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Psychological maturity and Identity Formation: a Study of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as Bildungsroman Genre


Psychological maturity and Identity Formation: a Study of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as Bildungsroman Genre

Ahmed Khalid Hassoon([1](

Lamiaa Ahmed Rasheed([2])

النضوج النّفسيّ وتكوين الهوية

دراسة لرواية “عناقيد الغضب” للروائي جون ستاينبيك في نظرية تقدم العمر            


أن مفردة ‘Bildungsroman’ هي كلمة ألمانية تعني ”رواية التعليم او المعرفة“ والتي تهتم في إظهار نضوج  بطل الرواية الشاب من عالم البراءة إلى عالم المعرفة ؛ أي إنها قصة تتحدث عن بلوغ سن الرشد. تدفع المعاناة من خسارة عاطفية في بداية الرواية بطل الرواية للشروع في رحلة تحقيق الذات والنضوج. أن الهدف من ذلك هو النضوج الذي يكتسبه بطل الرواية بشكل بطيء ومؤلم. وبالتالي، فإن هذا النوع الأدبي يروي قصة ذات أهمية تربوية وفلسفية تُظهر تكوين هوية النمو النفسي للشخصية الرئيسية بعد خضوعها لمصاعب خطيرة وحساسة. يتناول البحث مرحلة النضوج النفسي والروحي للشخصية الرئيسية في رواية عناقيد الغضب للروائي جون ستاينبيك والتي كُتبت في عام 1939. تتبنى الدراسة المطالب الأساسية (لنظرية تقدم العمر) (Bildungsroman) والتي تتمثل في بطل الرواية توم جود، باعتباره مثال جيد في تجسيد الأخلاق والنضج الروحي. تصف الدراسة سعي جود الى تأسيس هويته الجديدة ، وكيف يغير تدريجياً من سلوكه وأفعاله ومقاييس النضوج الأخرى. تهدف الدراسة إلى تحليل قدرة جود على النمو نفسياً من خلال تجاوز المصاعب ومحن الحياة التي يمر بها في الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية أثناء فترة الكساد. يتعلم جود ويبحث عن الأماكن التي يزداد فيها استقلاليته وفـقاً للعديد من العوامل ، مثل الظروف أو الاماكن أو الاختيار.

الكلمات المفتاحيّة: جون ستينبك ، عناقيد الغضب، نظرية تقدم العمر Bildungsroman، النضوج، الهوية.



A bildungsroman is a German word that means “book of education”. It concerns with showing how a young protagonist matures from innocent world to a world of knowledge; it is a story about coming of age. Experiencing an emotional loss at the beginning of the novel prompts the protagonist to embark on a journey of self-realization and maturation. The goal of a Bildungsroman is maturity, which the protagonist acquires slowly and painfully. This genre is therefore a story with educational and philosophical significance which shows the psychological growth identity formation of the main character after undergoing serious and critical hardships. The current paper explores these psychological and the spiritual maturations of the major characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which is written in 1939. The study adopts the fundamental demands of Bildungsroman genre, exemplifying the protagonist of the novel Tom Joad as a good example of embodying the morals and spiritual maturity. It describes how Joad endeavors to establish his new identity, and how he gradually changes his comportment, actions, and other gauges of maturation. It aims at analyzing Joad’s ability to grow up psychologically by transcending the hardships and adversities of life in the United States of America during the depression era. He learns and looks for the places where his autonomy increases according to many factors, such as the circumstances, places, or choices.

Key words: John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath, Bildungsroman genre, maturity, identity.

1.1 The representation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath as Bildungsroman Genre


“With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader … things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks”.

  John Steinbeck to Herbert Sturtz, 1953

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962, and Pulitzer Prize for writing his novel, The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck’s notable novels which are written in1939 during the Great Depression. It focuses on the Joad family, which is a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by agricultural industry changes, economic hardship, and bank foreclosures obliging the tenant farmers out of work. It describes the suffering of the American citizens who suffered a decade of economic recession, poverty, unemployment, and ecological disasters. The Joads set out in a journey from Oklahoma into California along with thousands of other ‘Okies’, looking for new opportunities, jobs, land, and dignity. The Grapes of Wrath represents the journey of Joad’s family as a brilliant example of this physical and spiritual transition throughout a gradual educational process of the Bildungsroman genre of the protagonist, Tom Joad.

