The Grapes of Wrath is a novel by John Steinbeck that exposes the desperate
conditions under which the migratory farming families of America during the 1930’s
lived, through a personal approach and heavy symbolism. The novel tells of one family’s
migration west to California through the great economic depression of the 1930’s. The
bank took possession of their land because the owners could not pay off their loan. The
novel shows how the Joad family deals with moving to California, and how they survive
the cruelty of the landowners that took advantage of them, their poverty, and willingness
The Grapes of Wrath combines Steinbecks adoration of the land, his passionate
hatred for corruption; resulting from materialism (money), and his abiding faith in the
common people to overcome the hostile environment. As it opens with a retaining
picture of nature on rampage, the novel shows the men and women that are unbroken by
nature. The theme is that of a man verses a hostile environment. His body may be
destroyed, but his spirit is not broken.
The method used to develop the theme of the novel is through the use of
symbolism. There are several uses of symbols in the novel from the turtle at the
beginning to the rain at the end. As each symbol is presented, examples of the good and
the bad things that exist within the novel are shown. The opening chapter paints a vivid
picture of the situation facing the drought-stricken farmers of Oklahoma. Dust is
described as covering everything, smothering the life out of anything that wants to grow.
The dust is symbolic of the erosion of the lives of the people. The dust is synonymous
with “deadness”, as Steinbeck puts it.. The land is a ruined way of life (farming), people
uprooted and forced to leave. Secondly, the dust stands for profiteering banks in the
background that squeeze the life out the land as the people are actually forced from their
land. The soil, or the people (farmers), have been drained of life and are exploited: The
last rain fell on the red and gray country of Oklahoma in early May. The weeds became
dark green to protect themselves from the sun’s unyielding rays. The wind grew
stronger, uprooting the weakened corn, and the air became so filled with dust that the
stars were not visible at night.
The book continues with a turtle, which appears and reappears several times
early on in the novel and which can be seen as standing for survival, a driving life force
in all of mankind that cannot be conquered by nature or man. The turtle represents a hope
that the trip to the west is survivable and accomplishable by the Joad family. The turtle
further represents the migrants struggles against both nature and man by overcoming all
obstacles he encounters: the red ant in his path, being captured in Tom Joad’s jacket, and
lastly, as a light truck approached nearer and nearer, the driver saw the turtle and swerved
to hit it. The driver of the truck works for a large company, who try to stop the migrants
from going west. As the driver attempts to hit the turtle, it is yet another example of the
large and powerful trying to extinguish or kill the small and weak. Steadily the turtle
advances on, ironically to the southwest, the direction of the migration of people. The
turtle is described as being lasting, ancient, old and wise: horny head, yellowed toenails,
indestructible high dome of a shell, humorous old eyes. The driver of the truck, red ant,
and Tom Joad’s jacket are all symbolic of nature and man trying to stop the turtle from
continuing his journey westward to the promise land.
The turtle helps to develop the theme by showing its struggle against life,
comparing it to the Joad struggle against man. The grapes seem to symbolize both
copiousness and bitterness. Grandpa, the oldest member of the Joad family, talks of the
grapes as symbols of plenty; all his descriptions of what he is going to do with the grapes
in California suggest contentment, freedom, the goal for which the Joad family strive for.
The grapes that are talked about by Grandpa help to elaborate the theme by showing that
no matter how nice everything seems in California, the truth is that their beauty is only
skin deep, in their souls they are rotten. The willow tree that is located on the Joad’s farm
represents the Joad family. The willow is described as being unmovable and never
bending to the wind or dust. The Joad family does not want to move, they prefer to stay
on the land they grew up on, much the same as the willow does. The willow contributes
to the theme by showing the unwillingness of the people to be removed from their land
by the banks. The latter represents the force making them leave their homes. Both of
these symbols help contribute to the theme by showing a struggle between each other.
The rains that come at the conclusion of the novel symbolize several things. Rain
in that it is excessive, in a certain way fulfills a cycle of the dust which is also excessive.
In a way nature has restored a balance and has initiated a new growth cycle. This ties in
with other examples of the rebirth idea in the ending, much in the way the Joad family
will grow again. The rain contributes to the theme by showing the cycle of nature that
gives a conclusion to the novel by showing that life is a pattern of birth and death. The
rain is another example of nature against man, the rain comes and floods the living
quarters of the Joads. In opposite ways rain can be helpful to give life to plants that need
it to live. Depending on which extreme the rain is in, it can be harmful or helpful. This is
true for man, man can become either extremes bad or good depending on his personal
Steinbeck wrote this book for one reason; to make the plight and difficulties of the
migrant workers known to all of America. He accomplished this by telling the story from
the viewpoint of a particular family, rather then the migrant workers as a whole.
Steinbeck showed what these people went through from their eviction from their home,
to their eventually self-destruction and failure as a family. Once the appropriate focus
on the Joad’s had been reached, it was then possible for Steinbeck to tie it all together by
bringing the entire situation into view. This was possible through the demonstration
of the workers establishing a common ground with each other. Once the strength of
the inner family had been established, a family of families could be constructed. It
showed just what the life of a migrant worker was all about, the establishing of a
common ground within one another.
The migrant workers were a group of people who were looking out for each other
and willing to work together, as survival during these periods proved tough and could not
be accomplished without teamwork. This is simply why the migrant workers found ways
to successfully govern themselves throughout their tent cities which is why they looked
to establish a common ground. Times were tough, and that constant harassment of police
organizations only worsened the situation. It was clearly evident that the Joad’s like any
of the migrant workers, were looking out for one other, and would do anything if one was
in need, and nothing exemplifies this ideal more then the closing scene of the novel.
Rose, surrounded by a family overshadowed by personal loss, lack of income and food,
and in a period of emotionally and mental death, gives life to a dying stranger regardless
of who he was, or where he came from. This is what true life to the migrant workers was
all about, and this is what they had demonstrated time and time again.
As each symbol is presented chronologically through the novel, they come
together at the end to paint a clear picture of the conditions, treatment and feelings the
Joads’ as they make there journey through the novel to the West. I would definitely
recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of our country or of the Great
Depression. It was quite a lengthy novel, but you could feel the story because Steinbeck
was writing about his own time period, not his ancestors nor his children, but something
he actually had lived through. The book stirs emotion from deep within. The powerfully
thick description allowed me to picture the book in my mind’s eye. Overall it was a novel,
worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won.
Cover Up – JFK
Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck, Robert Demott (Introduction).
Penguin USA; New York.
Reissued Edition (Oct. 1992).
Reviewed By: Kevin Kearney, 2001 April 22.
Reviewed For: Professor George Browne.