomes well 
below the poverty line. 

Many farmworkers today labor under conditions 
familiar to the writers and photographers who 
chronicled their precursors during the Depression. 
Migrant farmers remain a large yet nearly invisible 
presence in the American mosaic. 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck,Writer. 
New York: Viking Press, 1984. 

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations ofThe 
Grapes ofWrath. New York Chelsea House, 1988. 

Burkhead, Cynthia. Student Companion to John Steinbeck. 
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. 

Ditsky.John, ed. Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of 
Wrath. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1 989. 

French, Warren, ed. A Companion to The Grapes ofWrath. 
New YorkThe Viking Press, 1963. 

Johnson, Claudia Durst, ed. UnderstandingThe Grapes of 
Wrath: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical 
Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 

Lange, Dorothea, and Paul S. Taylor. An American Exodus: A 
Record of Human Erosion. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 

Parini, Jay. John SteinbeckA Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 

Shillinglaw, Susan, ed.John Steinbeck: Centennial Reflections by 
American Writers. San Jose: Center for Steinbeck Studies, 

Steinbeck, Elaine and Robert Wallsten, eds. Steinbeck: A Life in 
Letters. New York: Viking, 1975. 

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl:The Southern Plains in the 1 930s. 
New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. 

Web sites 

The Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, San 
Jose State University. A site with wide-ranging biographical, 
photographic, and critical information on Steinbeck. 

The National Steinbeck Center. Maintained in Steinbeck's 
hometown of Salinas, the Center's Web site offers a rich 
array of resources, ranging from biographical information 
and an archival index to Web links and ideas for school 
field trips. 

California Council for the Humanities. A useful site for 
teachers and facilitators of all types, it includes information 
on companion books, related films, community activities, 
and book clubs. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United 
States and the world; to acquire new 
information; to respond to the needs and 
demands of society and the workplace; and for 
personal fulfillment Among these texts are 
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to 
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate 
texts.They draw on their prior experience, 
their interactions with other readers and 
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and 
of other texts, their word identification 
strategies, and their understanding of textual 
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, 
sentence structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, 
language conventions (e.g., spelling and 
punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems.They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that 
suit their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

1 0. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

I I . Students participate as knowledgeable, 

reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literacy communities. 

1 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

*This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop 
your application of the curriculum. 

20 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


"Literature is as old as speech. 

It grew out of human need for it, 

and it has not changed except to 

become more needed." 

from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1962 


'On the highways the 
people moved like ants 
and searched for work, 
for food. And the anger 
began to ferment." 

from The Grapes of Wrath 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment 
for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of 
American culture. The NEA presents The Big Read in 
partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library 
Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest. The Big 
Read brings together partners across the country to 
encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

•'•'tfi . -INSTITUTE ol . .. 

•;•.'.. MuseurriandLibrary 

The Big Read for military communities is made possible by