The Grapes Of Wrath Symbolic Characters Essay

The Grapes Of Wrath: Symbolic Characters Essay, Research Paper

The Grapes of Wrath: Symbolic Characters

Struggling through such things as the depression, the Dust Bowl summers,

and trying to provide for their own families, which included finding somewhere

to travel to where life would be safe. Such is the story of the Joads. The

Joads were the main family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a book which

was written in order to show what a family was going through, at this time

period, and how they were trying to better their lives at the same time. It

wouldn’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 of

trying to gain some respect for the migrants. Regardless of the critical

opinions, John Steinbeck utilized symbolism as a forum to convey the hardships

and attitudes of the citizens of America during the 1930’s in his book The

Grapes of Wrath.

The first aspect of the novel that must be looked at when viewing the

symbolic nature is that of the characters created by Steinbeck and how even the

smallest facets of their person lead to a much larger meaning. The first goal

that Steinbeck had in mind, was to appeal to the common Midwesterner at that

time. The best way to go about doing this was to focus on one of the two things

that 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 that

of 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 the

Israelites were successful, the Joads never really found what they could

consider to be a promised land. They were never lucky enough to really satisfy

their dreams of living a comfortable life. But, they were still able to improve

on their situation.

Another symbolic character that was undoubtedly more religious than

anyone else taking the journey was Jim Casy. He was a preacher that was picked

up along the way by the Joads. Steinbeck manages to squeeze in a lot about this

character, and a lot of the background he creates about Mr. Casy shows just how

much of a biblical man he really is supposed to be. So much so, that Steinbeck

uses Jim Casy to symbolize Christ. Oddly enough, his initials were not only the

same as Jesus Christ, but much of his life is similar to the biblical accounts

of Christ. Not only did he also begin his long trek after a stay 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. His death, another aspect

comparable to that of Christ, also occurred in the middle of a stream, which

could 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 to

the statement by Jesus to God when He is being crucified and asks his Father to

forgive them, for they knew not what they were doing. In this novel, even the

title 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 more

Christian symbolism is seen. Tom Joad is almost a direct fit for the story of

the “prodigal son” from the bible. He is the son that must lead everyone across

in a great journey, while symbolically already wandering from the favor of God

by killing a man 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.

Rose of Sharon, the daughter of the family, also has a very religious

connotation; her religious meaning is not so much symbolic of a specific person

or event in the bible, but more of an example of Christian values. The great

hardship in her life was the fact that the child she was pregnant with the whole

story, and the one that kept her from doing work necessary to everyone’s

survival, was stillborn. Now, after going through all this, she had to face the

reality of living without her child and the reality of her husband walking out

on 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 she

had lost her own child, she must now take another, and the fact that Steinbeck

has her say “Thine will be done” is because she knows that it is in fact God’s

will that she is serving, and that is much more important than any problem she


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 positive

characterization of a woman” (Gladstein, 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 example of a

woman who refuses to back down, no matter what the obstacles at hand. Some of

the obstacles included Grandma’s death, the desertion of Noah, the leaving

behind of the Wilsons 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 uses al of her strength and willpower to help

deal with these tragedies. One of the biggest examples of her undying strength

and love is the way she help Rose of Sharon deal with her pregnancy and the loss

of her baby. She helps keep the family together, and if that meant giving every

ounce of spirit and energy that she had, she’d do it because of the love she had

for her family. Steinbeck creates her as that indestructible woman because he

wants to convince the migrants of the 1930’s to follow in the footsteps of Ma

Joad, and ultimately, mirror the journey of the entire Joad family. Warren

French 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 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, 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 completed… What happens to them now depends upon the ability of the rest of

society to learn the same lesson they have already learned.” (93-94)

Rose of Sharon is another woman who shows indestructibility. She also

has 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. “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” (Gladstein, 122).

In the novel Steinbeck writes about she tries how because of the way she tried

so hard to help, that she was constantly vomiting, just to keep up with regular

chores, yet her spirit remained 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 of Sharon looked at the old

man who needed her milk and just smiled. “This is my body, says Rosasharn, and<br...

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