Through such hardships as the Depression, the Dust Bowl summers, and trying to provide for their own families, which included the search for a safe existence, we find the story of the Joad’s. The Joad’s are the main family in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, which he created to give voice to the hundreds of families that found themselves at their absolute rock bottom during the Great Depression of the 20th Century in America.
It wouldn’t have been enough for Steinbeck to simply document the strife that faced these families in very plain terms, for anyone could have simply logged an account of events and published it. Rather, he needed to draw us in with emotional content, to do these families justice. Critics have argued that Steinbeck was too artificial in his ways of trying to gain some respect for the migrants. But, regardless of the critical opinions, John Steinbeck utilized 3 profound areas of symbolism as a forum to convey the spirits and attitudes of the citizens of America, who in his eyes, it seems, faced the worst of The Grapes of Wrath.
The first aspect of the novel that must be looked at when screening its symbolic content, is that of the characters created by Steinbeck and how even the smallest facets of their personalities lead to a much larger implication for the reader. The first goal Steinbeck had in mind was to appeal to the common Midwesterner of that era. The best way to go about doing this was to use religion and hardship, two categories equally entrenched in the mores of that time. He creates a story about the journey of a specific family, the Joad’s, and mirrors it to that of biblical events. Each family group throughout the novel, within themselves, is like one of the tribes of the Israelites. “They too had to flee from oppression, wander through the wilderness of hardships, seeking their own Promised Land” (Shockley, 91). Unfortunately, though the Israelites were successful in their attempts to flee, the Joad’s never really found what they could consider to be a Promised Land. Though they were able to improve on their situation, they were never lucky enough to really satisfy their dreams of living a comfortable life.
Another aspect of Steinbeck’s character symbolism comes in the form of Jim Casy, a man undoubtedly more religious than anyone else on the journey to a better place. He is the preacher picked up along the way by the Joad’s and Steinbeck manages to squeeze in a lot of background about his character. And, much of the background he creates about Mr. Casy shows us what a biblical man he really is supposed to be. So much so, that Steinbeck seems to use Casy as a symbol of Christ Himself. Oddly enough, his initials were not only the same as Jesus Christ’s, but also much of his life parallels the biblical accounts of Christ. Not only did he too begin his long trek after a sojourn in the wilderness, he also had rejected an old religion to try and find his own version of the Gospel and convince people to follow him. Even his death mirrored an aspect of Christ’s story, occurring in the middle of a stream, resembling the “crossing over Jordan” account in the Bible. “Particularly significant, however, are Casy’s last words directed to the man who murders him” (De Schweinitz, 103,104). His last words are to forgive the man who kills him with a Pickaxe. He tells him “You don’t know what you’re a-doing.” In this we are reminded of Christ’s own words at His crucifixion when He says, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” In fact, even the title of this novel alludes to Christian imagery. The title is “a direct Christian allusion, suggesting the glory of the coming of the Lord” (Carpenter, 80).
Next, looking at the main character of the story, Tom Joad, we find more Christian symbolism. Tom Joad is almost a direct fit for the parable of the “Prodigal Son”. Tom is the son that must lead everyone across on a great journey, while symbolically already wandering from the favor of God by killing a man, though he did it in self-defense. Tom must find a way to forget about this event and continue to keep his goal of getting to California (and his Promised Land) in sight. He understands that he must stay determined and persevere because he is an example and a leader to his family and he cannot allow any internal event to slow him down. Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad in the film version of the novel is particularly compelling as he almost the narrative voice of the emotions that must have been felt by each family member. In his final scene, when he says good-bye to Ma Joad, he speaks of being part of the bigger Spirit. He says he’ll always be there, standing up for the little man, in other words, he is there to speak for the “meek and lowly”, a watermark of Christ-like behavior.
Rose of Sharon, the elder daughter of the Joad family, also maintains religious connotations. While her religious meaning is not so much symbolic of a specific person or event from the Bible, she is herself an embodiment of Christian virtues. She is pregnant throughout the story and looks forward to the birth of a child. But the very thing that keeps her from contributing to the work necessary to the family’s survival becomes her greatest hardship, as her baby is stillborn. After suffering all that she has during the family’s travels, she has to face the reality of living without her anxiously awaited child. And she has to face the reality of her husband walking out on her. Yet 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” (Carlson, 96). Rose knows that even though she has lost her own child, she must now take another, and the fact that she says “Thy will be done” is evidence that she knows it is in fact God’s will that she serves another, and that is much more important to her than any problem she has had.
