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Character Development in The Grapes of Wrath

by Lauren Haslach, Tenafly High School, Tenafly, New Jersey, 2007

Background/Premise

As a teacher, particularly of people who often come from privileged backgrounds, my job is to help learners draw their own conception of what it means to be human, to be part of humanity. To this end, it is crucial that students through art and literature gain an understanding of people who lead seemingly different lives from their own, then see how in fact they may relate to those people. Many of my students may initially have absolutely no idea what it would be like to live the life of a migrant worker during the Depression, so I like students to focus on the voices of Steinbeck’s characters as well as the narration in the general chapters as part of an effort to get to know these people as perhaps Steinbeck would want.

Further Context

I teach The Grapes of Wrath as part of the AP Language and Composition course, in which I am also required to teach American literature. We explore what our literature reveals to us about Americans as a group, how American writers influenced each other, and what connections exist between various art forms and aesthetic, political, and/or social movements in our culture. We also devote a great deal of time to understanding and appreciating writing style. Students will acquire a vocabulary with which to discuss writing style, and are expected to develop their abilities to apply that vocabulary to the literature they read.

The Objective

Students will get inside the skin and mindset of one or more of the characters or the people depicted in Steinbeck’s novel evaluate why it matters to examine these figures, and then write personally about the impressions formed by the experience of reading and exploring.

The Tasks

Part 1: Passage presentations and discussions:

  1. Each student chooses and does a close reading of one particular passage from the novel and then presents his/her own thoughts to the class about the passage’s significance from any thematic standpoint that resonates for them.
  2. Students will have a maximum of 5 minutes to present their ideas and then their presentation will lead into a whole class discussion of the passage and the presenting student’s focal points.
  3. Students may approach their examination and evaluation of the passage from any standpoint.
  4. For each presentation, each student will need to develop some prompts or questions that will incite a discussion about the passage. I really want students to select a passage that jumped out to them for whichever reasons. The students will care about the meaning this passage holds, or may have questions about it that need further examination, or both.

Part 2:

Students will write personally and creatively about the voices heard
Once all students have all presented and we’ve explored an array of questions and viewpoints, I will then have students look at the Library of Congress’s online exhibit “Images and Voices from the Dustbowl.” I will present a slide show presentation of the photographs from the NEH agricultural tour, and then provide a writing assignment with 2 options. See below for the options. With this writing assignment, students process and synthesize their cumulative viewpoints and questions, while it also allows students to emulate and ultimately appreciate Steinbeck’s writing style.

WRITING PROMPTS:

  1. Write a brief prose piece in which you describe your reaction to the images and voices of the migrants. This piece should be written in first-person. How were you affected by the presentations? Did seeing the images and hearing the voices of actual migrants impact your experience or appreciation of reading The Grapes of Wrath?
  2. Write a prose dramatic monologue in the voice of one person from the Lange or one of Ms. Haslach photos. Dramatic monologue offers the writer a chance to be someone else. You might imagine that you’re speaking to an interviewer or a fellow migrant, your child or your spouse. Be inventive. Feel free to use vernacular.

I will make sharing and presenting these writings optional. Some students may discuss very personal details in their writing and may not feel comfortable sharing with the whole class.

Images and Voices from the Dustbowl

The United States Library of Congress houses a collection of photography and audio recordings that document the migrant worker’s experience in Farm Security Administration (FSA) camps in California from 1940-1945. The collection consists of approximately 18 hours of audio recordings (436 titles on 122 recording discs), 28 graphic images (prints and negatives), and 1.5 linear feet of print materials including administrative correspondence, field notes, recording logs, song text transcriptions, dust jackets from the recording discs with handwritten notes, news clippings, publications, and ephemera. The online presentation provides access to 371 audio titles, 23 graphic images, a sampling of the dust jackets, and all the print material in the collection.

Directions:

View the Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant workers within the following PowerPoint presentation, available on my Website. Listen to several of the audio recordings.

Assignment Due:

In response to my personal photos, the PowerPoint presentation of Dorothea Lange photographs, and audio recordings from the government camps, select one of the following options:

  1. Write a brief prose piece in which you describe your reaction to the images and voices of the migrants. As with your summer reading assignment, this piece should be written in first-person. How were you affected by the presentation? Did seeing the images and hearing the voices of actual migrants impact your experience or appreciation of reading The Grapes of Wrath?
  2. Write a prose dramatic monologue in the voice of one person from the Lange photos. Dramatic monologue offers the writer a chance to be someone else. You might imagine that you’re speaking to an interviewer or a fellow migrant, your child or your spouse. Be inventive. Feel free to use vernacular.

Length should be no more than two pages, double-spaced. Format the paper according to MLA style.

Should you wish to revisit the photographs, you may browse the main site at The Library of Congress, American Memories website. Click on “Search” and type Dorothea Lange. Or browse by: