Essays and Criticism
The Character of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath
On the surface, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the westward travels of an Oklahoma family turned off of their land. Beneath that surface, Steinbeck has captured all of the teeming, seething turmoil that spelled the life of the poor tenant farmer in the 1930’s, and he has brought it into a correlative position to the larger forces which govern our lives. It is the story of a family uprooted, who is forced to adapt to new standards and a new way of life while grasping tenuously onto their personal dignity. In turn we have a parable of the demise of the single for the rise of the many: the family is breaking up, and its importance and identification is being absorbed by the larger community, the “Okies.”
As he examines the social forces at work bringing change to both large and small groups, Steinbeck gives us the individual to serve as the monitor, or, perhaps, the example of these events: Tom Joad. For it is Tom’s growth which serves as a focal guideline to the growth of the mass; and Steinbeck, through Tom, allows the reader to understand the detail of the larger changes by making Tom the example through his own perceptions of his personal changes. “This growing awareness on the part of the people en masse is paralleled by the education and conversion of Tom and Casey.”(1)
The book begins with Tom as the solitary figure making his way down the road. He is alone. He is seeking to return to an environment which has been secure and in which his role has been primary – his family. He knows nothing of the changes that nature and economics have brought to his native countryside and is only concerned that he get there to reassume his position and find some personal comfort. His concerns are only his own, but they are not allowed to stay that way for long. With the arrival at his old home, the discovery of its destruction, the meeting of Casey and the intrusion of Muley Graves, a larger picture starts to impose itself on Tom, and his concerns grow larger in scope through the book. They grow first to his family, then to the small group (Joads and Wilsons), then to the small community (tent camps and government camps) and finally to the entire community (society and a universal one).
Peter Lisca writes that “At the beginning of the book, Tom’s attitude is individualistic. He is looking for himself. As he puts it, ‘I’m still laying my dogs down one at a time,’ and ‘I climb fences...
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Biblical Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath
The biblical symbolism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can be viewed as essentially messianic in nature. However, this is not to say that the message or point of the novel is in itself religious. Walter Fuller Taylor, in his commentary on the work, makes the relevant point that Jim Casy, a figure who is depicted in a very Christ-like manner by Steinbeck, actually denies any similarity between the Son of God and himself. Indeed, “the theology and ethic of Casy’s religion have little…to do withChristianity.”(1) All of life, as Casy conceives it, is unified in a holy transcendental soul whose capacity for goodness can be vitiated only by any act which has at its root individual selfishness: “But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella harnessed to the whole shebang – that’s right, that’s holy.”(2) The message of salvation that Casy brings and that Tom Joad carries forward is one of adaptation to the environment of the world. The constant reference is to an earthly salvation in which man can survive happily; the codes of behavior are natural actions. Steinbeck has none of his characters aspire to a higher spiritual plane. The hierarchy of values, as he dramatizes it, has been aptly cited as the need and dependency which man evidences in respect to the “primal elements (water, sun, fire, land) . . . sex, womanhood, family life, death, mutualism of spirit. . . .”(3) In short, the messianic word is an emphatic reminder of the individual’s place in the scheme of humanity. The only sin is failure to recognize such a relationship. As such, this message is not in the tradition of the Messiah.
Earlier, the biblical symbolism was described as related to the concept of a savior. This is because those references not conspicuously involving Casy and Tom as either Moses or Jesus do relate significantly to a race of people wandering in search of salvation in one form or another. The mythic image of the journey that Steinbeck sustains throughout the novel suggests that of the Hebrews who fled to Canaan to escape the oppression in Egypt. Very specific parallels have been noted: the drought and barren soil relate to the Egyptian plagues; the corporations which invaded Oklahoma and the banks which took over the farms have biblical reflections in Pharaoh and the Egyptian tormentors; California, the destined land of hope and opportunity can be likened to Canaan,...
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The Relevance of The Grapes of Wrath Today
The Grapes of Wrath is arguably John Steinbeck’s finest novel and the summation of his California experience. His first two novels received little attention from the critics or the public. His third, Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel set in his native Monterey, found a national audience. He followed this success with In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937), novels that explore the conditions suffered by migrant workers in California. These conditions were made worse by the massive influx of Midwesterners who had fled the drought and the economic depression of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) recounts the plight of the underclass in the story of the Joads, a family from Oklahoma, who lose their farm and travel to California, the land of milk and honey, only to find their hopes and expectations dashed. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
The Grapes of Wrath traces the decline of the family and the rise of the community as the basic unit of social structure in the United States. What precipitated this evolution is a social and economic situation that no longer allowed family farms to provide enough income for a family to survive. With the industrial revolution and the development of tractors, family farms were giving way to factory farming. One of the difficulties Steinbeck...
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The Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Its Place in the Curriculum
Steinbeck’s success in creating a potent or powerful novel may be seen in the characters of the novel, in the complete structure of the novel, in the use of symbols especially the contrast of the animal with the mechanical aspects of life, in the powerful and varying prose styles of the novel and finally in a set of themes that reflect traditional American values. Moreover, in several of these aspects of the novel, Steinbeck drew on Biblical and religious materials that add to the richness and depth of the book.
The novel’s ability to catch and keep the reader’s interest owes much to its characters, whom Steinbeck has endowed with vitality and thematic significance. Many readers have seen embodiments of basic Christian virtues in such characters as Ma Joad, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, and Rose of Sharon. Tom Joad’s growth in insight illustrates one of the important themes in the novel. Whether Tom or Jim Casy best illustrates a Christ figure depends on the reader’s interpretation of the novel; each character has seemed to some readers to be illustrative of Christ’s self-sacrificial life.
The structure of the novel is based on the Joads’ journey westward. The journey gives the novel a mythical quality and achieves emotional power by relating the Joads’ journey to that of many previous journeys, including the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt to the promised land as well as westward journeys of the American Western myth. The...
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The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study
[In The Grapes of Wrath, function], not mere design, is . . . evident in the use of characterization to support and develop a conflict of opposed ideas—mainly a struggle between law and anarchy. The one idea postulates justice in a moral world of love and work, identified in the past with “the people” and in the present with the government camp and finally with the union movement, since these are the modern, institutional forms the group may take. The opposed idea postulates injustice in an immoral world of hatred and starvation. It is associated with buccaneering capitalism, which, in violent form, includes strikebreaking and related practices that cheapen human labor.
The Joads present special difficulties in characterization. They must be individualized to be credible and universalized to carry out their representative functions. Steinbeck meets these problems by making each of the Joads a specific individual and by specifying that what happens to the Joads is typical of the times. The means he uses to maintain these identities can be shown in some detail. The least important Joads are given highly specific tags—Grandma’s religion, Grandpa’s vigor, Uncle John’s melancholy, and Al’s love of cars and girls. The tags are involved in events; they are not inert labels. Grandma’s burial violates her religion; Grandpa’s vigor ends when he leaves the land; Uncle John’s melancholy balances the family’s experience; Al helps to...
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