The Grapes of Wrath

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Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Humanity, Inhumanity, and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Dignity, Honor, and Wrath Theme Icon
Faith and Guilt Theme Icon
Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance Theme Icon
Family, Friendship, and Community Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Grapes of Wrath, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance Theme Icon

The novel often focuses on characters who resist in situations that seem hopeless. At the beginning of the novel, the Oklahoma sharecropper families are rendered powerless by the repossessing landowners. All the same, Muley Graves remains on his land, in spite of regular run-ins with law enforcement. He knows he can’t change his circumstances, but he refuses to let go of his heritage. The land turtle that appears in an early chapter, is a metaphor for the Okies’ helplessness, endurance, and courage: it presses forward as humans treat it with both kindness and cruelty and even manages to right itself when a car flips it over. Similarly, the Joads refuse to abandon their journey westward even when the obstacles they face seem insurmountable. Tom and Casy rebel against a corrupt industrial and political system even though it costs Casy his life and forces Tom into hiding.

These individual struggles symbolize the spirit of the Okie community as a whole. At their most desperate and most powerless moments, the Okies rarely seem to lose their drive to work. Some strive to subvert the larger institutions that keep them down, like the law, the banks, and the farm owners—even when these institutions seem far too powerful to overcome.

Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance appears in each chapter of The Grapes of Wrath. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance Quotes in The Grapes of Wrath

Below you will find the important quotes in The Grapes of Wrath related to the theme of Powerlessness, Perseverance, and Resistance.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.

Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

After a devastating dust storm that ruins the hard-earned crops grown on Oklahoma farms, the women and children mentioned in this passage worry that the fathers and husbands will feel "broken" by their struggles. They look to these men to set a standard for how to respond: the patriarchal structure of the family is not really questioned throughout the book, although some of the men do struggle with how to live up to the expectation that they be strong and powerful. 

The men, however, react with wrath rather than disappointment or brokenness. As a result, the women and children perceive them as still "whole": they have gained agency through their strong reaction and thus commit themselves to combating this difficulty, as well as any others that may arise. As the book begins, therefore, it at once shows anger to be a powerful, and potentially powerfully good, trait, one that can equip people like the Okies, who lack a great deal of social, economic, or political power, with a different kind of strength.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

“…sometimes a guy'll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.”

Related Characters: Tom Joad (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom Joad is traveling home after being released from prison, and here he is trying to cajole a truck driver into giving him a ride, even though the truck bears a sticker that reads "No Riders" on it. Tom appeals to the driver's sense of decency and community, one that for Tom exists between fellow inhabitants of the dusty Midwest. This community, he implies, has nothing to do with the centralized, powerful corporation that attempts to dictate how things are run far away. 

Tom thus makes a strong distinction between the "rich bastard" that holds the money and power, and the "good guy" that may be more economically vulnerable, but makes up for it by emphasizing his goodness and humanity. Of course, these lofty sentiments have a more practical side as well, since it's in Tom's interest to have the truck driver give him a ride, but the passage is also a legitimate example of the way Tom attempts to claim greater dignity for himself and those around him in general.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“If on’y they didn’t tell me I got to get off, why, I’d prob’y be in California right now a-eatin’ grapes an’ a-pickin’ an orange when I wanted. But them sons-a-bitches says I got to get off—an’, Jesus Christ, a man can’t, when he’s tol’ to!”

Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom has met Muley Graves, who is the sole person to stay behind when all the other tenant farmers have been evicted by the landowners. Here, he attempts to explain why. Muley's reasoning may seem convoluted: essentially, he is suggesting that if no one had told him to leave, he may well have left by himself, and he'd already be in California in a much more pleasant situation than he finds himself in now. However, what Muley can't stomach is the principle of the matter - the idea that someone can tell him when he can and cannot leave his land. In response, he embraces stubbornness and commits himself to staying. Muley is not acting with the same cold, calculating, and rational judgment as those who hold power above him. Instead, he chooses another kind of reaction, one that emphasizes the inherent dignity of the individual and his ability to resist.

Chapter 9 Quotes

To California or any place—every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day—the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they'll all walk together, and there'll be a dead terror from it.

Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

The perspective of the book has switched, in this chapter, to tenant farmers preparing to leave for California, and to one in particular who is disillusioned by the process of selling his belongings: his tools are now useless because of new technology, and he feels that he himself is now just as useless. California is treated by some in the book as a marvelous land of opportunity, a place to recover some of the agency and stability that the tenant farmers have lost in Oklahoma.

This farmer, however, begins to feel as though California is not just a random choice but a useless one. Wherever he and his fellow farmers go, he believes, they will be pursued by the sense of hopelessness that has defined their work up until now. If there's any sliver of hope left, it's in the fact that there are so many people like this that they make up "armies of bitterness," a group of people bound by shared experiences even if those experiences are desperate.

Chapter 10 Quotes

And now they [the Joads] were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.

Related Characters: Tom Joad, Ma Joad, Pa Joad, Rose of Sharon, Grampa Joad, Granma Joad, Al Joad
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Some of the members of the family had gone into town to sell everything in the house that they can. They have returned, however, with only eighteen dollars for all of it. They felt that their belongings were worth much more, but the buyer wouldn't pay more than that for them, and they could not find a way to "beat" this system. This is the first hint for the Joads that their plan of salvation, their migration to California, will be beset with difficulties just as great as those they have faced in Oklahoma. Their battles with the "system" will not end just because they are leaving this one physical place. Indeed, it is their lack of understanding how exactly this system works, and what its power might have in store for them, that increases their suspicion and even despair before the long road ahead of them.

“It ain't kin we? It's will we?” …As far as ‘kin,’ we can’t do nothin’, not go to California or nothin’; but as far as ‘will,’ why, we’ll do what we will. An’ as far as ‘will’—it’s a long time our folks been here and east before, an' I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They’s been mean Joads, but never that mean.”

Related Characters: Ma Joad (speaker)
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

The family has begun to debate whether or not Casy will be allowed to come with the Joads to California. At first Pa Joad isn't sure, but soon his wife begins to overrule him. By making a distinction between "can" and "will," she reminds her family that so many of their struggles have been based on a seeming impossibility of "can": that is, a sense that they don't have the material means to gain power over their own situation. 

However, precisely because their capabilities are so uncertain, Ma Joad believes that it is crucial to express their will in whatever they can - to commit to certain actions regardless of whether they might seem impossible or hopeless. For her, these actions must align with certain values that are defining traits of the family, including kindness and generosity. By referring to her and her husband's ancestors, Ma Joad reminds her family of their long heritage in Oklahoma, and how these families have countered the economic and social fragility of their lives with the dignity and responsibility that comes from emphasizing community.

Chapter 12 Quotes

The people in flight from the terror behind—strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.

Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

For this chapter, the narrator has zoomed in on the experience of one migrant family in particular. A crooked salesman, knowing that they are desperate, tries to sell them a tire for an exorbitant price. After refusing and continuing to limp along with a broken trailer, the family finally enlists the help of another driver and manages to arrive to California. As a result, this family's experience is a typical reminder of the various ways that humans can treat each other, some of which include acting as though other people are simply instruments of one's own power and wealth. Other attitudes, though, value strangers as fellow travelers and fellow humans.

The narrator thus stresses that it is impossible to extract any one conclusion from the struggles of these migrant farmers, apart, perhaps, from the inherent complexity and inconsistency of humanity. Still, we also see in this passage that the families are desperate enough to leave behind the "terror" of their past life that they will cling to "beautiful" things more than "cruel" ones. The small examples of kindness and community will have to be enough to enable them to persevere on their journey.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator is describing the changes taking place in the West as a result of the influx of migrant farmers, some of whom are fighting for better wages and work quality. The narrator suggests that what they are really fighting for, however, is a sense of dignity and respect that the landowners involved refuse to give them. What is called the "concept" is this broader motivation behind the fight for change: while specific, material desires stir people onward, it is the belief in certain broader values that really defines humans and convinces them that a better life is possible. 

This process of change and perseverance is only possible, it's suggested, when a group of people bands together, so that life becomes not just a question of the individual I, but of humanity or "Manself" all together. Indeed, it is this community of strivers that defines what humans are and can be.

Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other…the danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.

Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

After detailing the desires of humans fighting for greater dignity and banding together in communities in order to do so, the narrator turns to the enemies of these communities: the landowners and corporations who care little about the lives of these people who are so less powerful than themselves. The narrator frames the differences between these two groups in the form of rhetorical "advice" that he gives to those in power. While it is important for workers and the poor to express their common humanity through community, for those in power the opposite is necessary: they must continually break down the bonds of common humanity in order to prevent real change from happening. 

To do so, the narrator suggests, those in power must turn individuals against each other, encouraging them to suspect and harbor ill will towards each other. As a result, they will be able to maintain their own power over others just as they break down the dignity of those over whom they rule.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“It don't make no sense. This fella wants eight hundred men. So he prints up five thousand of them things an' maybe twenty thousan' people sees 'em. An' maybe two-three thousan' folks gets movin' account a this here han'bill. Folks that's crazy with worry.”

Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

Pa has met an exhausted, downtrodden-looking man at camp who is coming back from California. He is one of the first pieces of proof that California may not be the paradise that the Joad family had hoped it would be. The Joads, like many other families, have learned about the opportunities for workers in the West through advertisements that have promised work and a decent living. However, according to this man, the landowners advertised so much in order to have a large influx of labor, so that they could then haggle down the cost and exploit the workers. 

The man's estimations perhaps "make no sense" from a strictly factual point of view, but he knows well that the strategy does make sense from a business point of view. The landowners have an advantage in terms of money, time, and resources, and they use that advantage to the best of their ability to keep the workers (whom they nonetheless need) as powerless as possible. The man only briefly alludes to the consequences of this strategy, which makes already desperate people even more desperate, particularly after having overcome obstacles in order to arrive at a place they thought would be stable and welcoming.

Chapter 19 Quotes

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout this chapter, the narrative zooms in and out, focusing first on the larger history behind those who owned and took over the land in the West, and then on the specific experiences of the Okies who are forced to move west because of the selfishness and greed of the landowners. Here, the narrator suggests that these landowners are blind to this cycle of history. They think themselves exceptional because of their powerful grip on others weaker than they are, because of their ability to erase the dignity of their workers. But the narrator points out that the desire to rebel against unjust power never goes away: it is a defining fact of human history.

Through these powerful lines, Steinbeck suggests that the story he is writing is only one part of a bigger history. His characters may seem desperate and constantly dehumanized, and their experiences may be in some ways unique, but in other ways their lives fit into a narrative about progress, resistance, and struggle for human rights and recognition. The book itself might not include any revolutions or even political battles, but these remain in the background, relevant to everything else that happens.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“Well, when the cops come in, an’ they come in all a time, that’s how you wanta be. Dumb—don’t know nothin’. Don’t understan’ nothin’. That’s how cops like us…be bull-simple.”

Related Characters: Floyd Knowles (speaker)
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom has met another worker, Floyd Knowles, who gives him some tips about how to navigate in the world of the farms. These farms are tense and fraught with danger because of the constant prowling and hostility of the police. The police are always looking for migrant workers who might be doing something wrong. While they believe that all the workers are below them in the social hierarchy, they also can readily believe that these migrant workers aren't small enough to cause too much trouble. 

Floyd recommends that Tom take advantage of this bias and prejudice by acting just as dumb as the police probably think he is. In a twisted way, this performance becomes a way for the migrant workers to regain some measure of power over their own situations. By managing, even if only partially, a biased system, they can continue to feel some small degree of dignity. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line.

Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

As the situation of the migrant farmers becomes more desperate, the book states, these people no longer seem like real people, nor even like farmers, but rather begin to be defined solely as migrants torn from their homes and unable to settle into a new home. The "great companies" described here are eager to squeeze out as much work as they possibly can from the migrants, who are unable to support themselves or their families with their meager earnings. Instead, they grow hungrier and hungrier. The companies believe this hunger to be something manageable: indeed, they may even believe that hunger makes these people more docile and less willing to rise up against the unjust forces affecting their lives. What the narrator suggests, however, is that hunger is not something meek and quiet but rather another kind of wrath. And in this book, of course, wrath can be powerful and good, a force that can provoke change and remind characters that they are alive enough to fight. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

“We ain’t never had no trouble with the law. I guess the big farmers is scairt of that. Can’t throw us in jail—why, it scares ‘em. Figger maybe if we can gove’n ourselves, maybe we’ll do other things.”

Related Characters: Timothy and Wilkie Wallace (speaker)
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom has befriended more people who are savvier regarding how to navigate the difficult and sometimes dangerous terrain of farm work. Together, though, Timothy, Wilkie, and Tom have learned from Mr. Thomas about the Farmer's Association's plans to stir up trouble at the camp so as to be able to bring in the police. Here Timothy expresses frustration that even the smallest signs of community creation and of self-sufficiency among the migrant workers, such as appointing their own leaders and managing some of their own affairs, are looked upon as threatening by those in power above them.

For Timothy, those in power are frustrated that they cannot use the one biased tool at their disposal - the law - to oppress the workers, since they are not breaking the law. Any degree of independence among these workers is looked on as a possibility of further resistance or rebellion, one that must be immediately quashed.

