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 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 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.
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.
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.