The Grapes of Wrath Interdisciplinary Teaching Ideas
The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression. Research FDR’s Public Works of Art project. Why was it created, and what effect did it have on the visual, literary, and performing arts in the United States?
Steinbeck is noted for the sensory description in his works. Choose any descriptive scene for translation into a visual medium.
Research movie posters for the 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath. Create your own poster for a 2013 rerelease of the film.
Research the work of Dorthea Lange, and discuss what is meant by the categorization of her work as “social realism.”
The phrase, “A fella got to eat” is repeated throughout the novel. How long does death by starvation typically take, and is the novel accurate in its depiction of the groups of people who typically succumb first?
The central conflict in the novel arises as the tenant farmers are forced to leave their home because of a drought. Additionally, a flood plays a major role toward the end of the work. Research causes of severe weather and climate change.
One of the reasons for the “dust bowl” was years of over-cultivation, leading to loose topsoil. What modern agricultural techniques attempt to prevent this from occurring?
BUSINESS & TECHNOLOGY
The Bank is portrayed as a malignant force throughout the novel. Research what steps banks took to recover property during the Great Depression.
Discuss the impact of unionization on agricultural industry.
Compare the current economic climate to that of America during the Great Depression.
Examine the role of government during the Great Depression and the current financial crisis. In what ways did the federal government attempt to stimulate the economy during those difficult economic times? Were those attempts successful?
Fruit is over abundant in the novel and yet people are starving. Why do the owners destroy their own crops? Compare this situation to the role of federal government in agricultural subsidies today.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE and LEGAL STUDIES
The police are often shown to be callous and brutal in The Grapes of Wrath. Why is law enforcement often portrayed in such a negative way in literature?
Research trends in crime and conviction rates during periods of economic turmoil in the United States.
Tom Joad violates his parole by crossing state lines. Have the penalties for parole violation changed since the period of the novel, and do they vary from state to state?
Research the prevalence of organized crime during the Great Depression.
Research compulsory education in the United States. When did all states adopt laws to require attendance in elementary schools? What percentage of school-age children entered the work force (as did the Joad children in the novel) instead of attending school during the years of the Great Depression?
What was the role of the federal government in education during the 30s and 40s? What is it today?
Examine curriculum for various grade levels from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. How does it differ from that of today?
Research required qualifications for an elementary school teacher during the time period of the novel.
The natural world plays a significant role in the plot of The Grapes of Wrath. Examine the importance of setting in the novel.
Is there any character who can be considered a “hero” in the traditional sense? Support your assertion with examples from the novel.
Contemporary criticism of Steinbeck’s work often claims that his writing is too “sentimental.” Discuss what this might mean, and determine whether you agree or disagree with this assessment.
Examine the title of the work, its Biblical roots, and the meaning it adds to the novel.
What is the role of women in the novel, and why might Steinbeck’s portrayal/treatment of women in the work be considered controversial?
Discuss the effect of the dramatic shifts in point of view throughout the narrative.
When the novel was first published, it was met with public outcry and often burned and/or banned. Research why this was so, and then determine what effect banning the book may have had on its sales and popularity. You may also wish to compare it to other banned books and determine how well they have stood the test of time. Are those books still considered controversial?
Compose a journal from the point of view of any character in the novel.
Examine the themes and symbols contained in the work.
Steinbeck prepared for writing the novel by living with a farm family from Oklahoma and traveling with them to California. Compare his work to writings of other authors who fictionalized personal experiences (such as Mark Twain and Jack London).
View the John Ford film and compare it to the plot of the novel. What changes are made, and how do those changes affect the audience’s understanding of the Joads’ struggle?
Compare the film version of The Grapes of Wrath to other films set during the Great Depression, such as Modern Times, Of Mice and Men, Bonnie and Clyde, or Paper Moon.
The following is a very detailed teaching site with lesson plans and teaching suggestions for classes viewing the film. http://newdeal.feri.org/nchs/lesson03.htm
Compose a movie poster or book jacket for The Grapes of Wrath.
Review the description of the flyers that lured the Joads and other families like them to California. Design a contemporary flyer or billboard to serve the same purpose.
Examine the role of propaganda in support of the New Deal. How were visual images used to inspire Americans and make them feel hopeful regarding potential economic recovery?
The novel is obviously ripe for examination in a variety of historical topics. You may wish to consider with your classes the era of the Great Depression, the migration of families from the Dust Bowl, the rise of unions in agricultural enterprise, and the life of those who lived in Hoovervilles after losing their homes.
Examine the ways in which commercial farms changed the production of food and impacted the traditional family farm during the time period of the novel. What is the role of the federal government in agriculture today?
What programs did FDR implement to lift the country out of the Great Depression?
What are two main theories regarding ways to end a recession? To what theory did FDR largely subscribe? How is the government attempting to end the current recession? What policy is Europe using to attempt to remedy their recession?
Using a source such as the Historical NYTimes database, read articles covering any of the historical events described in the novel, such as people migrating from the dust bowl, the rise of labor unions, or the social programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
How did the average citizen receive news information regarding the financial crash in the 1920s and 1930s, and how does this differ from the ways in which we receive financial information in contemporary American society?
Read reviews of the novel and the film from the period of their release. How do reviews from the 30s and 40s differ, stylistically and substantively, from those of today?
During the time period of the novel, gender roles were very clearly defined. These roles seem to shift several times in The Grapes of Wrath. Using examples from the text, discuss what effect this shift might have had on various family members.
Examine any character from the novel in terms of his or her behavior when forced “into a corner.” How does he or she behave when faced with challenges that seem insurmountable?
How does the novel show the effects of poverty differently for the men and the women? Specifically, how do the working-aged men handle the shift from farm ownership to working poor/homeless differently than the women in the same position?
What does the description of the economy of The Grapes of Wrath, driven by the banks and foreclosures, do to the psyche of the reader today, also coming out of a similar economy?
In what ways were FDR’s “fireside chats” tailored to affect the outlook of the average American citizen regarding the financial crisis?
What is the role of religion in the novel? Consider the character of Jim Casy, his views on organized religion, and how he is treated by other characters in the book.
Ma Joad insists that all people are really part of one family. She demonstrates this by feeding children who are not her own. Examine the idea of the brotherhood of man as it exists in various world religions.
Violence is prevalent throughout the work. Can we argue that Steinbeck justifies man’s inhumanity to man?
Discuss the morality of an economy built on the destruction of individual families such as the Joads.
Discuss Casy’s views on the holiness of human beings in general, and compare to any organized religion.
Examine ways in which religious practice and devotion changes during times of economic hardship.
Compare the conditions in the government camp to those in the transient camp. Why does such disparity exist?
When The Grapes of Wrath was first published, Steinbeck was attacked as a socialist and copies of the book were publicly burned. What evidence, if any, do you find in the novel to support this characterization of his political leanings?
Examine reasons for the tension between the transient workers and the locals. Compare to ways in which transient workers are treated today.
The Joads are referred to as “Oakies.” Discuss this term in the context of the novel and compare it to current derogatory terminology for groups of people.
Examine the impact of Tom’s commitment to workers’ rights (over the interests of his own family) in the novel.
Discuss the camps as microcosms of American society in light of the following quotation: “The families [in the transient camps] learned what rights must be observed—the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden in the heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights.
“And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder. These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive.”