Updated September 10, 2022

Themes and Style of John Steinbeck’s Works

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Themes and Style of John Steinbeck’s Works essay
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John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is a very well rounded author who is regarded as one of the most talented of his time. The California native lived an early life of constant moving, which eventually led to affect his writing style. Many common themes are evident throughout all of his short stories and books. Steinbeck is such an acclaimed writer because his themes and plots of his stories correlate to the time period in which he is writing. Therefore, readers are able to relate to his stories, leading Steinbeck to be an instant success.

The styles and techniques in which he uses these themes varies story to story. His writing style reflects heavily on his own personal life growing up as well as with the time period of his writing and life. The two main stories with clear themes and techniques is Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The main themes that will be discussed in depth are violence, the American Dream, relationships, ethics, and biblical reference. When looking in depth at these two stories, Steinbeck’s writing style becomes clear. In order to grasp the meaning and incentive for John Steinbeck’s writing it is crucial to understand and account for his themes, styles, and techniques that he uses repeatedly in his works.



One of Steinbeck’s most commonly used theme is that of violence. Throughout most of his stories the theme of violence always seems to play a role in in the plot line, whether it be a major idea or just an underlying theme. By taking a look at his works it is evident of his desire to use violence as a recurring idea. The broad topic of violence is outlined perfectly by James Mumford when he says “Suicides; domestic violence; lynching; botched abortions; fraternal beatings; heroes who boast about knocking people’s heads “plumb to squash” (The Grapes of Wrath 28) merely a cursory glance at Steinbeck’s writing reveals the central presence of violence” (Mumford 145).

It is pretty evident by this little description of the type of theme Steinbeck uses, that his style is pretty aggressive and straightforward. Along with that there are more detailed descriptions which show the incredibly explicit writing of Steinbeck when it comes to violence. For example, in East of Eden, Steinbeck describes the scene of Adam being abused by Charles by saying Adam “felt the square fists whipping nausea into his stomach” (33). To go along with that same scene, Steinbeck also says in East of Eden “Adam felt the punches on temples, cheeks, eyes. He felt his lip split apart and tatter over his teeth, but his skin seemed thickened and dull, as though he were encased in heavy rubber” (33).

This example and description of a man being beaten shows Steinbeck’s vivid imagery and that he really wants to get his point across. The descriptions of violence are very thorough and meaningful. “Steinbeck is as fascinated by killings as beatings” (Mumford 145). An example of this would be found in Of Mice and Men when Steinbeck describes the body of Curley’s wife after being strangled, “Flopped like a fish. And then was still” (91). Steinbeck uses examples that the reader is able to picture in their minds as they read and that is what makes a great author. His themes jump off the page and turn to images in the readers head. “Steinbeck was fascinated by violence.

And he was fascinated by people fascinated by violence. In his early collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven (1932), he tells of an impeccable farmer, Raymond, who has a secret penchant for executions” (Mumford 146). Mumford shows how Steinbeck is invested deeply in his theme of violence and death. It is clear that by studying Steinbeck’s works, human cruelty is the cause for violence. As you can see, violence plays a huge role in the works of Steinbeck and is one of his most prolific themes.


The theme of loneliness comes up as an underlying theme in many of Steinbeck’s stories. However, it is also acts as the main theme in Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck derived this theme similarity to the way in which he discovered and used his other themes. That being through life during the Depression and War. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck shows the theme of loneliness when Crooks says ‘S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good” (80).

This quote shows the isolation that people can feel and they have truly nothing to do with themselves. Another example from Of Mice and Men is when Steinbeck also says “A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick’ (80). This quote summarizes the theme perfectly, because it shows how during that time period people could become lonely and that it can have a real lasting affect. Steinbeck gets very in depth with this making you think he may have suffered from situations like these during his life. In Of Mice and Men, Slim even mentions ‘I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean” (81). This theme is most relevant in Of Mice and Men, however; it is used subtlety in other stories such as Grapes Of Wrath and more.

Biblical Allusions

John Steinbeck also uses the idea of incorporating biblical references into his works. This theme is odd because Steinbeck was not religious, however he was very educated and knew they it would benefit his writing. He thought you don’t have believe in a story to use it in the writing. “Steinbeck’s use of the Bible is perhaps most uniform in The Grapes Of Wrath” (Rombold 146).

