Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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To what extent are character names in The Grapes of Wrath symbolic?

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The character Rose of Sharon has the most obvious symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath. The name of Tom Joad's sister Rose of Sharon is a reference to the Song of Song in the Hebrew Bible, which describes one of King Solomon's wives (or a lover) as a flower within the field. Steinbeck's character was no king's lover but an abandoned, pregnant wife facing a pretty grim future. Even her name is slurred as "Rosasharn."

"Rosasharn" gives birth to a stillborn but doesn't waste her milk—she uses it to revive a man literally starving to death. And interestingly, the flower Rose of Sharon, actually a hibiscus, is drunk as a tea throughout the world and renowned for delivering a punch of Vitamin C—essential against rickets.

Tom Joad, the book's unlikely hero (at the start of the book, he's heading home after a stint in prison) has one of the most common male names in the US. He's someone with whom a lot of young men could identify during the Depression as he struggles to survive in the Dust Bowl.

Tom isn't even his own name, really—we learn that Pa's first name is Tom, too. The two Toms have opposite characters: Pa has mentally collapsed after a lifetime of poverty and extraordinarily hard work. His son Tom relies more on his growing intellect and sense of responsibility. Along with Ma Joad (whose first name we never learn), he's doing his best to keep the family together under terrible circumstances. Pa stays in the background.

I wonder if the two Toms were so named to reflect the two sides of St. Thomas. Known as "doubting Thomas" for not initially believing Jesus's resurrection, he was later instrumental in spreading Christianity to India and other parts of Asia. He transformed from a doubter to a man of extreme faith (he was martyred). Tom Joad isn't religious but he's no self-doubter either, like his father.

Why didn't Ma warrant a name? Well, she's a woman and even if she's the reason the family stayed together before Tom the younger rejoined them, she's not going to get credit. It's worth noting that Jesus first showed himself to his female followers, who were initially put off by Thomas and the other apostles (all male of course...). I don't think Steinbeck intended to downplay Ma at all but made her a little mysterious, as Mary Magdalene has been for almost 2000 years. Just my two cents worth.

Like many intellectuals, Steinbeck was well-trained in religious dogma as a child but put it aside later in life. Clearly, he found Biblical references and imagery (such as Rose of Sharon!) useful if not ironic for his own works.

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Authors frequently use characters’ names as symbols (symbols, or symbolism, in literature means of conveying ideas and qualities). Here are a few of Steinbeck’s symbolic character names in The Grapes of Wrath.

The Joads

The family name is symbolic in at least two ways. First, it recalls the biblical story of Job, the man who endures a variety of horrors and lives on. It also is one letter removed from “road,” which can mean either the literal road, in this case, Route 66, the highway that runs from Oklahoma to California, and it may also mean the metaphorical road the family must take on their mental journey to accept a new way of life.

Muley Graves

Muley Graves is the only person left near Tom Joad’s old home when Tom returns from prison (accompanied by Jim Casy). While everyone else has decided to move on, Muley, like a mule, an animal renowned for its stubbornness, remains. His last name, “Graves,” suggests that his refusal to change will be a death sentence. Here are two excerpts from Chapter 6, in which Muley responds to Casy’s question about what has happened.


“Them dirty sons-a-bitches. I’m tellin’ ya, men, I’m stayin’. They ain’t gettin’ rid a me. If they throw me off, I’ll come back, an’ if they figgur I’ll be quiet underground, why, I’ll take a couple-three sons-a-bitches along for company. . . “I ain’t a-goin’. My pa come here fifty years ago. An’ I ain’t a-goin’.”


“I’ve been walkin’ around like an ol’ graveyard ghos’.”

Muley says this four times in his conversation with Casy and Tom.

Finally, Muley’s own name indicates he will be the last of the line. Mules are typically unable to reproduce.

Jim Casy

The preacher’s initials, “J.C.” could be symbolic of Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Casy “preaches” love, tolerance, and acceptance. Casy, too, ends up sacrificing his life for those he loves.

When Casy is murdered in Chapter 26, his cries echo those of Christ who asks that those responsible for his death be forgiven (“Forgive them, Father. They know now what they do.” Luke 23:34):

Casy stared blindly at the light. He breathed heavily. "Listen," he said. "You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids. . . . Casy went on, "You don' know what you're a-doin'."


Noah is Tom’s enigmatic younger brother. Slow-witted, Noah never seems to truly be a part of the family’s decision to depart. After a brief time on the road, Noah wanders off down by the river, reminiscent of the biblical Noah who also leaves his homeland via water to face an uncertain future.

Connie Rivers

Rose of Sharon’s husband’s name belies the fact that he will not be the stable force that his young wife expects him to be. His first name “Connie,” conveys the sense of being “conned” or tricked. Connie may not be intentionally conning his bride and her family; he is, however, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of being a husband and soon-to-be father, leaving his home, and not having any clear means of financial support for himself or anyone else. He and Rose of Sharon imagine a good life together, but every conversation has a feeling of children “playing house” rather than a realistic vision of their future.

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon’s odd name has its origins in the Bible. In the Song of Solomon 2:1, Rose of Sharon is identified as the wife of Solomon who refers to herself as the “Rose of Sharon.” The name “Sharon” is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to level places or plains. In The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon will be the hope of her people; she alone will bring their past to their future. Although her unborn child is stillborn, she has the ability to nurture and the hope is that she will be fruitful again. The enigmatic smile as she offers her breast milk to the starving man is a vivid illustration of her strength and power:

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said.

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