Grapes of Wrath Student Reading Guide

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Authors and their themes/grapes of wrath student study guide


Mr. Maltese


Human exploitation and the poverty and suffering that ensue from using people and then discarding them are not new to the ongoing drama of humanity. Nor is the struggle between what one owes oneself and what one owes the "community" a modern invention. But somehow, in our time, with all our technological advances like cellular phones, compact discs and sixty-seven different kinds of Chia pets, it is difficult to believe that the same inhumane forces that plagued the people of the medieval period exist today.

The first objective of this unit is to make you aware of world politics and economic forces. I expect that you would at least ask some very good questions about why certain conditions continue to exist. A second objective is for you to improve your thinking skills. You will learn how to analyze certain information and then, using what you have learned, develop certain theories (synthesize). A third objective is for you to read and understand John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck gives us great insight into the forces that shape human nature and behavior. As you read the text I hope you ask the question, "What is Steinbeck trying to say?"

John Steinbeck traveled with a group of migrant workers and this novel is, more or less, an account of that journey (read the dedication at the beginning of the novel). The novel occurs during the nineteen thirties in the United States. The novel can be divided up into three sections. The first has to do with the migrants' early life. The second has to do with their lives on the road. And the third concerns their arrival at the "promised land." The novel is a straight narrative except for one major exception. We follow the migrant family as they survive one crisis after another, but interspaced throughout this narrative are what are known as "intercalary chapters."

/These intercalary chapters are devoted to different aspects and occurrences of that time period. They are related to what happens to the migrant family in the narrative, but we have to burn a few brain cells to make that connection.

The reason Steinbeck has these intercalary chapters is to remind us that while we are following one family around, (the narrative), this family is only one of hundreds of thousands of families. The problem is not one of the microcosm. It is one of the macrocosm. These intercalary chapters serve several purposes. They give us a feeling of scope, a feeling that this is a novel not about individuals but about a nation in particular and humanity in general. They also give us insight into the motivations for certain human behavior such as greed and, at the other end of the spectrum, generosity. These chapters remind us that this is a tale not of a family, but of a people.

But if Steinbeck was angered but what he saw, then why didn't he write an impassioned essay about the conditions of the day instead of creating the Joad family and a long narrative about their situation? Steinbeck knew the axiom, "it is not enough to know that six million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinaman that is starving." That is, numbers, statistics are poor motivators of action unless we can attach a face to them. What does six million or ten million or a hundred million mean? Once we start addressing these high numbers, meaning goes out the window unless we can somehow personalize those numbers. (The Pentagon, back in the fifties or sixties, theorized that we could "win" a nuclear war with the Russians. The logic was that "only" forty-six million Americans would die while the Russian figure would be twice as much!!) The numbers DO mean something if we see a documentary focusing on America, one of those starving children, or if your grandfather was one of the six million victims of the holocaust or if you were scheduled to be one of those forty-six million nuclear deaths!! So Steinbeck has us follow the Joads in their journey toward the land of milk and honey. We come to "know" them and to empathize with them. They are not numbers. They become real. So does the problem.

As you read along, ask yourself good questions and certainly take GOOD NOTES. "What does private property really mean?" "What does it mean to "own" something?" Some questions might be "Who or what is responsible?" "What responsibilities do I have, if any, toward other people?" "What do other people owe me?" Use diagrams of characters and plots, draw relationships, illustrate ideas to help you process these questions and others that crop up in your reading.

As always, I expect you NOT to read the Cliff Notes in lieu of the novel. Mom and Dad paid good money for the novel, and I want to know what you think, not what Mr. Cliff thinks. There will be a test (or a series of tests) on a CLOSE READING of the work. I honestly hope that you enjoy the novel. When I read it as a high schooler. it raised my consciousness about world events and my role in them. I hope it opens a few windows for you also.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 December 2010 17:27



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