A Bildungsroman genre is a literary form which describes “a formative novel of the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth from their youth into adulthood” (Lynch 129). The actual term ‘Bildungsroman’ was first coined by German philologist Karl Morgenstern during his lectures at the University of Dorpat in 1819, and was later “reprised by German Psychologist and philologist Wilhelm Dilthey, who legitimized it in 1870 and popularized it in 1905” (Engel 264). The term comes from the German word, “ ‘bildung’, which means ‘education’ and the German word ‘roman’ which means ‘novel’ ” (Abrams 265). It is translated into “a novel of education or a novel of formation” (ibid 265). Consequently, it describes the process of growth, maturation, education, and apprenticeship. This literary form reflects the biological and intellectual development of individual starting growth from childhood to maturity. According to Mayer, the ‘Bildung’ associated with the Bildungsroman includes the protagonist’s “entire character development, encompassing a growing awareness his/her individuality, identity, self-determination, as well as moral boundaries and creative abilities” (Mayer 13). ‘Bildung’ means finding oneself and in “the process gradually gaining independence from the dominating powers of nature, society, and culture” (Ibid 13).

The term ‘Bildungsroman genre’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘Coming of Age’ novel with the description of growth-oriented literature, but they are not necessarily the same. A ‘Bildungsroman’ is a specific genre of literature about “the educational growth that a character undergoes from lost child to mature adult person” (Summerfield & Downward, 83). While a ‘Coming of Age’ novel refers to a catch-all term for a novel about growing up which can come in any genre, many novels about maturation can be represented as ‘Coming of Age’ stories, but not all of them can be represented a ‘Bildungsroman’. The ‘Bildungsroman’ was once perceived to be a novel with educational and philosophical significance for young adults because it depicted characters who not only wanted to better themselves, but who were also “able to outgrow or leave behind immature actions in pursuit of a higher goal” (Jeffers 17).

The goal of the writers of Bildungsroman genre is “portraying their works as novels of human self-development and self-discovery” (Ibid 22). Moreover, the readers are directed to focus on one central character to give a concentrated and detailed look of the life experience upon the characters. This genre presents the novel of all-around development or self-culture with “a more or less conscious attempt on the part of the hero to integrate his powers, to cultivate himself by his experience” (Buckley 13). Thus, the modern hero matures in a world engaged in a process of development towards personal maturity and social integration.

A Bildungsroman genre can be introduced by understanding the change as the essential method of reformulating their new identity to reach the maturity of individuals. As Bakhtin’s remarks, this genre attempts “to present the identity development to be constructed in the process of becoming, emergence, change” (114). In other words, the development of identity will acquire by rendering the biological and intellectual growth from childhood through adolescence and youth to maturity. The change is a major introduction to establish identity formation, “where change and identity, along with freedom and happiness, security and metamorphosis, are all equally important for modern Western mentality” (Moretti 9), which is ranked by the aesthetic products of the Bildungsroman. The Bildung is “the earlier bourgeois, humanistic concept of the shaping of the individual from its innate potentialities through acculturation and social experience to the threshold of maturity” (Golban 42). It centers on the transformation of the protagonist to reach maturity by describing the maturation or growing up of “a delicate person who seeks solutions to life’s issues in the hopes of obtaining worldly experience” (Bakhtin 12).

