Grape Depression John Steinbeck's Naturalism Research Paper

Pages: 10 (2825 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Literature


Man is represented at once as a part of nature, bound by its laws and subject entirely to its whims, yet with a certain special significance and transcendence also implied, often emerging as a part of a major character arc over the course of the novel (Campbell 2010). Again, there is a tension because there is a seeming contradiction -- man is a part of nature and is a subject to natural forces, yet man's ability to perceive these forces gives a certain air of transcendence, mystery, and power to a fully realized man (or human character) (Campbell 2010). There is thus at once a certain fatalism in naturalistic novels, and a certain optimism and hope that suggests the possibility for change on a large scale if there are enough changes and awakenings on an individual level.

Naturalism was a movement that grew out of the realism that came to the fore earlier in the nineteenth century, with increasing humanist tendencies and a more journalistic-like focus a part of the newer genre whereas stark and incredibly fatalistic description were the hallmarks of realism (Cutajar 2010). The French novelist Emile Zola is most closely associated with the foundations of the naturalist genre, beginning with his work in the 1880s, but the genre extends well beyond this author's works (Cutajar 2010; Campbell 2010). Anytime the seemingly trivial details of man's life in modern society are used to illuminate the greatness of largely anonymous men, the hand of naturalism is at least partially at work. There are few better ways to summarize The Grapes of Wrath than to call it a tale where many ultimately ordinary events reveal the extraordinary capabilities of the average human being.

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TOPIC: Research Paper on Grape Depression John Steinbeck's Naturalism Assignment

The historical and generic underpinnings of The Grapes of Wrath have now been given a detailed if brief examination and explanation above, making it possible to see precisely how John Steinbeck uses this novel to create a naturalistic representation of the Great Depression. It is important to remember both the specific and the general historic events that were detailed above, as Steinbeck uses a great deal f naturalistic symbolism to describe or allude to these events. At the same time, the book's subject matter -- it's plot and substance -- is merely a backdrop to the story of the Joad's, revealing the first of the tensions Pizer identified in naturalistic works. The second tension is also highly prevalent in this novel, as shall be seen.

The third chapter of The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most frequently selected sections of the book for discussion and commentary and not without reason. The chapter describes a turtle attempting to cross a hot and dusty highway, and its encounters with two different vehicles -- one driven by a woman that swerves to avoid the creature, and a larger truck driven by a man that swerves to hit it. The turtle is flipped onto the other side of the highway, struggles to get back on its feet, and continues plodding on its way (Steinbeck 1939). This chapter is clearly symbolic, and there are several different ways to interpret the turtle's symbolism. A common interpretation is that the turtle represents the Joads and all of the struggling farmers, continuing to plod on despite the seemingly impossible circumstances and the cruelties of others that they are forced to endure, and this interpretation is certainly highly naturalistic: it demonstrates the possible transcendence of man over the oppressive confines of nature, and of achievement despite nature: the second tension Pizer identifies (Campbell 2010).

Another interpretation of the turtle's symbolism is to view the turtle as American society as a whole, attempting to plod its way through even though individuals are generally out for themselves and do not appreciate the overall struggle. This interpretation is somewhat more esoteric, but it is also fundamentally naturalistic as it finds a mirror for mankind's actions in nature. There is no attempt in this chapter to explain the turtle's -- or humanity's -- behavior, especially this early in the novel, but it is clear through the examination of this turtle that Steinbeck is attempting a similar examination of mankind in this period.

In chapter five, which is also removed form the Joad family specifically, a mixture of symbolism and direct description handily evokes the tensions of naturalism that Pizer defined. Steinbeck has the bankers and then the landowners explaining to the tenant farmers why they must vacate the property, in a direct and objective explanation of the workings of the economic system. Steinbeck goes on to describe the tractors that came to plow through the fields, destroying everything in their paths -- including the farmers' former homes -- in an inexorable march of machinery over humanity (Steinbeck 1939). Again, the symbolism is highly evident and can be interpreted in several ways. What seems the strongest interpretation, however, is that the tractor is representative of the same economic "machinery" that is described explicitly in the first part of the chapter; it is a man-made monster that man cannot stop, and has become a part of nature itself in an ironic fashion (Shmoop 2010).

It is not only in these instances of high symbolism that the tensions of naturalism and an examination of man's place in nature are examined in The Grapes of Wrath, however. The novel as a whole contains these tensions as running themes, as the Joad family encounters a series of advances and setbacks that occur amidst the backdrop of overall suffering and degradation of both mankind and nature. The struggle of the Joad family is Steinbeck's way of bringing out the everyday heroism that is described above as being an inherent part of naturalistic works, and the character of Tom Joad emerges as the definite hero of this novel. Though he is not able to overcome the powers of "nature," he is able to resist and see past them.

Ultimately, the transcendence that exists in a naturalistic novel is the ability for mankind to recognize his place in nature, and to insist on a higher level of dignity and integrity than is found in simply allowing for the survival of the fittest. In this way, naturalism is both pessimistic and optimistic: pessimistic because it suggests the laws of nature can never truly be escaped, and optimistic because there will always be those that hold their heads above the mire and enable others to glimpse a better reality, however unreachable. The Joad family experiences this time and time again as they have to deal with death, starvation, theft, and numerous other slights handed out by happenstance and purposeful malevolence. A microcosm of the entire Great Depression can be found in the Joad family's experience, and the emergence of normal, everyday heroes from amidst this ongoing quagmire of bleak struggle is completely definitive of the genre of naturalism in literature.


The Great Depression was a time that presented great challenges to many individuals, families, and the United States and indeed the world as a whole. It is only when the challenges that are faced become extreme, however, that the extreme heroism of everyday individuals can be revealed. As it is this type of heroism that is specifically sought out and described in naturalism, naturalism is the perfect genre for capturing the stories of the Great Depression. This is exactly what John Steinbeck has achieved in The Grapes of Wrath.


Campbell, D. (2010). Naturalism in American Literature. Accessed 3 January 2011.

Cutajar, M. (2010). Realism and Naturalism in Literature. Accessed 3 January 2011.

DeLong, J. (1997). The Great Crash and the Great Slump. Accessed 3 January 2011.

Shmoop. (2010). The Grapes of Wrath Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory. Accessed 3 January 2011.

Smiley, G. (2008). Great Depression. Accessed 3 January 2011.

Steinbeck, J. (1939). The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin.


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Grape Depression John Steinbeck's Naturalism.  (2011, January 3).  Retrieved August 3, 2021, from

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"Grape Depression John Steinbeck's Naturalism."  January 3, 2011.  Accessed August 3, 2021.