Study Guide

The Grapes of Wrath Criminality

By John Steinbeck


Chapter 4
Tom Joad

[Tom Joad:] "He says it makes him feel lonesome out there in the open havin' to think what to do next. So he stole a car an' come back." (4.67)

Freedom can make you lonely. Routine drives loneliness away.

[Tom Joad:] "Oh, awright. You eat regular, an' get clean clothes, and there's places to take a bath. It's pretty nice some ways. Makes it hard not havin' no women […] They was a guy paroled," he said. "'Bout a month he's back for breakin' parole. A guy ast him why he bust this parole. 'Well, hell,' he says. 'They got no conveniences at my old man's place. Got no 'lectric lights, got no shower baths. There ain't no books, an' the food's lousy.'" (4.67)

Wow. Prison sounds glorious compared to the dismal places that the Joads must live. In fact, it almost seems like Weedpatch.

Chapter 5

[a tenant farmer:] "But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me." (5.64)

Is murder a bad thing when the alternative is starvation?

Chapter 6
Tom Joad

[Tom Joad:] "'Course you get goddamn good an' sick a-doin' the same thing day after day for four years. If you done somepin you was ashamed of, you might think about that. But, hell, if I seen Herb Turnbull comin' for me with a knife right now, I'd squash him down with a shovel again." (6.100)

In Tom's world, there are repercussions for bad behavior, even if he likes you. Tom's all about honor.

"We was drunk," Joad said softly. "Drunk at a dance. I don' know how she started. An' then I felt that knife go in me, an' that sobered me up. Fust thing I see is Herb comin' for me again with his knife. They was this here shovel leanin' against the school house, so I grabbed it an' smacked 'im over the head. I never had nothing against Herb. He was a nice fella." (6.92)

It's interesting that we never really learn why Herb attacks Tom in the first place.

Chapter 10
Ma Joad

[Ma Joad:] "I'm a-gonna tell you somepin about bein' in the pen. You can't go thinkin' when you're gonna be out. You'd go nuts. You got to think about that day, an' then the nex' day, about the ball game Sat'dy. That's what you got to do. Ol'timers does that. A new young fella gets buttin' his head on the cell door. He's thinkin' how long it's gonna be. Whyn't you do that? Jus' take ever'day." (10.9)

Ma Joad has to learn how to think like a prisoner in order to cope with life. Going to prison has taught Tom some valuable life lessons.

Chapter 13
Ma Joad

[Ma Joad:] "Well, I'm a-scairt about it. Sometimes you do a crime, an' you don't even know it's bad. Maybe they got crimes in California we don't even know about. Maybe you gonna do somepin an' it's all right, an' in California it ain't all right." (13.107)

What crimes do we witness in this novel, and who commits them?

Chapter 29

At night the frantic men walked boldly to hen roosts and carried off the squawking chickens. If they were shot at, they did not run, but splashed sullenly away; and if they were hit, they sank tiredly in the mud. (29.16)

The laws of society do not mean anything when society is falling apart at the seams.

Then the hungry men crowded the alleys behind the stores to beg for bread, to beg for rotting vegetables, to steal when they could. (29.11)

The concept of crime is complicated in The Grapes of Wrath, because if many of these guys don't commit a crime, they will die. Are the hungry men who steal food criminals? Should they be locked up?

Chapter 30
The Wainwrights

[Mrs. Wainwright:] "They's lots of things 'gainst the law that we can't he'p doin'." (30.75)

If people abide by the laws and act like good citizens, they will die.