Date of Award


Degree Type


University or Center

Atlanta University (AU)

Degree Name




First Advisor

Professor Elizabeth J. Higgins


The purpose of this thesis is to examine three rather diverse novels of John Steinbeck which are linked by unifying themes. The novels on which the study focuses are Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The novels chosen not only represent the most significant works of the author, but also contain comparative elements and recurrent ideas. Considered a "novelist of the people," Steinbeck tends to focus on the common man who, in a continuous conflict with those external forces which tend to dehumanize a society or those internal forces which tend to make him subhuman, pursues a desirable and useful life, only to find that the pursuit is in vain. In the discussion of the unifying themes, the study will focus on Steinbeck's common people—the paisanos of Tortilla Flat, George Milton and Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, and the Joad family and other migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. The development of these novels is based on Steinbeck’s use of contradictions between the life-styles and personalities of the characters in his novels. The study will also consider those literary techniques and philosophies from which the author develops his ideas.

Chapter One examines the internal and external struggles of the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. It considers the paisanos’ lack of conventional morality and the reader's acceptance of that which is good in them as a result of the crude chivalry of these characters. The study also con siders the internal struggle of the central character, Danny. It considers his desire for individuality, his ap parent loyalty to his comrades and the conflicts innate in those situations which ultimately lead to his demise. The analysis shows that the dream or the desire to function on the same level as that of the bourgeois society described in the novel becomes destroyed as a result of the following: (1) the basic, conflicting character traits of the paisanos and of the bourgeoisie of the Monterey Valley, (2) the misguided acts of chivalry performed by the paisanos within the brotherhood, (3) the desire for personal freedom in conflict with the person's commitment to the brotherhood, and (4) the lack of a purpose to sustain the bond that had been created by Danny and the paisanos around him.

Chapter Two examines the external forces which dominate the lives of George Milton and Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men. It considers Lennie as a fated victim of those elements which tend to dehumanize a society as well as George, who has become entrapped by those same dehumanizing elements. The analysis shows that the dream or the desire to achieve a mode of stability in the lives of George and Lennie also becomes destroyed due to several factors: (1) the handicap of Lennie, which gives him a propensity for unintentionally violent acts, (2) the unwillingness of the given society described in the novel to accept or tolerate Lennie1s condition, (3) conflicts with others within the given society who too possess a type of handicap which makes them objectionable in their own society, and (4) the final destruction of George's companion Lennie, which in turn destroys the hope and the dream.

Chapter Three examines both the internal struggles of the ordinary man's attempt to pursue a meaningful life and the external forces which not only prevent him from doing so, but also cause human degradation in The Grapes of Wrath. It considers the symbolic elements of numerous episodes and those philosophies which are manifested in the actions of the Joads and other migrants. The analysis shows how the dream or the desire to regain a viable existence within the American social structure becomes virtually annihilated as a result of the following: (1) natural disasters, as well as the economic exploitation that results in the forcible transferral of the land farmed by the Joad family and many other migrants to the banks and other lending institutions, (2) dissolution of the family unit as a result of death and desertion, (3) a loss of morale and a loss of morality as defined by the society of the novel, and (4) the use of unethical yet pragmatic means to survive the ultimate degradation placed upon them.