The Grapes Of Wrath Essay Prompts

The 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions focus on varying themes and are each structured differently. For an overview of the three prompt types that you may encounter, read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. Here we discuss the third FRQ prompt which allows you to choose a particular work of literature as the focus of your essay.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a realistic look at migrant farm life in the 1930’s. Herein we will discuss how to determine if the given prompt is appropriate for this particular literary work and give you an idea of what to review before your exam.

The Grapes of Wrath AP English Lit Essay Themes

To choose a literary work to answer your prompt, it’s important to examine the themes which are outlined in the assigned essay. If the theme is not relevant or well established in a work, you will do well to choose another title to examine. The following are the main themes which you may discuss in your The Grapes of Wrath AP English Lit Essay.

The Inhumanity of Men

A prevalent theme found throughout the story. Steinbeck makes a point that man’s suffering is not the work of God, weather, or pure misfortune. Rather, it is the result of cruel treatment by their fellow men, greed and an unfair social class system. For example, the greed of landowners during the Dust Bowl caused them to justify sending thousands of families out of their homes, with little prospect for survival. Additionally, once these downtrodden families reached California, it was only to find a system based on the knowledge that if they starved to death others would easily replace them in the fields.

The Power of Family and Loyalty

Another important theme throughout the novel. Steinbeck shows us that only through perseverance, as a family unit, could the characters survive great hardship. Furthermore, the writer extends the family to include others joined through mutual strife, showing that together people can lift each other up and save each other. That ideal is never more poignant than in the end of the story, where upon meeting a starving man and his son the remaining Joad clan helps him despite never having met him. The bond they share with other migrant workers is such that Ma Joad decides to have Rose of Sharon nurse the dying man, from her own milk.

The Importance of Wrath and Dignity

A theme developed throughout the story. Steinbeck asserts that as long as men have a sense of injustice, this wrath will keep their dignity even through unimaginable hardship. In chapter 25, Steinbeck says “In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” This comment is pointed at the way that small farmers are being made to let their crops wither, and their wine spoil in the vats. This is attributed by the fact that small businesses cannot compete with large industrialized farms.

Altruism V.S. Selfishness

Another important theme on which Steinbeck focuses. The writer relates how the system which takes advantage of migrants, keeping them starving and downtrodden, is run entirely on the selfishness and greed of the landowners. Meanwhile, it is only the altruistic behavior of the migrants which keeps them afloat.

How to use The Grapes of Wrath for the 2017 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

The Grapes of Wrath is a well-known literary work, with which you should be familiar. It may well be a viable choice for the AP English Lit free response question. However, that is dependent on the question. Each year the 3rd FRQ is different, and the CollegeBoard supplies a list of suggested books to reference for your essay. The absence of a book from the list does not disqualify it from use, that being said; it’s important to know how to choose which book to use for the given analysis. 

In preparation for your exam, it’s a good idea to read previous years’ free response questions posted on CollegeBoard. The following review is for the 2016 FRQ prompt.

2016 FRQ 3: Many works of literature contain a character who intentionally deceives others. The character’s dishonesty may be intended to either help or hurt. Such a character, for example, may choose to mislead others for personal safety, to spare someone’s feelings, or to carry out a crime.

Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

While The Grapes of Wrath is not listen for this prompt. You could write a well-thought out essay with a good understanding of Steinbeck’s novel. The deceit which is most prevalent, in the story, is the propaganda which causes the Joads to head to California. A thesis statement could look as follows. In The Grapes of Wrath, the propaganda which attracts the Joads to California is a deception which drives the story. For Steinbeck, this selfish deceit and abuse perpetrated on the migrant workers was one of the major themes he wished to impart on readers. As was the hopeful, altruistic way that many migrants undertook their hardships.

To support this thesis, you can outline various situations in which it is obvious that the dream of California is merely a cruel joke. Additionally, you would want to include points about how the Joads responded to this harsh reality, and what it meant about their characters. In the following quote, an angry man they meet along the route to California warns the Joads about what it’s really like. He tells them that being free in California isn’t worth anything without money.

