The Grapes of Wrath: Symbolic CharactersStruggling through such things as the depression, the Dust Bowl summers,and trying to provide for their own families, which included finding somewhereto travel to where life would be safe. Such is the story of the Joads.
TheJoads were the main family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a book whichwas written in order to show what a family was going through, at this timeperiod, and how they were trying to better their lives at the same time. Itwouldn’t be enough for Steinbeck to simply write this story in very plain terms,as anyone could have simply logged an account of events and published it.Critics have argued, however, that Steinbeck was too artificial in his ways oftrying to gain some respect for the migrants. Regardless of the criticalopinions, John Steinbeck utilized symbolism as aforum to convey the hardshipsand attitudes of the citizens of America during the 1930’s in his book TheGrapes of Wrath.The first aspect of the novel that must be looked at when viewing thesymbolic nature is that of the characters created by Steinbeck and how even thesmallest facets of their person lead to a much larger meaning. The first goalthat Steinbeck had in mind, was to appeal to the common Midwesterner at thattime.
The best way to go about doing this was to focus on one of the two thingsthat nearly all migrants had in common, which was religion and hardships.Steinbeck creates a story about the journey of a family and mirrors it to thatof biblical events. The entire family, in themselves, were like the Israelites.”They too flee from oppression, wander through the wilderness of hardships,seeking their own Promised Land” (Shockley, 91). Unfortunately, although theIsraelites were successful, the Joads never really found what they couldconsider to be a promised land. They were never lucky enough to really satisfytheir dreams of living a comfortable life.
But, they were still able to improveon their situation.Another symbolic character that was undoubtedly more religious thananyone else taking the journey was Jim Casy. He was a preacher that was pickedup along the way by the Joads. Steinbeck manages to squeeze in a lot about thischaracter, and a lot of the background he creates about Mr.
Casy shows just howmuch of a biblical man he really is supposed to be. So much so, that Steinbeckuses Jim Casy to symbolize Christ. Oddly enough, his initials were not only thesame as Jesus Christ, but much of his life is similar to the biblical accountsof Christ. Not only did he also begin his long trek after a stay in thewilderness, he also had rejected an old religion to try and find his own versionof the gospel and convince people to follow him. His death, another aspectcomparable to that of Christ, also occurred in the middle of a stream, whichcould represent the “crossing over Jordan” account.
“Particularly significant,however, are Casy’s last words directed to the man who murders him” (Shockley,92-93). Jim’s last words are to forgive the man who kills him with a pickax.He tells him “You don’t know what you’re a-doing,” which is a simple allusion tothe statement by Jesus to God when He is being crucified and asks his Father toforgive them, for they knew not what they were doing.
In this novel, even thetitle is a Christian allusion. The title is “a direct Christian allusion,suggesting the glory of the coming of the Lord” (Shockley, 90).Looking at the main character of the story, Tom Joad, even moreChristian symbolism is seen. Tom Joad is almost a direct fit for the story ofthe “prodigal son” from the bible. He is the son that must lead everyone acrossin a great journey, while symbolically already wandering from the favor of Godby killing a man in self-defense. Tom must find a way to forget about thisevent and continue to keep his goal of getting to California (and his PromisedLand) in sight.
He understands that he must stay determined and perseverebecause he is an example and a leader to his family and he cannot allow anyinternal event to slow him down.Rose of Sharon, the daughter of the family, also has a very religiousconnotation; her religious meaning is not so much symbolic of a specific personor event in the bible, but more of an example of Christian values. The greathardship in her life was the fact that the child she was pregnant with the wholestory, and the one that kept her from doing work necessary to everyone’ssurvival, was stillborn. Now, after going through all this, she had to face thereality of living without her child and the reality of her husband walking outon her. Even after all this when the Joads come upon the old man in the barn”the two women Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon looked deep into each other’s eyes.Not my will, but Thine be done.” (Shockley, 94) Rose knows that even though shehad lost her own child, she must now take another, and the fact that Steinbeckhas her say “Thine will be done” is because she knows that it is in fact God’swill that she is serving, and that is much more important than any problem shehas.
Next, the women in the story are an example of the mentality of the”indestructible woman.” The greatest example of this is the eldest, Ma Joad.”Ma Joad stands out in Steinbeck’s work as a complete and positivecharacterization of a woman” (Gladstein, 118).
