The narrative begins just after Tom Joad is paroled from McAlester prison, where he had been imprisoned after being convicted of homicide. On his return to his home near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, Tom meets former preacher Jim Casy, whom he remembers from his childhood, and the two travel together. When they arrive at Tom's childhood farm home, they find it deserted. Disconcerted and confused, Tom and Casy meet their old neighbor, Muley Graves, who tells them the family has gone to stay at Uncle John Joad's home nearby. Graves tells them that the banks have evicted all the farmers, but he refuses to leave the area.
The next morning, Tom and Casy go to Uncle John's. Tom finds his family loading their remaining possessions into a Hudson Motor Car Company saloon converted to a truck; with their crops destroyed by the Dust Bowl, the family has defaulted on their bank loans, and their farm has been repossessed. Consequently, the Joads have no option but to seek work in California, described in handbills as fruitful and offering high pay.
The Joads put everything they have into making the journey. Although leaving Oklahoma would violate his parole, Tom decides it is worth the risk, and invites Casy to join him and his family.
Traveling west on Route 66, the Joad family find the road crowded with other migrants. In makeshift camps, they hear many stories from others, some returning from California, and the group worries about lessening prospects. The family unit dwindles, too: Granpa dies along the road, and they bury him in a field; Granma dies close to the California state line; and both Noah (the eldest Joad son) and Connie Rivers (the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon) split from the family. Led by Ma, the remaining members realize they can only continue, as nothing is left for them in Oklahoma.
Reaching California, they find the state oversupplied with labor, so wages are low, and workers are exploited to the point of starvation. The big corporate farmers are in collusion, and smaller farmers suffer from collapsing prices. Weedpatch Camp, one of the clean, utility-supplied camps operated by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency, offers better conditions, but does not have enough resources to care for all the needy families. Nonetheless, as a Federal facility, the camp protects the migrants from harassment by California deputies.
In response to the exploitation, Casy becomes a labor organizer and tries to recruit for a labor union. The remaining Joads work as strikebreakers in a peach orchard, where Casy is involved in a strike that eventually turns violent. When Tom Joad witnesses Casy's fatal beating, he kills the attacker and flees as a fugitive. The Joads later leave the orchard for a cotton farm, where Tom is at risk of being arrested for the homicide.
Tom bids his mother farewell and promises to work for the oppressed. Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. Ma Joad remains steadfast and forces the family through the bereavement. With rain, the Joads' dwelling is flooded, and they move to higher ground. In the final chapter of the book, the family takes shelter from the flood in an old barn. Inside, they find a young boy and his father, who is dying of starvation. Rose of Sharon takes pity on the man and offers him her breast, to save him from starvation.Tom Joad: Protagonist of the story; the Joad family's second son, named after his father. Later on, Tom takes leadership of the family even though he is young.
Ma Joad: Matriarch. Practical and warm-spirited, she tries to hold the family together. Her given name is never learned; it is suggested that her maiden name was Hazlett.
Pa Joad: Patriarch, also named Tom, age 50. Hardworking sharecropper and family man. Pa becomes a broken man upon losing his livelihood and means of supporting his family, forcing Ma to assume leadership.
Uncle John Joad: Pa Joad's older brother (Tom describes him as "a fella about 60", but in narrative he is described as 50). He felt guilty about the death of his young wife years before, and has been prone to binges involving alcohol and prostitutes, but is generous with his goods.
Jim Casy: A former preacher who lost his faith. He is a Christ-like figure and is based on Ed Ricketts.
Al Joad: The second youngest son, a "smart-aleck sixteen-year-older" who cares mainly for cars and girls; he looks up to Tom, but begins to find his own way.
Rose of Sharon Joad Rivers: Childish and dreamy teenage daughter (18) who develops into a mature woman. She symbolizes regrowth when she helps the starving stranger (see also Roman Charity, works of art based on the legend of a daughter as wet nurse to her dying father). Pregnant in the beginning of the novel, she delivers a stillborn baby, perhaps due to malnutrition.
Connie Rivers: Rose of Sharon's husband. Nineteen years old and naïve, he is overwhelmed by marriage and impending fatherhood; he abandons his wife shortly after they arrive in California.
Noah Joad: The oldest son, he is the first to leave the family, planning to live off fishing on the Colorado River. Injured at birth and described as "strange", he may have slight learning difficulties.
Grampa Joad: Tom's grandfather, who expresses his strong desire to stay in Oklahoma. His full name is given as William James Joad. Grampa is drugged by his family with "soothin' syrup" to force him to leave, but he dies the first evening on the road. Casy attributes his death to a stroke but says that Grampa is "jus' stayin' with the lan'. He couldn' leave it."
Granma Joad: Grampa Joad's religious wife; she loses her will to live after his death. She dies while the family is crossing the Mojave Desert.
Ruthie Joad: The youngest daughter, age twelve. She is shown to be reckless and childish. Quarreling with another child, she reveals Tom in hiding.
Winfield Joad: The youngest male in the family, age ten, "kid-wild and calfish".
Jim Rawley: Manages the camp at Weedpatch, he shows the Joads surprising favor.
Muley Graves: A neighbor of the Joads'; he is invited to come along to California with them but refuses. The family leave two of their dogs with him; a third they take but it is killed by a car during their travels.
Ivy and Sairy Wilson: Migrants from Kansas, they attend the death of Grampa and share the journey as far as the California state line.
Mr. Wainwright: The father of Aggie Wainwright and husband of Mrs. Wainwright. Worries over his daughter Aggie.
Mrs. Wainwright: Mother to Aggie Wainwright and wife to Mr. Wainwright. She helps Ma deliver Rose of Sharon's baby.