 The goal of a Bildungsroman is maturity, which the protagonist acquires slowly and painfully. It does not only concern the life experiences of character’s change and growth due to the external conditions; rather, it represents “a process, biological and intellectual, spatial and temporal, internal and external, and the characters are both round and dynamic” (Golban 9). This indicates that the formation of characters becomes the prevailing principle in the thematic arrangement that focuses on the process of growth and maturation of characters. Consequently, the formation of protagonists’ identity at the final stage of the maturation process should reflect the inner rather than external change. The protagonists are portrayed as round rather than flat characters, as getting rid out of their static features and becoming dynamic. The formation as the culmination of the developmental process is identity acquired, which is an experience that includes the realization of the self and identity. A Bildungsroman genre can be depicted by presenting the journey concept as the central approach of reformulating the characters’ new identity.

 In Grapes of Wrath, the journey of Joad’s family exemplifies not only the physical transition from Oklahoma to California, moreover, it stands for the gradual educational process of the protagonist as changing over time in the concept of Bildungsroman genre. The formation of the identity of the protagonist is formed and organized through his family journey searching for the true self. In this novel, Steinbeck presents a detailed description of Tom’s gradual change throughout the development of the journey as well as a comparison between Tom Joad’s attitude towards change and that of other characters.

At the beginning, Tom Joad appears with a very detailed description of the physical features without mentioning his name. The reader may be tempted to regard the identity of this character is strange, tough, and suspicious until the story progresses. The characters are presented through their actions, interaction of the characters, and the relations with others. At first, Tom is described a “poor boy” to make him look more sympathetic to the readership. At the same time, in his conversation to the driver, he mentions his criminal record, when he confesses to the driver that he has been in prison for killing another man. Tom’s attitude can be observed differently towards the people around him. This leads to recognize the character’s perspectives about life.

At the first station, Tom encounters with Casy, and then, Mule, and in the first conversation, Casy confesses to Tom that he lost his spirit and tries to reconsider the idea of sin, and his role with the people. Tom seems unable to realize or accept Casy’s ideas, “Joad’s eyes dropped to the ground, as though he could not meet the honesty in the preacher’s eyes” (Grapes of Wrath 26). Tom’s conception of life is biased by his earlier experience in prison, “Jus’ take ever’day” (Ibid 95). In the bildungsroman terms, Casy will be inspirational character for Tom’s educational process for their companionship throughout the events of the novel.

 At the second station, in the way to find Joads’ family, Tom and Casy find Muley there when he tells them that the Joads are gone and their house is empty, while he refused to leave his house. However, Muley tells them about the miserable situation that people are being dispossessed of their land and house due to their incapability of paying to the banks. In the Bildungsroman terms, Muley functions as a witness, and then he informs the other two characters, Tom and Casy, who become aware of the cruelty of the events, and consequently, They gets knowledge and  awareness. In addition, the readers feel sympathy towards Tom as a  result  of repressed feelings, attempting to understand the situation: “Tom, the outsider like us, has become deeply involved with another’s story; he feels the trouble as if it could happen to him” (Gossage 112). His identity is evolved when he expresses his understanding and concern towards this situation.

The third station is when Tom finally finds his family at his uncle’s house. They intend to go for the long journey towards the west. The family feels delighted about Tom’s return, which indicates to Tom’s importance within the Joad family. There are two different attitudes towards the idea of leaving their land in Joad’s family. On the one hand, Pa Joad and Grampa stand for the male unwillingness to leave their land. Both characters are “deeply affected by the dispossession of their land and are unable to recover fully during the journey” (Garrido and FraLópez 137-138). After Grampa’s death, Pa Joad is affected by leaving the state of Oklahoma, and is unable to behave as the head of the family anymore. On the other hand, Ma Joad expresses the female willingness to leave their land to look for a better place. Women seem “to show a sense of conformity, though they are not contented with the change” (Garrido and FraLópez 138). Regardless of gender rules, Ma Joad takes a great deal of taking the responsibility and handling the family affairs, as the head of the household instead of Pa Joad. In this novel, Steinbeck describes the psychological growth of Ma Joad as the supporter character for guiding her son, Tom, to save the family. She is a prime example whose spiritual growth appeared by achieving the personal desires and needs of the family. She devotes to his family and sacrifices her own personal comfort for the benefit of the family. She plays a great role of leadership within motherhood by driving her family affairs.