[a tire salesman on Highway 66:] “Well, try to get some freedom to do. Fella says you’re jus’ as free as you got jack to pay for it.” (12.18)

In the next passage, Ma realizes that the dream they are chasing to California is not real. But, she chooses not to relate this to the family and to persevere anyway.

“Ma suddenly seemed to know it was all a dream. She turned her head forward again and her body relaxed, but the little smile stayed around her eyes. ‘I wonder how Granma feels today,’ she said.” (16.14)

In the next excerpt, the angry man tries to impart on the Joads how horrible his life in California was. But, he laments that he wouldn’t have listened when he was embarking, filled with hope. Here, Steinbeck relates how desperate these families were to find a new beginning and hope for their children.

“’I tried to tell you folks,’ he said. ‘Somepin it took me a year to find out. Took two kids dead, took my wife dead to show me. But I can’t tell you. I should of knew that. Nobody couldn’t tell me. But I can’t tell you. I should of knew that. Nobody couldn’t tell me, neither. I can’t tell you about them little fellas layin’ in the tent with their bellies puffed out an’ jus’ skin on their bones, an’ shiverin’ an’ whinin’ like pups, an’ me runnin’ aroun’ tryin’ to get work – not for money, not for wages!’ he shouted.” (16.354)

In the following quote, we see that California is “the land of plenty.” However, the poor migrant workers don’t benefit from this.

[the man swimming in the Colorado River:] ‘Sure, nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it. They’s a grove of yella oranges – an’ a guy with a gun that got the right to kill you if you touch one.’” (18.77)

In the last excerpt, Steinbeck relates how, in California, migrant workers can starve whilst surrounded by food. Since the land owners know that thousands of migrants are seeking work, they don’t feel the need to offer a living wage or supply food for their impoverished farm hands.

All California quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy, and the limbs bend gradually under the fruit so that little crutches must be placed under them to support the weight.” (25.2)

To examine another possible use for The Grapes of Wrath on your 2017 English Lit Exam we will take a look at another prompt.

2015 FRQ 3: In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.

Although The Grapes of Wrath is not on the recommended list for this prompt, cruelty does have an important function for the story. A possible thesis is as follows. Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck asserts that the migrant workers are only suffering because of the inhumanity and cruelty of their fellow men. Steinbeck analyzes both the inhumane motives of the landowners and the various ways in which the workers survive and help each other.

To support this thesis, you can draw on various examples throughout the story. In the beginning of our story, the Joad family, along with other families in the area have been cast out and forced to seek out life and work, elsewhere. This is the cruel act which precludes many more, starting our story.

In the first two quotes, the tractor driver is explaining how he has to look out for himself now, and can’t worry himself over the consequences to the other families. Furthermore, he mentions that he is rewarded for going above and beyond, to cruelly cave in a home while the family still resides inside. Ma Joad, in the third excerpt, is lamenting how she has never undergone such cruelty and displacement before.

“Times are changed, don’t you know? Thinking about stuff like that doesn’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.” (5.53)

“[the tractor driver:] ‘I got orders wherever there’s a family not moved out – if I have an accident – you know, get too close and cave the house in a little – well, I might get a couple of dollars. And my youngest kid never had shoes yet.’” (5.57)

“[Ma Joad:] ‘I never had my house pushed over,’ she said. ‘I never had my family stuck out on the road. I never had to sell – everything – Here they come now!’” (8.73)

In this quote, the landowners are attributing blame for their inhumane behavior to the bank. They feel like they can justify their cruelty in this way.

“We can’t depend on it. The bank – the monster – has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.” (5.11)

Here, the tenant farmers are trying to reason with the landowners. The drought has caused them to be unable to fulfill their agreements or feed their families. However, the landowners are driven by greed and do not show these farmers mercy. In the following quote, the landowners have decided to replace the tenant farmers with one man driving a tractor, keeping the profits for themselves and displacing thousands of families.