Aggie Wainwright: Sixteen-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright. Intends to marry Al.
Floyd Knowles: The man at the Hooverville who urges Tom and Casy to join labor organizations. His agitation results in Casy's being jailed.
Steinbeck was known to have borrowed from field notes taken during 1938 by Farm Security Administration worker and author Sanora Babb. While Babb collected personal stories about the lives of the displaced migrants for a novel she was developing, her supervisor, Tom Collins, shared her reports with Steinbeck, then working at the San Francisco News. Babb's own novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, was eclipsed in 1939 by the success of The Grapes of Wrath and was shelved until it was finally published in 2004, a year before Babb's death.
The Grapes of Wrath developed from The Harvest Gypsies, a series of seven articles that ran in the San Francisco News, from October 5 to 12, 1936. The newspaper commissioned that work on migrant workers from the Midwest in California's agriculture industry. (It was later compiled and published separately.)
While writing the novel at his home, 16250 Greenwood Lane, in what is now Monte Sereno, California, Steinbeck had unusual difficulty devising a title. The Grapes of Wrath, suggested by his wife Carol Steinbeck, was deemed more suitable than anything by the author. The title is a reference to lyrics from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", by Julia Ward Howe:
These lyrics refer, in turn, to the biblical passage Revelation 14:19–20, an apocalyptic appeal to divine justice and deliverance from oppression in the final judgment. This and other biblical passages had inspired a long tradition of imagery of Christ in the winepress, in various media.
And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.
The phrase also appears at the end of chapter 25 in The Grapes of Wrath, which describes the purposeful destruction of food to keep the price high:
and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
The image invoked by the title serves as a crucial symbol in the development of both the plot and the novel's greater thematic concerns: from the terrible winepress of Dust Bowl oppression will come terrible wrath but also the deliverance of workers through their cooperation. This is suggested but not realized within the novel.
When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]." He famously said, "I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags." This work won a large following among the working class due to Steinbeck's sympathy for the migrants and workers' movement, and his accessible prose style.
Steinbeck scholar John Timmerman sums up the book's influence: "The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most thoroughly discussed novel – in criticism, reviews, and college classrooms – of 20th century American literature." The Grapes of Wrath is referred to as a Great American Novel.
At the time of publication, Steinbeck's novel "was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read." According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The book was noted for Steinbeck's passionate depiction of the plight of the poor, and many of his contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes, "Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book's depiction of California farmers' attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a 'pack of lies' and labeled it 'communist propaganda'". Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers' spirit.
In 1962, the Nobel Prize committee cited Grapes of Wrath as a "great work" and as one of the committee's main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2005 Time magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". In 2009, The Daily Telegraph of the United Kingdom included the novel in its "100 novels everyone should read". In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath tenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1999, French newspaper Le Monde of Paris ranked The Grapes of Wrath as seventh on its list of the 100 best books of the 20th century. In the UK, it was listed at number 29 among the "nation's best loved novels" on the BBC's 2003 survey The Big Read.
The book was quickly made into a famed, 1940 Hollywood movie of the same name directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. The first part of the film version follows the book fairly accurately. However, the second half and the ending, in particular, differ significantly from the book. John Springer, author of The Fondas (Citadel, 1973), said of Henry Fonda and his role in film version of The Grapes of Wrath: "The Great American Novel made one of the few enduring Great American Motion Pictures."
The documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009) revealed that The Grapes of Wrath was comedian Bill Hicks' favorite novel. He based his famous last words on Tom Joad's final speech: "I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit."
In July 2013, Steven Spielberg announced his plans to direct a remake of The Grapes of Wrath for DreamWorks.
Woody Guthrie's two-part song—"Tom Joad – Parts 1 & 2" – from the album Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), explores the protagonist's life after being paroled from prison. It was covered in 1988 by Andy Irvine, who recorded both parts as a single song—"Tom Joad"—on Patrick Street's second album, No. 2 Patrick Street.
The song "Here Comes that Rainbow Again" by Kris Kristofferson (1981) is based on the scene in the roadside diner where Pa Joad buys a loaf of bread and two candy sticks for Ruthie and Winfield.
The band The Mission UK included a song, titled "The Grapes of Wrath", in their album Carved in Sand (1990).
The progressive rock band Camel released an album, titled Dust and Dreams (1991), inspired by the novel.
American rock singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen named his 11th studio album, The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), after the character. The first track on the album is titled "The Ghost of Tom Joad". The song – and to a lesser extent, the other songs on the album – draws comparisons between the Dust Bowl and modern times.
Rage Against the Machine recorded a version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in 1997.
Like Andy Irvine in 1988, Dick Gaughan recorded Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad" on his album Outlaws & Dreamers (2001).
An opera based on the novel was co-produced by the Minnesota Opera, and Utah Symphony and Opera, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Michael Korie. The opera made its world premiere in February 2007, to favorable local reviews.
Bad Religion have a song entitled "Grains of Wraith" on their album, New Maps of Hell (2007). Bad Religion lead vocalist, Greg Graffin, is a fan of Steinbeck's.
The song "Dust Bowl Dance" on Mumford & Sons' album Sigh No More (2009) is based on the novel.
Pink Floyd's song 'Sorrow' written by Sir David Gilmour from the album Momentary Lapse of Reason is thematically derived/based on the novel.
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced a stage version of the book, adapted by Frank Galati. Gary Sinise played Tom Joad for its entire run of 188 performances on Broadway in 1990. One of these performances was filmed and shown on PBS the following year.
In 1990, the Illegitimate Players theater company in Chicago produced Of Grapes and Nuts, an original, satirical mash-up of The Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck's acclaimed novella Of Mice and Men.