The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.
1. Steinbeck writes in Chapter 3 about nothing more than a turtle crossing a highway—a turtle that later reappears in the novel. Why does Steinbeck devote such an elaborate account to such a mundane event? What does the turtle represent, or foreshadow?
2. Steinbeck says of the age of commercial farming, “Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died” (p. 36). Imagine the land as a character in The Grapes of Wrath. What does it look like? What is its past? How does it change during the novel? Is it still alive by the end?
3. Tom Joad learns how to write in prison. But “ever’ time Pa seen writin’,” he tells Muley,
“somebody took somepin away from ’im” (p. 54). What role does writing and education play in Steinbeck’s novel? Is it ever used on behalf of the Joads? How is it used against them? What would the Joads have thought of The Grapes of Wrath?
4. The Joads and their fellow travelers are forced to buy and sell everything within reach: cars, plows, a loaf of bread, a cup of water, a place to camp. As Steinbeck writes, “Merchandising was a secret to them” (p. 97). What does Steinbeck say about the world of business? Do the Joads ever come out on the better side of a bargain? Is there any such thing as a fair deal in the novel?
5. Ma tells Tom,“We’re the people—we go on.... A different time’s comin’” (p. 280). Is Ma right? For the migrant workers of America, did a different time ever come? Is the Joad experience still a part of the American landscape? How can we tell?
6. Violence, either real or threatened, is a part of everyday life for the Joads. Are they violent among themselves? Is their violence premeditated? Does it achieve its goal? Find examples of where their violence is justified or unjustified.
7. “Woman can change better’n a man,” Ma tells Pa.“Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head” (p. 423). Who adapts better during the journey to California, the Joad women or the Joad men? How do their responses to success and disaster differ? Are there times when men and women use their best talents in collaboration?