Further emphasizing the symbolic character front, the women in this story become pictures of the mentality of the “indestructible woman.” The greatest exemplar of this is the family matriarch, Ma Joad. “Ma Joad stands out in Steinbeck’s work as a complete and positive characterization of a woman” (Cannon, 118). She is the only character in the novel that appears to be flawless on every level, not just as someone who does monotonous chores throughout the story. She stands as a shining image of a woman who refuses to back down, no matter what the obstacles at hand. Some of those obstacles included Grandma’s death, the desertion of Noah, the leaving behind of the Wilson’s followed by Connie’s departure, the murder of Casy, Tom becoming a fugitive, Rose of Sharon’s baby being stillborn, and being surrounded by starvation and depression. She summons all of her strength and willpower to help cope with these tragedies. Her undying strength and love comes to light as she helps keep the family together, even if that means giving every ounce of spirit and energy that she has. Steinbeck creates her as that indestructible woman because he wants to convince the migrants of the 1930’s to follow in her footsteps, and ultimately, mirror the journey of the entire Joad family. Warren French explains directly what Steinbeck’s aim 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 Ma Joad’s discovery that it is no longer the “fambly” alone that one must “give a han’,” but “everybody.” As I wrote in my own study of Steinbeck, I answer the charge that the tale is inconclusive, the scene in the barn ‘marks the end of the story that Steinbeck has to tell about the Joads’ because ‘their education is completedWhat happens to them now depends upon the ability of the rest of society to learn the same lesson they have already learned” (204-205).
Another chief character portraying the indestructible woman is Rose of Sharon. She copes with all that Ma Joad copes with, as well as the delivery of a stillborn baby, yet she attempts to continue on and help Ma whenever she can. She is enduring to the end. “Bedraggled and burdened, deserted by her husband, Rose of Sharon still drags herself out of bed to do her part in earning money for support of the family” (Crockett, 107). Rose tries so hard to help, that she is constantly vomiting, just keeping up with her regular chores, yet her spirits remain unwavering. With all of this occurring around her, one of the novel’s greatest Christian allusions comes from her character. In the climactic event at the end of the novel, Rose looks at the old man who needs her milk and just smiles. ” ‘This is my body, ‘ says Rose of Sharon, and becomes an embodiment of the Resurrection and the Life. In her, life and death are one, and through her, life triumphs over death” (Dougherty, 116). She gives of herself for that of another, rehearsing for us, the readers, the key Christian principle of charity.
In conjunction with the characters of this story, the events themselves reveal Steinbeck’s second major area of symbolism. He uses the events to shape his characters, as well as tell his story — symbolic to the test of mortal life, the very reason we are here, so the Bible teaches us. There are several examples that illustrate how triumphant the human spirit can be in times of trouble and mental fatigue. The trek West itself reveals just how committed the Joad’s were to their dreams. They risk everything just to find work and a place to live — the basics. Each event serves as one more essential hurdle each main character must adapt to in order to fully disclose his/her own symbolism. For instance, Tom first gets his idea of transportation when he sees the tractor at the beginning of the story and remembers that tractors are just now starting to cover the planes continually. He knows the family must be able to make it in some kind of machine. When Tom visits the car dealer, he comes away with a car that doesn’t quite fit the family’s needs, but Tom makes it work. He adapts. He, along with the rest of the family, learns to utilize every item they have. They discover the value of each item, which becomes clearer each day as their circumstances become harsher.
Next, Steinbeck uses each major event to exhibit the kindness of the human spirit. A main example here is when the waitress in the caf lets the poor migrant have a free loaf of bread just to continue his journey. She is then rewarded with two big tips from the next customers, who are truckers that come through to eat. In this event, “kindness breeds kindness” (Carlson, 97). Another occasion is when Rose of Sharon takes care of the old man in the barn. She ends up symbolically gaining a child where before she had lost her own. These instances not only demonstrate that kindness of the human spirit, they lend a hand in keeping the bigger picture of remaining humble and obedient to Christian principles visible, including that of the Golden Rule, as key to this family’s mental, if not financial, survival.