She is the only character in thenovel that appears to be flawless on every level, not just as someone who doesmonotonous chores throughout the story. She stands as a shining example of awoman who refuses to back down, no matter what the obstacles at hand. Some ofthe obstacles included Grandma’s death, the desertion of Noah, the leavingbehind of the Wilsons followed by Connie’s departure, the murder of Casy, Tombecoming a fugitive, Rose of Sharon’s baby being stillborn, and being surroundedby starvation and depression. She uses al of her strength and willpower to helpdeal with these tragedies. One of the biggest examples of her undying strengthand love is the way she help Rose of Sharon deal with her pregnancy and the lossof her baby. She helps keep the family together, and if that meant giving everyounce of spirit and energy that she had, she’d do it because of the love she hadfor her family.
Steinbeck creates her as that indestructible woman because hewants to convince the migrants of the 1930’s to follow in the footsteps of MaJoad, and ultimately, mirror the journey of the entire Joad family. WarrenFrench explains exactly what Steinbeck’s intent with having the characters,especially Ma Joad, develop the way they do throughout the novel:The story that Steinbeck sought to tell does end, furthermore, with MaJoad’s discovery that it is no longer the “fambly” alone that one must “give ahan’,” but “everybody.” As I wrote in my own study of Steinbeck, answer thecharge that the tale is inconclusive, the scene in the barn “marks the end ofthe story that Steinbeck has to tell about the Joads,” because “their educationis completed What happens to them now depends upon the ability of the rest ofsociety to learn the same lesson they have already learned.” (93-94)Rose of Sharon is another woman who shows indestructibility. She alsohas to deal with her stillborn baby and all of what Ma Joad had to go through,but she still attempts to continue on and help Ma whenever she can. “Bedraggledand burdened, deserted by her husband, Rose of Sharon still drags herself out ofbed to do her part in earning money for support of the family” (Gladstein, 122).In the novel Steinbeck writes about she tries how because of the way she triedso hard to help, that she was constantly vomiting, just to keep up with regularchores, yet her spirit remained unwavering.
With all of this occurring aroundher, one of the novel’s greatest Christian allusions comes from her character.In the climactic event at the end of the novel, Rose of Sharon looked at the oldman who needed her milk and just smiled. “This is my body, says Rosasharn, andbecomes the Resurrection and the Life. In her, life and death are one, andthrough her, life triumphs over death” (Shockley, 94). She gives herself forthat of another, and that is a major Christian principle.Besides the characters, the events in the story are also an example ofhow Steinbeck uses symbolism. This is the second major way that Steinbeck usessymbolism in this story.
There are several examples which show how perserverentthe human spirit could be in times of trouble. The trek itself shows howcommitted to their dreams the Joads were. They had to risk everything just tofind work and a place to live.
Also, the characters in the story had to adaptto the events that were happening to them throughout the journey. For example,Tom first got his idea of transportation when he saw the tractor at thebeginning of the story and remembered that tractors were just now starting tocover the plains all the time, so they must be able to make it in some kind ofmachine. When Tom visits the car dealer, he comes away with a car that didn’tquite fit their needs, but he made it work. Another example is how the familylearns to use every item, the realize how valuable every single item they haveisto their existence, and it becomes more and more clear every single day as thesituation becomes more and more harsh.Also, the kindness of the human spirit is shown in Steinbeck’s novelthrough these events. The main example in the novel is when the waitress in thecaf lets the poor migrant have a free loaf of bread just to continue hisjourney. She is then rewarded with two big tips from the next customers, whoare truckers that come through to eat.
This is a shining example of the oldadage “kindness breeds kindness” (Carlson, 97). Then, when Rose of Sharon tookcare of the old man in the barn, she ends up symbolically gaining a child wherebefore she had lost her own. These two were both examples of human kindness andin both instances, the people were rewarded for their kindness. These examplesare also examples of a major principle in Christianity which is to do untoothers as you would like done to you.
The third and final major aspect of symbolism shown in The Grapes ofWrath is the role that nature plays in the story. It is unquestioned thatnature plays a big part in the lives of the Joads simply because their journeytakes place in the middle of the plains where weather, such as rain, can easilybecome a harsh hazard since there is really no shelter from it and they reallyhave no other option that to continue trudging forward as much as possible.Weather is shown in this as both a destroying and regenerative force.”Steinbeck goes on to depict in lyrical prose the disintegration of the housebefore the almost delicate onslaught of nature: rain, weeds, dust, wind” (Owens,79). Nature then knows that the house is no longer useful to the Joads and”reclaims it as its own” (Owens, 79).One of the most interesting parts of this work is what is known bySteinbeck as the “interchapters.” Steinbeck includes several chaptersthroughout the novel which simply act as a symbolic reference to some other idea,that at first glance, have no meaning to the story, but these storiessymbolically prove a point for Steinbeck.