“Several critics have commented on Steinbeck’s use of inversions of Biblical material—for example, the dead child set forth on the flood waters inverting the baby Moses story—but they have not seen the opening interchapter on the drought as an inversion of the Biblical creation story” (Rombold 146). This is just one example of how Steinbeck uses different biblical allusions to enhance his writing and make it more interesting. Another example of this from The Grapes Of Wrath is illustrated when Rombold states “Nor has anyone commented on the final scene, in which Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a dying man (618-19), as being filled with allusions to the new heavens and new earth described by Isaiah” (Rombold 146). Steinbeck uses many Old and New Testament themes in his stories.

Isobel Murray and Jim Merrilees write about how the Old Testament affected his writing the most saying “We think that a profitable and sane perspective on Steinbeck can be achieved by attention to these biblical themes, and propose to demonstrate this by a brief examination of Old Testament references only, in one early and one late novel, To a God Unknown (1933) and East of Eden (1952)” (Murray and Merrilees 60). Therefore, Steinbeck definitely depends on biblical allusions because it is easily accessible and it serves a powerful message. “When we come to discuss East of Eden in the second of these articles, we shall suggest that Steinbeck set out to relate all the most basic aspects of human life to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, vv. 1-1” (Murray and Merrilees 61).

When studying Steinbeck’s writing it become more and more clear how much he really does relate to the Bible and how much of an influence the Bible really does play in his themes and writing style. In some cases Steinbeck’s writing almost exactly mirrors that from the Bible. “In at least one section of Steinbeck’s chapter, the Biblical parallels are so exact as to deserve mention. By looking carefully at the chart below, comparing a selection from page 5 of The Grapes of Wrath with Genesis 1:13-18, we can see the similarities along with the inversion” (Rombold 148). In conclusion, Steinbeck uses Old and New Testament themes in his stories.

The American Dream

Another theme used throughout Steinbeck’s writing is that of The American Dream. This theme plays roles in many of Steinbeck’s works, but predominantly in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes Of Wrath. When speaking of the American Dream, John Steinbeck quickly is at the top of the list of authors who use this theme. Steinbeck’s idea of the American Dream constantly fails the characters is his works, and makes for a wonderful story. “A single purpose has directed his experimentation, a single idea has guided his literary thought. Always his fiction has described the interplay of dream and reality ; his thought has followed the development of the American dream” (Carpenter 454).

This shows that at heart, Steinbeck always thinks to incorporate the American dream into his works and characters. am. “The significance of dream in the motivation of Steinbeck’s stories is often explicit, and may be described in detail” (Carpenter 454). “But beyond history, these novels illustrate the development of an idea : they describe successive phases of dream. First the dream of conquest, then of escapement and ownership” (Carpenter 455). The development of the American dream idea takes time and is unveiled in phases that Steinbeck goes through throughout the story. The second period of Steinbeck’s novels “describe more unselfish types of Americans, who fail for other reasons: irresponsibility, or fanaticism, or defective mentality” (Carpenter 455).

And the most recent wave of the American dream idea comes by “The Long Valley and The Grapes of Wrath have suggested the possible realization of the American dream through courage and active intelligence” (Carpenter 455). An example of the American dream in his work would be when Carpenter says “Meanwhile, Of Mice and Men describes the individualistic survival of the old American dream. Constantly repeated, because it is common to all Americans, this dream gives significance to a story of outcasts and failures” (464). Also, the American Dream is evident in The Grapes Of Wrath because of the idea of manifest destiny, and how it failed due to individualism.

Techniques and Styles

John Steinbeck used a wide range of styles and techniques throughout his career of writing. By looking into these styles and techniques that he used we are able to understand his writing better and we can figure out where he gets his inspiration and why he uses the language he does. “Steinbeck, as one of America’s most versatile and eloquent storytellers, was unabashedly such a searcher. As he writes in East of Eden , ‘We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil (415)” (Li 63). By looking into this we are able to study Steinbeck’s thought process when looking at his works and realize that when it comes to his writing he is a searcher and is always looking to improve. “Steinbeck’s narrative world, more suggestive than declarative, always has a

high moral purpose” (Li 63). Throughout most of his stories the underlying style he writes with is that of a moral code which he follows. Li continues to share that “Through his work of fiction and nonfiction, Steinbeck has offered us a broad range of views with which we can reflect on American ethics” (63). This means that Steinbeck writes about many different topics from both sides giving the reader a side to choose from good and bad on the idea of ethics. “Throughout his career, Steinbeck was an ethical writer, concerned with right and wrong choices and their consequences.