“Well, sir, Hines says, 'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!' Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a- bitch, but if that's what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'”

Related Characters: Timothy and Wilkie Wallace (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Timothy continues to express his frustration about the lack of justice he's experienced as a farmworker from those in power. Here he tells the others about a conversation he had with a certain Mr. Hines. "Reds" are Communists, but the term was also used for anyone suspected of having left-leaning politics. When Timothy attempted to ask Mr. Hines what the exact definition of a "red" was, it soon became clear that for Mr. Hines, the word was only an excuse: by calling someone a "red" he could threaten greater repercussions from the police and thus ensure that no one would dare to ask for thirty cents an hour rather than twenty-five. 

Mr. Hines seems to have no shame about his calculating attempts to keep his workers poor and powerless. Meanwhile, Timothy embraces the politically dangerous term "reds" to underline just how unjust he sees the system to be, turning Mr. Hines's logic on its head to claim that reds must define all the workers, no matter their political beliefs.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“They're gettin' purty mean out here. Burned that camp an' beat up folks. I been thinkin'. All our folks got guns. I been thinkin' maybe we ought to get up a turkey shootin' club an' have meetin's ever' Sunday.”

Page Number: 345
Explanation and Analysis:

A man at the dance tells Pa about a story he heard concerning another group of workers, this time outside Ohio. These people also wanted to fight for better wages and living situations, he says, but they were barred at every turn. Finally, in a symbolic show of force, thousands of them took their rifles and marched through the center of town on their way to the turkey shoot, before marching back - and since then they haven't had any trouble. The man suggests that even if force will not get them anywhere that peaceful protest hasn't, it might still be an effective political move for the workers to show that they do have strength in numbers, even if the gesture is largely symbolic. He suggests that by mounting their own "turkey shoot," the workers might be able to assert their own dignity as well as their closely-knit community in a way that might send a powerful message to their bosses. 

Chapter 25 Quotes

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; 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.

Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes what happens when there is a good harvest and too much food is left over after the expected supply is picked and dispatched. The business owners don't want there to be too great a supply, or else prices will go down and they'll risk losing money. For them, it is even too much a business risk to allow the farmers to collect the food that remains for their own use.

This refusal seems to change the businessmen's actions from a merely shrewd business strategy to an attitude meant precisely to dehumanize the workers, to emphasize their powerlessness at the hands of those who hire them. The workers are indeed forced to watch the potatoes, oranges, and pigs be destroyed, without being able to do anything about it. It is this sense of despair, and not only the shocking gap between the overabundance of food and the hungry, weak farmers that are responsible for picking it, that makes the "souls of the people" so heavy. The final line of this passage gives the book its title. The sentence uses a metaphor of wine vineyards, appropriate given the cultivation work of these migrant workers, to describe a growing feeling of despair and anger among them. Like the grapes that grow heavy as harvest approaches, these workers too are building up their wrath to an unknown but inevitable point in the future at which they will no longer be able to stand what they are forced to experience.

Chapter 29 Quotes

And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right—the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.
Tiny points of grass came through the earth, and in a few days the hills were pale green with the beginning year.

Page Number: 435
Explanation and Analysis:

The beginning of The Grapes of Wrath had described a severe drought in Oklahoma that was devastating for the farms and those who worked on them. Now it is the opposite, a flood and not a drought, that strikes fear once again into the hearts of the women. And here, once again, their fears are assuaged by realizing that their husbands and fathers have chosen anger over fear: for them, this sentiment ensures that they will continue to act, rather than being broken and rendered passive by what has happened to them.

The end of this passage suggests that even the darkest times eventually give way to something better. The imagery has to do with the cyclical process of nature, but it also recalls the Biblical story of the great flood, which washed away human sin and allowed humanity to begin again. Perseverance, for these workers, does not mean that they will suddenly become successful or that their problems will be magically resolved, but there is some solace to be had in the knowledge that they will live to see even slightly better days.

Chapter 30 Quotes

“Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk. Don' even know if you was a boy or a girl. Ain't gonna find out. Go on down now, an' lay in the street. Maybe they'll know then.”

Related Characters: Uncle John (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stillborn Baby
Page Number: 448
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosasharn's baby has been born stillborn, the ultimate sign of how the conditions in which the Joads find themselves afford so little possibility for life. Here, Uncle John puts the dead infant into a box and sends it down the current. He knows that, as things stand, the baby's death will remain unknown and unacknowledged by the world outside the desperate migrant camps. By sending it down into town, he hopes that the body will bear witness to the desperation of these workers, and their despair in the face of apathy and inhumanity on the part of other people. If others finally "know," perhaps, Uncle John will have done his part in sharing these people's experiences with the world, and in helping to change their reality, even if only slightly and slowly.