Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

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Themes to Look For and Discuss


Pursuit of the American Dream In the 1930s, when many families just a short time before had thought they had achieved the Dream by purchasing land and building homes on it, suddenly found their worlds uprooted by the Depression, and then by the Dust Bowl. The Joads’ pursuit of reclaiming the American Dream takes them to California, where they just want a chance for a living wage and some happiness. This is not unlike many people who migrate to America today, and it gives the Joads hope in the face of an otherwise hopeless situation.


Almost from the outset of their journey, the Joads lose their dog and Grandpa. This is followed shortly by Connie abandoning his pregnant wife Rose of Sharon, Noah deciding to leave his family at the border, and then the death of Granma. On top of all of that, they have to leave behind their friends, the Wilsons, because Sairy Wilson is too sick. Once in California, the Joads are met with hostility and corruption, and are unable to find work. Jim Casy even takes the blame for a fight that breaks out with a corrupt deputy and is arrested. In spite of all of this, the Joads continue to persevere in their search for a better life: they go from the peach farm to a cotton farm, to a boxcar, and eventually to a barn where Rose of Sharon is able to help a starving man. While we may never know what happens to the Joads, one thing is for certain: their sheer will and their kind hearts are their biggest assets.

The Struggle Against Injustice

The smaller farmers are being forced out by larger farmers; the larger farmers are printing 5,000 advertisements for 800 job openings, which are drawing over 20,000 people to California; the larger farmers are taking advantage of the migrant workers and paying them below livable wages; anyone who rises up or tries to make trouble is carted off by corrupt law enforcement officials, who are in the farmers’ pockets. These are the injustices that the Joads witness, and which Jim Casy rises up against. It is after Casy’s death that Tommy realizes that this is his calling, too, and that, like Casy said, they are all just a piece of a bigger soul. Tommy tells Ma, “I been thinkin’ how it was in that gov’ment camp, how our folks took care a theirselves, an’ if they was a fight they fixed it theirself; an’ they wasn’t no cops wagglin’ their guns, but they was better order than them cops ever give. I been a-wonderin’ why we can’t do that all over. Throw out the cops that ain’t our people. All work together for our own thing - all farm our own lan’.”

The Importance of Family

Ma Joad becomes distraught when she realizes, as they cross into California, that their family seems to be falling apart: Grandpa and Granma are dead; Noah leaves the family; Connie abandons his pregnant wife; and their new “family” members, Ivy and Sairy Wilson have to stay behind. Ma knows that without their family sticking together, they will not survive. Tommy relies on his family to help him after he kills the police officer who murders Jim Casy; Rose of Sharon depends on her family when her husband runs off, and then she gives birth to a stillborn. The family comes together and forges a new family with the Wainwrights, especially when Al falls in love with Agnes. Finally, their family continues to hold together when they come across the starving man and his son, and invite them into the folds of their family, too. The strength of the Joad family is what gives them the will to continue to persevere.

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Motifs, Imagery & Symbols

The Joad Farm

The Joad farm has been in the family for three generations, and means everything to Pa and Grandpa. Being run off their land by a heartless bank with no one to turn to deals Grandpa quite a blow, and Pa a new set of challenges. Ma seems most dismayed by this loss of family history, and she wonders if California will be all it’s cracked up to be.

Highway 66

Highway 66, the main migrant route to California, is a road of hope for the migrants searching for a better life after the loss of their homesteads and jobs. The migrants become a sort of family among themselves, forging new friendships with others in need. The Joads find this friendship with the Wilsons, whose kindness during Grandpa’s death is not forgotten.

The Grapes (and Other Fruit)

A final important symbol is the grapes and other fruit of California’s promises. The phrase “the grapes of wrath” comes from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Throughout the beginning of the novel, Grandpa muses about getting to California and eating as many grapes as he can get his hands on. Later, Steinbeck uses the grapes to symbolize the growing unrest in the clash between the migrant workers and the larger farmers, who are withholding an opportunity of a better life from these destitute and desperate people. Steinbeck said that he liked the song “because it is a march and this book is a kind of march - because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning.”