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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