The third and final major area of symbolism in the Grapes of Wrath is the role that nature plays throughout the story. It is unquestionable that nature plays a big part in the lives of the Joad’s simply because their journey takes place in the middle of the planes where weather, such as rain, can easily become a harsh condition. There is the ever-present reality that they haven’t much shelter from the turbulent weather, thus they have no option but to trudge forward. Weather is exposed as both a destroying and regenerative force. “Steinbeck goes on to depict in lyrical prose the disintegration of the house before the almost delicate onslaught of nature: rain, weeds, dust, wind” (Isherwood, 79). Nature then knows that the house is no longer useful to the Joad’s and “reclaims it as its own” (Isherwood, 79). Some of the most interesting proofs of the nature symbolism come the “interchapters”. Steinbeck includes several chapters throughout the novel which simply act as a reference to some other idea, that at first glance, have no meaning to the story, but, on further inspection, prove some of Steinbeck’s main points. The most famous of these is the journey of the turtle. Steinbeck opens a chapter by describing a turtle that is struggling to cross a highway. He goes into great detail to explain much about the turtle and its own little journey, but he really doesn’t say much about the purpose. That is because it becomes very clear. The turtle is heading somewhere and must cross a road. It struggles and struggles and when it finally gets close to its destination, a truck comes by and knocks it across the road unharmed. The moral here is that the turtle made it across, but if it had tried any less, if it had endured any less diligently, it might have been hit by the tire instead of just being brushed aside by it.
There is also the chapter about the ant lion trap, which is analogous to the fact that most farmers were scurrying around trying to acquire land and supplies to live but have to avoid being caught at the same time. Of course, not everyone can succeed, so Steinbeck inserts the story of the Joad’s dog being hit by a truck. Not everyone is going to be as lucky as the turtle in their efforts, and this lesson comes at a price to the Joads.
Each machine taking over where laborers once reigned is an event that pushes the level of adaptation to adversity for each family. “One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families.” With this statement from the novel, Steinbeck illustrates how machines add to the complexity of the situation. Not only are the machines primarily responsible for forcing the families to migrate, they also directly cause several deaths, requiring each character affected to dig into his/her capacity to suffer and endure. The machines also represent the widening inhumanity of the Depression years. “Tom sees the ‘No Riders’ sticker on the tractor as an example of how inhuman machinery has become” (McElderry Jr., 128). Ironically, when the Joad’s meet at the beginning of their journey, they must meet at the truck, which is seen as the only “real” thing left, since the house has been demolished. The truck was never meant to be of any real significance in the first place, for it is another machine.
As each event progresses, we see Steinbeck using animals and nature intertwined with these events to depict people and things, and to foreshadow things to come. One example of these descriptions is the reference to Muley Grave’s sex drive in his younger days, when “he describes his first experience as ‘snorting like a buck deer, randy as a billygoat” (McElderry Jr., 130). Then, when moths are circling the fire, they are referred to as being like farmers circling a town, looking for opportunity and waiting to enter.The animals are used even to foreshadow death, be it the Joad’s dog or Rose of Sharon’s baby, by the circling of buzzard’s overhead.
So the use of symbolic content goes. Although Steinbeck created this highly acclaimed world of symbolism, it is not without its faults, at least according to some interpretations. He goes to great lengths to convey life of the migrant farm workers of the 1930’s, in terms of universals and the more of the time, but unfortunately, some found his conclusions far too artificial. “Complete literalness in such matters doesn’t necessarily simulate life in literature” (Sillen, 4). The dispute here is whether or not Steinbeck is attempting to over-glorify the attempts of the migrants. Many Midwesterners did feel quite a bit of harshness enter their lives when trying to live through the Great Depression, but it is hard to say if the Joad’s had life as tough as most. However, Henry Moore states that the shining examples of good symbolism and truth in The Grapes of Wrath come in the interchapters, such as the turtle and the tractor tales. The problem, as he states it, is that “the contrapuntal chapters about the Joad family don’t always have the continuous strength to carry them” (Moore, 6). Basically, Dr Moore is saying that if Steinbeck really wanted to use symbolism in this story to explain the trials and tribulations of the migrants, he should have kept the story more realistic and down-to-earth in its approach of the topic.
Overall, however, The Grapes of Wrath did appeal to the midwestern migrants. Steinbeck managed to explain the significance of the many events of the Depression era through his use of symbolism. By using characters, nature and events as his vessels, Steinbeck keeps the reader interested while conveying his own thoughts and beliefs. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, while The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Looks like he was at least on the right track.
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