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What becomes of history: the movie "The Grapes of Wrath" as epic saga of human endurance

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 21 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of contents

0. Introduction

1. The historical facts the movie is based on

2. Summary of the plot and characterization of the movie as an epic saga of human endurance
2.1. Summary of the plot
2.2. The movie as a saga
2.3. The saga as epic
2.4. The theme of the movie: human endurance

3. Assessment of how historical reality is present and presented in the movie
3.1. The immediate historical level of reality
3.2. The exemplifying level
3.3. The symbolic level

4. The (in)validity of the representation / interpretation distinction and the power of art
4.1. The power of art
4.2. The (in)validity of the representation / interpretation-distinction

5. Conclusion: What does become of reality in The Grapes of Wrath ?

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix .

0. Introduction

In 1936 Steinbeck was commissioned by a San Francisco newspaper to write a series of articles about the migrant farmers who had lost the land they had worked on in the region of the Dust Bowl and who therefore came to California to find work and to start a new life. Steinbeck travelled to the region and witnessed the hardships those farmers had to endure with his own eyes. He was deeply moved by their fate and wanted to help them. Interestingly, he decided that instead of writing newspaper articles about them, he was going to write a novel. Steinbeck thus chose a fictional medium over a documentary one to inform the public about a highly topical subject. His novel The Grapes of Wrath was made into a film only one year after it had been published in 1939. The movie, which carried the same title, was immensely successful and won the director John Ford an Oscar Award. Thus Steinbeck succeeded in drawing attention to the hard lot of the migrant farmers.

“What becomes of history?” is the first part of the title for my paper. I take this to refer to the relationship between historical reality and its depictions in literary an cinematic works of art (and not to a mere tracing of historical details in an otherwise fictional piece of art). I think I am justified in doing so, because that seems to be the striking particularity of the book’s creation: Steinbeck obviously thought the novel, which is usually associated with fiction, to be a better medium to convey historical reality than a classical medium of documentary nature like a news article in a newspaper. The same particularity applies to the movie, which is not a documentary. Since success proved both, Steinbeck and Ford, right, the interesting question is: How and why can works of art convey historical reality and how is this done in the movie The Grapes of Wrath ?

In order to answer this question, I will briefly recount in the first chapter the historical events Steinbeck’s book and Ford’s movie are based on. I will then proceed in the second chapter to give a summary of the plot of the movie that is set in the historical reality described in the first chapter. Also in the second chapter, there will be an analysis of the movie in terms of saga and then epic saga as well as a discussion of how its main theme human endurance is borne out. Based on this, chapter three will deal with the different levels at which the historical reality of chapter one is present and represented in the story analysed in chapter two. Chapter four will then abstract from these findings and reflect more generally on the relationship between documentary representation and artistic depiction of reality and whether there can be any meaningful representation of history without interpretation of the same. Finally I will relate that abstract discussion back to the topic at hand: Steinbeck’s work of fiction successfully conveying historical reality.

1. The historical facts the movie is based on

During the 1930s the Southern and Central Planes came to be known as the Dust Bowl. The land had been excessively farmed for long periods of time, and an extended drought and unusually high temperatures combined with the steady wind typical for that region caused wind erosion of the soil, which led to a series of heavy dust storms. Because the farmers had stubbed the land in order to cultivate it for agricultural use there was no more prairie grass to prevent the erosion of the upper soil layer. The resultant crop failures threatened the existence of many tenant farmers on small plots of land.[1]

These severe climatic conditions coincided with the economic repercussions of the Great Depression. Already in the 1920s the farm recession had begun and in the early 1930s the prices for products like cotton, wheat and corn collapsed entirely. In addition tenant farming became more and more inefficient and the landlords did not want the farmers and their families to work on their relatively small patches of land but they started to employ workers to cultivate the fields with agricultural machines. Therefore many tenant farmer families were deprived of their subsistence and had to look for other possibilities to earn their living. But the crisis was not limited to the farmers, also land owners, bankers, county employees and rural businesses were severely affected, as the former structure of rural economy collapsed.

The result of these adverse conditions was a migration to the cities or out of the region altogether. Especially the impoverished tenant farmers were forced to look for work in other regions of the U.S.A., mainly in the agricultural production in California. Altogether 300,000 to 400,000 people from the regions affected by the drought in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri left all their possessions and moved to California to start a new life. But instead of the promised well paid work, they had to compete with other iterant workers. Because the unemployment rate was extremely high in the whole country, the local people were afraid to loose their work to the migrants and consequently they were hostile towards them. The land owners in California made use of the excess of work force and exploited the immigrants, whom therefore often suffered from hunger and exhaustion. They had to live in camps, which had insufficient sanitary facilities and hygiene. As part of the New Deal the government maintained some few government camps, where the migrants had better living conditions, health care and good sanitary facilities. But the government camps were too few and therefore could not permanently improve the situation of the migrants.

In 1941 the Dust Bowl finally ended with the arrival of heavy rains on the Southern and Central Great Plains. The rains restored the crops and settled the dust.

2. Summary of the plot and characterization of the movie as an epic saga of human endurance

2.1. Summary of the plot

The movie The Grapes of Wrath deals with the fate of the Joad family. They are tenant farmers in Oklahoma and are forced to leave their land due to the Dust Bowl ecological crises and the effects of the economic depression. The Joad family encompasses four generations: Grampa and Granma are the oldest generation; Uncle John, Pa and Ma are next; then come Ma and Pa’s six children, among them Tom Joad who just got paroled from jail where he served a sentence for homicide (and who is the main protagonist of the story), and the yet unborn baby in the womb of the eldest daughter Rose of Sharon is the fourth generation, not yet visible but already present. Rose of Sharon’s husband also belongs to the family. When they have to leave their land, they load all their belongings on a truck and head out west to California, because they have gotten a handbill advertising jobs as harvest helpers there. Casy, a former preacher who has now ‘lost the spirit’, joins them on the journey. Grampa and Granma die before the family reaches their destination, Rose of Sharon’s husband disappears one night never to come back.

On the road the Joads meet with a hostile reception from the locals. They are forced to stay overnight in camps with other migrants and they experience arbitrary violence at the hands of the authorities, though sometimes they also evoke the sympathy of bystanders.

As the journey progresses they become more and more disillusioned about their prospects of finding a stable situation for themselves in California. When they finally find work picking peaches, Tom realizes that they have become strikebreakers. In the course of the story Casy becomes Tom’s spiritual guide, not of the religious but rather of the humanist kind. When Casy is killed by the police in an assault on the strikers in the dark of the night, Tom hits the policeman that killed Casy more in self-defence than by intent, and kills him. He can escape unrecognized at first and the family travels to a government camp set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal policy. There the conditions are good and the campers lead a relatively happy life. But in the end Tom has to flee, because the police have tracked him down and the rest of the Joad family has to also leave the camp in search for work, since there is no work available in the area. Tom’s final speech when saying good-bye to Ma, brings the film to a close and sums up its morale. Tom becomes a ‘disciple’ of Casy and wants to dedicate his life to actively fight for justice for the poor. In the final scene of the movie the rest of the family is on the road again and Ma is also giving a ‘final speech’ of a similar philosophic calibre as Tom’s, but stressing the passive aspect of being able to endure all hardships. The family is carrying on, despite losing Tom and Rose of Sharon’s husband,[2] and although Grampa and Granma did not survive. And more hardship is ahead: even if the viewer is not informed explicitly, he senses that Rose of Sharon’s baby is a stillborn.[3]


[1] The whole chapter is based on: Schäfer, Peter: Alltag in den Vereinigten Staaten: Von der Kolonialzeit bis zur Gegenwart, Graz u.a., Verlag Styria, 1998, pp.362-374

[2] They also lose Ma and Pa’s son Noah, though we do not know how – he just disappears from one scene to another. This seems to be a mistake in editing the film.

[3] Especially, if he is familiar with the book, where that fact is explicitly borne out.


ISBN (eBook)
551 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Erfurt – Anglistik
What Grapes Wrath Buch Film Steinbecks Grapes Wrath



Titel: What becomes of history: the movie "The Grapes of Wrath" as epic saga of human endurance