There is a crucial and spiritual transformation of Tom’s identity especially after Casy’s death. Tom is influenced by Casy’s philosophy, which has a great impact upon his life, concerning their fighting and sacrifice to gain the workers’ rights. After Casy’s death, Tom takes the responsibility and it also allows him to learn and strive for social justice for his people. In his life, Tom has two experiences of murdering, even he attempts all the time to justify those events, but they lead him consciously to rebuild his identity once again. While Tom’s first murder is induced and justified by his instinct for self-preservation, his second is the revenge for the killing of his company, Casy: “Almost glumly, with little expression of personal felling, he does not only what is expected of him but more besides. A peak in his development occurs when, in the manner of a classic brother-in-arms” (Lutwack 69), he must avenge his brothers’ death. There is a great shift in Tom’s character in establishing his identity, as Shaw describes Tom’s psychological motive, “The paramount distinction between these two killings is that Tom’s motive has shifted from mere self-preservation or ego-demand to the preservation of others and their ideas” (622). This refers to the essence of Steinbeck’s pragmatic humanism, “to do what one must do, but for the right reasons” (ibid 622). It becomes a turning point for Tom’s identity to shift roles from individual into self-reliant head of his family. Tom’s philosophical growth comes in a gradual maturation throughout the series of events he passed in his life.

The Bildungsroman novel captures the psychological individuality and examining the social maturity of human nature with wider sense. It is the  novel  “of  all-around development  or  self-culture   with   a  more  or  less  conscious  attempt  on  the  part  of  the hero to integrate  his powers, to  cultivate  himself  by  his  experience”  (Buckley 13). This novel describes the formation of the leading character in the course of development throughout a series of stages from childhood to adulthood stage.  In fact, the German Bildungsroman can be used “to explore many themes – individual psychological development, changing gender roles, the value of labour in a capitalist society, the importance of religion in a secular age” until reach to finding the question of German national identity” (Graham 10). According to the Bildungsroman concepts, the protagonist demonstrates immense psychological growth, change, and maturity. Tom adopts a Psycho-Physical Questing in his spiritual migration. As Shaw indicates, Steinbeck reveals “a holistic design and moral intent” depending on Tom’s movement [throughout specific] states of psychological development until he reaches “the enlightened state of awareness that is his salvation” (quot. in Bryer 602). In this novel, Tom gains more maturity in taking such crucial decision without hesitation to confront the situation, and he can keep the family unit together in the absence of Pa Joad’s attitude. He has already learned to cope with this situation of displacement with independent resolution. The transition that happened in Tom’s life leads him to transcend his individual survival as well as gaining more maturity and awareness. Tom attempts to coexist with his new life even though he feels that he needs more to become aware about others, “doin’ the same as us … Goin’ some place to live. Tryin’ to get along. That’s all” (Grapes of Wrath 131).  Tom gradually recognizes that his ways of handling life does not work in such situation because they all eventually end up encountering the same disappointment. As Tom’s need for work makes him worry about the immediate present, he starts perceiving the world differently. He attempts to gather enough experiences that allow him to reconsider his attitude towards life. He has, therefore, undergone a process of empirical education that started with his journey home. Tom expresses to Ma Joad his new awareness and evolution attempting to tell that he still supports the people around him:

“Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too”. (Grapes of Wrath 439)

The bildungsroman genre frequently includes a central struggle between the protagonist and society; in most stories, the protagonist “gradually accepts society’s principles, and he or she is eventually embraced by society—the character’s follies and frustrations are over. After reaching maturity, the protagonist in certain works is capable of reaching out and aid others” (Bakhtin 27). This growing awareness is associated with the development of Tom’s consciousness and his understanding to save the family and achieve the future welfare of the people around him.