The first, and most famous, of theseis the journey of the turtle. Steinbeck opens a chapter by simply describing aturtle that is struggling to cross a highway. Steinbeck goes through greatdetail to explain much about the turtle and its own little journey, but hereally doesn’t say much about the purpose. That is because it is so clear. Theturtle is simply heading somewhere and must cross the road. It struggles andstruggles and when it finally gets close to the other side a truck comes by andknocks it across the road anyway, unharmed.
The moral is that the turtle madeit across, but if it had tried any less, it might have been hit by the tireinstead of just being brushed aside by it. Another story symbolic of the plightof the farmer is the ant lion trap which is analogous to the fact that mostfarmers were scurrying around trying to acquire land and supplies to live butavoid being caught at the same time. Of course, not everyone can succeed, soSteinbeck inserts the story of the Joad’s dog being hit by the truck. Noteveryone is going to be as lucky as the turtle in their efforts, and this lessoncomes at a price to the Joads.Machines played a major part in this story in the way was createdbecause of the fact that machines were taking over everything in the farmingcommunity and workers weren’t really needed anymore. Not only were machines oneof the causes of the migration in the first place, but they also directly causeseveral deaths in the story. It is stated in the novel that “one man on atractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families.
” Through this manner,Steinbeck shows in the plot itself how machines add to the complexity of thesituation. He then uses the interchapters to show how much effect they had onnature and animals as well as humans. “Tom sees the No Riders’ sticker on thetractor as an example of how inhuman machinery has become” (Griffin, 222). Itis then very symbolic when they meet at the beginning of the journey westwardand must meet at the truck, which is seen as the only “real” thing left, sincethe house is demolished.
The truck was never meant to be of any “real”significance in the first place, for it is a machine.Lastly, Steinbeck made great reference to animals throughout the story.He used them repeatedly to show how people were acting and to describe thingsand events, as well as foreshadow future happenings. One example of thedescription of people was the reference to Muley Grave’s sex drive in hisyounger days, when “he describes his first experience as snorting like a buckdeer, randy as a billygoat” (Griffin, 220). Then a reference to nature againbeing like farmers is when the moths circling the fire are pointed out, they arejust like the farmers circling a town, looking for opportunity and waiting toenter. Then, animals are also used in foreshadowing death (be it the dog orRose of Sharon’s baby) by the circling of buzzards overhead. Steinbeck loved touse more minor events in nature to explain the trials and tribulations of theJoads.
Although Steinbeck created this highly acclaimed world of symbolism, itis not without its fault, at least according to some interpretations. Steinbeckgoes to great lengths to create this world of symbolism with very intricatecharacters which he wants the reader to understand to be his representation ofthe public during the 1930’s. Unfortunately, some found his book to be all tooartificial. “Complete literalness in such matters doesn’t necessarily simulatelife in literature” (Moore, 59).The dispute here is whether or not Steinbeckis attempting to overglorify the attempts or the migrants. Many Midwesternersdid feel quite a bit of harshness enter their lives when trying to live throughthe 1930’s, but it is hard to say if the Joads had life as tough as most.
However, Henry Moore states that the shining examples of good symbolism andtruth in The Grapes of Wrath come in the interchapters, such as the turtle andtractor tales. The problem though, as he states it, is that “the contrapuntalchapters about the Joad family don’t always have the continuous strength tocarry them” (Moore, 60). Basically Dr.
Moore is saying that if Steinbeck reallywanted to use symbolism in this story to show the trials and tribulations of themigrants in the 1930’s, he should have kept the story more realistic and down-to-earth in its approach to the topic.Overall, John Steinbeck did appeal to the Midwesterners through his bookThe Grapes of Wrath. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 while TheGrapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
He managed to explain manyevents of the current time period through his use symbolism, and obviously, manyreaders enjoyed it. By using characters, nature and events for forms ofsymbolism, Steinbeck keeps the reader interested and at the same time conveyshis thoughts and beliefs.