“What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop – we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d be ashamed to go to meeting.” (5.13)

“And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won’t work anymore. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take the entire crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.” (5.14)

In this excerpt, the landowners tell the displaced tenant farmers of the better life they can seek in California. It seems this was just a lie to give them hope and make them leave.

“Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall. Maybe you can go on relief. Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?” (5.32)

In the next passage, we see how the individual’s needs are usurped by businesses and landowners.

“[a disgruntled migrant worker:] ‘Fella in business got to lie an’ cheat, but he calls it somepin else. You go steal that tire an’ you’re a thief, but he tried to steal your four dollars for a busted tire. They call that sound business.’” (12.31)


The Grapes of Wrath has many themes you may find helpful for the last Free Response Question on the AP English Literature Exam. When reading the prompt and deciding on what literary work to use for your essay, remember to choose a subject where the theme outlined in the given instructions is prevalent.

In the case of The Grapes of Wrath the inhumanity of men, power of family and loyalty, wrath, dignity, selfishness, and altruism are a few of the more prominent themes discussed. However, as we saw with the 2015 and 2016 prompt examples, this story has many underlying themes which you may examine for your The Grapes of Wrath AP English Lit Essay.

For more help preparing for your AP English Literature exam we suggest you read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs. And, for writing advice for the AP English Lit free response questions,’s AP English Literature section has practice free response sections with sample responses and rubrics.

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1. How do both Jim Casy and Tom Joad function as "Christ figures" in The Grapes of Wrath? Discuss both similarities and differences between Jesus in the Bible and these characters in Steinbeck's book.
Both Jim Casy and Tom Joad illustrate salvation through sacrifice. Jim Casy strikes readers as a Christ figure almost immediately, even from the mere fact of his initials. Like Jesus coming out of the wilderness to preach the Gospel, Casy emerges from the Oklahoma dust bowl "preaching" (though he disavows the title "preacher") his own message of "good news": that all human beings are united in a universal spirit. From this spirit, all people can draw strength, for themselves and others. Salvation, in Casy's mind, is to be found not in looking to God, but in looking to and loving our fellow human beings. Like Jesus, Casy "ministers" among the common people, traveling with them on the road to California; unlike Jesus, Casy is intent on learning from them rather than teaching them. Like Jesus, Casy is willingly arrested and, like Jesus, he dies a martyr for his beliefs-his action in organizing the strike at the Hooper farm costs him his life. He even quotes Jesus' dying words as he is killed: "You don' know what you're a-doin.'" Tom Joad functions as a Christ figure in a slightly different way. Unlike Jesus and Casy, Tom does not emerge from the desert preaching any message; rather, he is a recently released convict, simply "puttin' one foot in front of the other." Neither Tom does not die a martyr's death (at any rate, not of which we are aware); however, like Jesus at his Ascension, he promises to remain with people always, even after his departure. As he tells Ma: "Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there . . . . I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build-why, I'll be there." Unlike Jesus, however, Tom does not seem to understand himself as a spiritual power somehow activating such struggles and triumphs; rather, he is a fellow participant in them. His individual spirit is a manifestation of the one, larger human spirit of which Casy spoke. His sacrifice is his continued life with his own biological family, given up in favor of life with the wider human family. In different ways, then, both Casy and Joad transcend ordinary human existence, and, like modern messiahs, show how others may do so as well: by surrendering themselves to the one spirit of which all life is a part.
2. Why does Steinbeck choose to structure the novel as he does, with alternating macrocosmic and microcosmic chapters? Use at least one specific pairing of chapters to examine Steinbeck's technique.
In alternating macrocosmic with microcosmic chapters, Steinbeck manages to give The Grapes of Wrath both particularity and universality. While the novel deals with timeless themes, the experiences of the Joad family and other "Okies" illustrate these themes in concrete ways. Steinbeck thus prevents his novel from becoming an abstract treatise on social theory; at the same time, he keeps it from becoming too time-bound. The story is simultaneously about the Great Depression and about human life in general (suitably so, since the connection of all human life is the novel's dominant theme). For example, in Chapter 5, readers learn about "the monster": The reified banking system that is driving farmers off their land. This chapter gives us an appreciation of the complicated social forces at work during the Depression, forces which, as the text says, men created but could not ultimately control. Chapter 6, however, shows us those forces at work in the specific life of Muley Graves. By focusing on Muley, Steinbeck allows us to feel the emotions behind the wide sweep of economic devastation. By balancing the universal and the specific, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, Steinbeck captures both the epic scale and personal emotion of a dark chapter in American history.
3. How does The Grapes of Wrath define the significance of "family"?
The novel shows us the importance of the biological family as a social unit, with its own ritualized customs (e.g., the fact that Grandpa is still allowed the right of first speech in a family council) and ways of providing identity to individuals (e.g., Ma's comment, "I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin' food an' shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They's been mean Joads, but never that mean"). Yet the book also stresses true family as all humanity. From Casy's key speech about the "one big soul ever'body's a part of," to the fact that the Wilsons are bound to the Joads because Grandpa died in the Wilsons' tent, to Rose of Sharon's nursing of the dying man at the novel's end, the story offers numerous examples of the importance of transcending biological boundaries in order to embrace one's fellow human beings. Steinbeck stresses that only when "I" becomes "we" and "my" becomes "our" (e.g., Chapter 14) can progress be made. Such solidarity is critical for survival-and true survival must be survival together. Looking out for one's own is not sufficient, as illustrated by both the implicit condemnation of Joe Davis's boy's remark, "A fella's got to eat" and the implicit commendation of Ma's decision to share stew with the hungry children of the Hooverville. Near the novel's close, Tom's decision to leave the Joad family and join his true family of all who are suffering and struggling brings the book's definition of "family" to its fulfillment. As Tom tries to explain to his mother, one person's struggle must become all people's struggle. This understanding of "family" is significant because it gives hope for the future, a hope that comes from faith in the human spirit.
4. What is the relationship between external authority and personal experience in The Grapes of Wrath?
The novel seems to argue that, while certain life lessons hold true for all people, these lessons cannot be simply taught; they must be experienced in order to be believed. For example, in Chapter 18, Ma attempts to reassure the worried Rose of Sharon, telling her that, in times of change, bearing up under suffering and dying are "two pieces of the same thing." She wishes she could make Rose understand, but admits that Rose will have to experience this phenomenon in her own life first. Like the disillusioned migrants whom the Joad men met in Chapter 16, then, Ma encounters the reality that some experiences must be lived in order to be understood. Rose cannot simply be told that change and death are a part of life, any more than the Joads and Wilsons can simply be told that California is not the dream they imagine it to be. Life must be lived in order for hard lessons to be learned.
5. Sometimes, even Steinbeck's "macrocosmic" chapters focus on specifics. Chapter 3 is perhaps the clearest example: Steinbeck's detailed description of a turtle attempting to cross a highway. Given the rest of the novel, what is this turtle's significance? Why does Steinbeck devote such attention to it?
The turtle to whom Steinbeck devotes so much space in Chapter 3 serves as a metaphor for the Joads and the other "Okies" as they undertake their long and dangerous journeys. When he releases it, Tom remarks that the turtle does not seem to know where it is headed, even as, at several points throughout the book-even in the final chapter-the Joads are not sure of their ultimate destination. Like the turtle, however, they know they must keep moving on. As Ma tells Tom, "We are the people . . . we go on." As the turtle steadfastly moves on by instinct, so, too, might the Joads and "Okies"' migration be seen less as an heroic act and more as a natural reaction; as Tom says in Chapter 18, "It don't take no nerve to do sompein when there ain't nothin' else you can do;" or as Ma tells Pa in the final chapter, "They was on'y one thing to do-ever-an' we done it." Given the book as a whole, in fact-with its repeated stress on the interconnected, and therefore holy, nature of all life-the turtle is a mirror from the animal kingdom of what the humans in the Dust Bowl are experiencing, and how they must respond.


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