In this novel, the Bildungsroman concept is identified to understand the psychological construction of the protagonist, Tom Joad. It focuses on presenting two major aspects: the first is of the psychic experience of the character with himself, his self-conscious comprehension of personal achievement and failures in the community; and the second is of the individual with the influence of the environment upon him. Steinbeck portrays Tom Joad in a wider understanding with philosophical and psychological concept:

“The whole is necessarily everything, the whole world of fact and fancy, body and psyche, physical fact and spiritual truth, individual and collective, life and death, macrocosm and microcosm, conscious and unconscious, subject and object. The whole picture is portrayed by is, the deepest word of deep ultimate reality, not shallow or partial as reasons are, but deeper and participating, possibly encompassing the Oriental concept of being”. (The Grapes of Wrath 150-51)

Tom passes in transition from being an unconscious stage of the humanity to sharing consciously to prove his existence. He undergoes a philosophical, physically, and psychological quest and change according to Steinbeck’s terms asserting that, “need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action” (Donohue 86). At first, Tom is depicted as a convicted killer who responds from impulse to specific events; his journey with the migrants from Oklahoma to California makes undergo to growth and transformation. Moreover, he assumes authority in and takes responsibility for the family after his grandparents’ death. He learns to embrace his family and other families of the migrant workers, and sharing their common hardships and difficulties. This new psychological evolution is “like a kind of Bildungsroman or a fundamental rite de passage, is strategically combined with a tendency towards heroism; the same rhetorical mechanisms are used in biographies and autobiographical statements” (Martens 158). Those factors enable the readers to cultivate the heroic pattern struggles for and with the land in his social environment to defend and realize his personal ambitions and principles.

       Bildungsroman genre or the formation novel takes the form of the apprenticeship novel for the educative purposes of cultivating the hero. The individual transition and change of the self is embodied in the central character, Tom Joad, throughout a series of experiences in his life. Tom is a man who lives and embarks on a journey of self-realization and resolution of the inner conflicts.


The bildungsroman genre is a story of coming of age utilized to explore the protagonists’ maturation which they acquire when experiencing the difficult societal and economic conditions in the world they live. It concentrates on the evolution of the educational process of the central character throughout a series of experiences that teach lessons and deliver messages. It helps to criticize the society’s faults and defects which cause the protagonist’s suffering and loss. Consequently, this genre leads to identify the characters by acquiring more consciousness and awareness throughout examining different conflicts in the interrelated stages of his life. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck depicts the protagonist’s, Tom Joad, capability of re-building and asserting his individual identity to overcome the internal and external struggles in the world he lives. Tom’s new identity comes as a self-defense to emerge as a driving force mechanism against his oppressive society. Steinbeck functions the factors of change and journey, as a components of Bildungsroman genre, to guide Tom to determine his goals and taking his decisions independently. Thus, the Bildungsroman can be considered as a psychological approach in which the main character evolves toward mature self-awareness. As part of the self-discovery, the protagonist gets a new perspective on his/her relationships with other people, and he learns about facing the complexities of life and taking right decision; he consequently forms his new identity and realizes who is he?


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-3Bryer , Jackson R. “Sixteen Modern American Authors”, A Survey of Research and Criticism since 1972, Vol.2  (Duke U P Durham and London 1989).

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-16Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. Verso, 1987.

-17Reloy Garcia’s. The Rocky Road to Eldorado: The Jour- ney Motif in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes,f Wrath. StQ, Summer-Fall, 1981.

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-19Richardson, Jack. Illustrated Dictionary of Literature. Lotus Press New Delhi, 2006.

-20Shaw, Patrick W. Tom’s Other Trip: Psycho-Physical Questing in The Grapes of Wrath, The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism. Ed. Peter Lisca with Kevin Hearle. 2nd rev. ed. Viking Critical Library. Penguin Viking, 1997.

-21Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Nunnally Johnson Viking Press, 1939.

-22Steinbeck, John. “The Log From the Sea of Cortez”. The Viking Press, 1941.

-23Summerfield & Downward, Giovanna & Lisa. New Perspectives on the European Bildungsroman. Continuum International Publishing Group 2010.

Assistant Professor- M.A- Tikrit University- College of Arts- English Dept. -[1]

[2]– Professor- PhD- Tikrit University/ College of Education for Women/ English Dept.

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