The majority of his writings, fictional and non-fictional, directly address the moral contortions of individual Americans, their social groups, and the nation as a whole. His perceptions of America’s right-and-wrongs not only penetrate all aspects of American society but also extend to the deepest layer of individual psyches” (Li 63). As shown in the above quote it is evident to see in Steinbeck’s works that he writes about choosing between right and wrong. In his works he writes mainly about moral dilemmas between individuals, themselves, and society and how it has a lasting affect.

Examples of this come in many of his most popular works, “For instance, The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle question the government’s ability to deal with poverty, natural disaster, and labor disputes; The Winter of Our Discontent exposes how distorted values can corrupt business professionals and government officials; Once There Was a War, Bombs Away, and The Moon Is Down reveal the psychological and moral challenges faced by soldiers; East of Eden reveals the dichotomy of good and evil. Tortilla Flat , The Pearl, and Cannery Row probe the negotiation of values between mainstream American culture and its subcultures; To a God Unknown examines the human-versus-nature battle over the American land, and finally Travels with Charlie in Search of America and America and Americans provide a panorama of American society for us to reflect on our past, examine our present, and determine our future” (Li 63). Steinbeck also uses various styles by incorporating moral codes, spiritual life, religion, and nature into his works.

Steinbeck’s styles of writing originate from his early being and how he was treated and criticized, up until his later career of high success. “But the Steinbeck who remained confined by that realism preferred by the Modern critics, and the pressures of his literary peers, began to emerge once more in his later life and works. This Steinbeck, however, would be disillusioned and more cynical” (Gaither 53).

Steinbeck was confined at first but gradually made his mark in his later works. “Still convinced in his soul that science, materialism, and a consumer attitude toward the environment carried in its flowering the seed of destruction, he would plead for a new approach (a non- teleological one) to research and a more urgent view of community as a force that could be the planet’s and society’s salvation” (Gaither 53). Steinbeck is searching for a new approach to writing due to him feeling like the old ways were leading to destruction. One main way to analyze Steinbeck’s writing is when Gaither says “…Steinbeck’s writing grieves the loss of community and pleads once more for the connectedness of us all and the earth that sustains us” (53). His style of writing shows how he wants community, this is caused by his own life growing up and because of the time period.

“The firm belief in the connectedness of all things—both human and natural—and the view that community is necessary to survival, recurs throughout Steinbeck’s work” (Gaither 59). Gaither also states “[Steinbeck’s] very postmodern mixing of the ancient with the contemporary, the blending of realism and the metaphorical, the marrying of science and intuition, the combing of styles and forms-all make him an innovator hard to judge by modern criteria” (62). According to Benson in John Steinbeck : Novelist as Scientist, “combining, as Steinbeck would in much of his fiction, dispassionate observation, human illusion, allegory, and a myst personification of the forces of nature” (250). This shows the different techniques Steinbeck uses throughout his works, and the literary devices he put into play.

In conclusion, John Steinbeck is a very well known and celebrated author. Due to his many successful books he has made a name for himself as a top author of his time. His styles and techniques originate from his early life being confined, ultimately leading him to grow and become a more successful author. And the main focal point was on his use of various themes. His themes represent the time period he wrote in and his life. Much of his work used many main evident themes, followed along by many underlying hidden themes. In the end, Steinbeck’s work is worth looking into and studying because then you can find real meaning behind what is being read

Themes and Style of John Steinbeck’s Works essay

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What are John Steinbeck's themes?
In sharing his vision of what it means to be human, Steinbeck touches on several themes: the nature of dreams, the nature of loneliness, man's propensity for cruelty, powerlessness and economic injustices, and the uncertainty of the future .
What is Steinbeck's writing style?
Straightforward, Colloquial, Unpretentious, Earnest Steinbeck's writing style mirrors his characters. Of course the author writes as the men would literally speak, but on a deeper level, the language of the book is simple but compelling—just like the characters.
What is the theme of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men?
Although the novella is short and spare, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men explores major themes of loneliness and alienation, dreams versus reality, and friendship and loyalty . These universal themes are revealed through Steinbeck's detailed characterization and succinct and graceful prose.
What is unique about Steinbeck's writing style?
One characteristic of John Steinbeck 's writing style that makes it unique is his use of social commentary . Steinbeck lived during some of the hardest times in American history, like the Great Depression, which caused effects on his writings.
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