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We follow the Joad family who were forced to leave their home in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. One of their sons, though, has just been released from prison and is on parole. For that reason, he is not allowed to leave the state. Nonetheless, the whole family head to California, where they hope to find a better future.
The setup of this novel is interesting. We read chapters from the Joad family's perspective alternated with chapters in which we see a nameless family (or families?) struggle. This allows the novel to be read as a bigger chronicle: the unnamed characters show us the issue is omnipresent and concerns anyone, and the chapters zooming in on the Joads evoke sympathy.
As a novel which was written and published during the Great Depression it is more often read as a history than a fictional piece of literature. However, reading reviews from the time of publication shows us that people protested against its legitimacy as they felt it was an exaggeration of the situation as well as of the people. I can see how at that time this resulted in much criticism especially by groups of people represented in the novel such as the Okies. However, I disagree with this approach as I think this was part of Steinbeck's purpose. I feel like he may have altered the facts slightly to come across better, to emphasise on how important the issues were. This is also the case with the character descriptions, as they're almost caricatures. This may be seen as annoying or unbelievable, but as a consequence character development is much clearer which in its turn highlights the impact of the Great Depression. Accurate or not, The Grapes of Wrath is a social commentary which makes you think about the way society works.
I say here 'society', but one might think a novel like this is more about politics. While it cannot deny how the government deals with the issues in the 1930s, the novel much more focusses on the importance of community and family in times of need. For Steinbeck, this seems an important theme, as his novella Of Mice and Men also deals with how friendship defines a person's fate. That is not to say that his works are sweet stories about companionship, quite the contrary, especially in the case of Of Mice and Men in which betrayal is a major theme. In this aspect, The Grapes of Wraths can be seen as at least a little bit positive: while not all bonds are strong in the novel, the Joads illustrate that both family and comradery can at least bring us one step further.
While there are many layers to the novel - many different themes and parallels to the story of Exodus - it can also be read as 'just a story'. It is both plot and character driven: if there is no action there is immense character devleopment. Consequently, the novel is never boring. Moreover, as a result from some themes not being very sublte, such as the importance of kindness, it does have you think about life and about yourself, even if you are just reading it leasurely.