A Glimpse of The Grapes of Wrath

Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman
Editor: Stephanie Nardei

Time: 5 classes
1 hour to read the lesson and to look through the supporting web sites

Rent a copy of the 1940’s movie of The Grapes of Wrath

The first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath


The students explored the Native American sense of place and have a deeper understanding of their own relationship with the place in which they live.  This lesson familiarizes students with John Steinbeck’s famous portrayal of the life of the Midwestern farmers forced to move from their land by the Dust Bowl conditions during the Great Depression.

Purpose – This is the Engage lesson.  There are two purposes for this lesson and this is the second learning cycle:

  • To connect ideas introduced in the initial learning cycle about our sense of place with material learned this quarter in American history about migrations in the history of the United States. 
  • To illustrate how the human experience is strongly tied to understanding and working productively with the chemistry concepts being currently studied in science class.

Students will be able to:

  1. Place the location and time in history in which The Grapes of Wrath takes place;
  2. Identify the major characters in The Grapes of Wrath and describe how their lives were changed by an environmental disaster;
  3. Write a timeline of the significant events in The Grapes of Wrath highlighting how a change in the environmental conditions triggers events in human experience;
  4. Identify and explain two important themes in The Grapes of Wrath that relate to a sense of place and how the environment has a direct affect on people’s lives.

Standard #2

            Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard #3

            Students apply a wide variety of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.  They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with others readers and writers, their knowledge of word meanings and of other texts, their identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, and graphics).

Arizona State Standards:
VP-P1. Analyze and evaluate visual media for language, subject matter, and visual techniques used to influence attitudes, decision making, and cultural perceptions.

WRITING, Grade 11
Concept 5: Literary Responses

c. analyzes the way in which the theme, or meaning of a selection, represents a
 view or comment on life, providing textual evidence for the identified theme

Teacher Background
You need to have a general understanding of the Great Depression and know the plot of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Of course, the more you know about both of these topics the better a resource you will be for this lesson.

Resource Websites
Detailed summary chapter by chapter, plus maps and a character list:
In-depth analysis chapter by chapter of the book:
Grapes of Wrath novel on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grapes_of_Wrath 
Grapes of Wrath film on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grapes_of_Wrath_%28film%29 
The 1st three chapters of the novel: http://pulse.pharmacy.arizona.edu/resources/fertilizers/wrath.pdf [PDF]




1. The students explored the Native American sense of place and have a deeper understanding of their own relationship with the place in which they live.  At different times in American history people from many different backgrounds have been forced to relocate.  Ask students to describe what happened to the population of New Orleans in the summer of 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. 

2. Natural disasters have often necessitated massive human migrations, and the history of the United States has notable examples of this.  Ask students to think of other times people have moved from their homes due to climatic conditions or natural disasters.  One example is the Great Depression.  The Midwest experienced a terrible drought at the same time the economy bottomed out.  Ask students to define the Great Depression and describe what happened to family farms in the Midwest.  Do they know who the Oakies were?  These were the farm families who lost their land (through foreclosure due to failed harvests) and were forced by hard economic times to migrate to California to become sharecroppers.

3. Have students read the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath.  As they read ask them to write down:

    • Where does the story take place?
    • Describe the area in May.
    • Describe the area beginning in mid-June.
    • What environmental disaster occurred?
    • How would living in the conditions described at the end of the chapter affect a person mentally, physically, and economically?

4. After students have finished reading the first chapter and writing down the answers to the above questions, discuss what they learned about the setting of The Grapes of Wrath.  The students now know that the story takes place in Oklahoma.  You can tell them this is the beginning of the horrible Dust Bowl conditions that occurred during the Great Depression.  Some of the students may have already read The Grapes of Wrath or know about it marginally; these students can be resources for the class.  For those who have not read the novel ask them to predict what kinds of themes they can expect from a book whose beginning they just read. 

5. Some possible themes suggested by the first chapter may be:

    • People verses nature
    • Endurance in times of great tribulation
    • People’s reliance on family and their community
    • Nature as a reflection of the human world (the Dust Bowl happened at the same time as the Great Depression)

6. After the students established the somber tone and possible themes of The Grapes of Wrath have them watch the movie over the next three days.  While they are watching this classic they need to work on the following:

    • A timeline of the important events in the story highlighting how a change in environmental conditions triggers events in the human experience
    • A list of characters:
      • The major characters – describe their personalities and physical attributes
      • The minor characters – describe how they move the plot along or give insight into one of the major characters
  • A description of the setting in the various locations and times
  • An explanation of how this story illustrates two themes:
      • How is “a sense of place” explored in this story?
      • How the environment has a direct affect on people’s lives and is tied to their physical wellbeing and disease?

7. Viewing the movie should take approximately three class periods. So the first day of class should be spent in preparation for viewing the movie in the context of looking for the two themes of The Grapes of Wrath that relate to a sense of place and how the environment has a direct affect on people’s lives.

The next three days will be spent watching the movie and taking notes.  The last day of the lesson will be in class discussion pulling together the four literary elements:

    • character
    • setting (time and place)
    •  plot
    •  theme

8. The Grapes of Wrath presents a stellar example of how the setting of an environmental disaster affects the physical location, the characters, and the plot of a novel.  The themes are intricately woven through the events triggered by changes in the physical environment.  Ask students how watching the movie in black and white intensified themes and underscored the desperation of the times.  Did seeing the story filmed in the 1940’s make them feel as if it was almost a documentary since it was so close in time to the actual events?  What other benefits were there to seeing the movie?

In the first learning cycle the Native American sense of place was explored in detail. In examining the forced migration of peoples due to political policy the component of environmental health issues connected to place was introduced.  This learning cycle deals with the Great Depression and its impact on mainstream Americans who were forced to leave their “place” due to an environmental disaster.  In looking at how the characters in The Grapes of Wrath were affected by their migration from Oklahoma to California ask students to speculate how the change in living conditions, both connected to location and to financial status, affected characters’ health in The Grapes of Wrath.  Could any of these illnesses or physical problems be connected to environmental health issues?

None assigned.

Embedded Assessment
Students learning for this lesson can be assessed by each student’s class participation, how well he or she stayed on task while watching the movie and taking notes on it, and the quality of the written work.  You may wish to put further requirements on the written work if you intend to collect it for more in-depth evaluation.




PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: March 7, 2007
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