The geographical setting of The Grapes of Wrath constantly shifts, because its characters are constantly on the move. We do know, however, that the story is set in the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression.
We begin in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Our narrator arms us with painstakingly vivid descriptions of the havoc that the dust storms brought. After a period of great drought one June, rain clouds appeared, but instead of bringing rain, the clouds disappeared, leaving great winds in their wake. The winds kicked up the drought dust that had gradually been accumulating. Our narrator describes this process:
A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by the gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky […] The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness. (1.5-7)
The novel opens with this horrible event, and we watch how it sends the Joads and other tenant farmers into despair and into poverty. With their crops ruined, and their entire world covered in dust, farmers like the Joads cannot make do. Dust covers everything, and "every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again" (1.3). When the dust from the storm settled, "it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on the roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees" (1.9). This is the devastating backdrop against which The Grapes of Wrath begins.
A loneliness permeates the novel, because we know that the land is empty and that it is full of empty houses. Tom Joad is freaked out when he returns to his family's farm after four years to find it completely vacant. Not only has it been abandoned, but it has not been vandalized. Usually, when a family leaves a home, locals come and take the leftover items and take the wood from the frame. Local children throw rocks at the windows for kicks. But the Joad home is untouched, which means that there must not be many other families around, which means that everything about the land is empty.
Uncle John's home is too small for the entire Joad family, but it is a home nonetheless. The house is "a square little box, unpainted and bare" and it sits next to a barn "low-roofed and huddled" (8.20). The house has a little tin chimney. The family likes to gather by the front door where some will lean against the house and others will sit on their haunches. The dooryard is the patch of land that surrounds the front door of a house. When the landowners tell the tractor drivers to plough a tenant farmer's dooryard, it is a clear sign of disrespect, as the dooryard is an important family gathering or hanging-out place.
When the tenant farmers pack up their belongings and drive westward, their cars become new homes, and they learn how to settle into a rhythm of driving during the day and setting up camp at night. Our narrator describes this new "home" beautifully:
The house was dead, and the fields were dead; but this truck was the active thing, the living principle. The ancient Hudson, with bent and scarred radiator screen, with grease in the dusty globules at the worn edges of every moving part, with hub caps gone and caps of red dust in other places – this was the new hearth, the living center of the family; half passenger car and half truck, high-sided and clumsy. (10.76)
The Joads, and other travelers, learn to listen to their cars, to detect any signs of malfunction or failure. The car is their safety and their means of survival.
Route 66 extended from Missouri to Bakersfield, CA, and it was the main road used by families heading west to California:
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 – the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield –over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down in to the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. (12.1)
Our narrator describes Highway 66 as "the mother road, the road of flight" (12.1), and it allows families to pursue their hopes and dreams, while actually leading them to their despair and misery.
As families move along in their journeys to California, they begin to trust one other and begin to camp together at night. When this happens, they learn to create sophisticated little worlds in their campgrounds, replete with unspoken laws and codes that cannot be broken, and that, if broken, will result in either death or isolation. The worlds function as efficiently and as intricately as any town or city might.
Once in California, the Joads are floored by its beauty and by its rich, lush land. There are orchards and fields everywhere, and the soil is rich and moist. However, life is dangerous and it is harrowing in the beautiful state. Many migrant families continue to move from place to place, setting up campgrounds called Hoovervilles (named after President Herbert Hoover) on the outskirts of towns.
The Joads set up camp at one such Hooverville, but it's not that fun. In fact, it's downright un-fun. The Hooverville is full of starving people who have little left and who are fighting to feed their children. Their tents are tattered, they live in makeshift shacks, and they are unkempt. Weedpatch, by contrast, is a government camp with beautiful restrooms, running water, hot showers, self-elected committees, dances, string bands, and occupants who look out for one another.
The Joads live for a time in an abandoned boxcar near Tulare, CA. They are one of the first families to discover the boxcar, and, soon after, many other families flood the land and camp around the boxcars. The Joads feel like royalty, because their home is warm, dry, and has a roof. But then the California winter comes and, with it, heavy rains. The rains soak and flood the land, and the Joads must flee. California is depicted as fiercely beautiful, but incredibly dangerous. Against the backdrop of growth and cultivation, families starve.