The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

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racmonti eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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...

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egood86 | Student

In Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, each character’s name is highly symbolic. Indeed, the title itself represents the growing anger within the souls of oppressed migrants, which gets to the heart of what the novel is all about.

This symbolism includes many Biblical allusions, with the family’s last name, Joad, as one example. Joad is quite similar to Job, and the Book of Job is about God’s faithful and humble servant, Job, whose faith is constantly tested and who endures many struggles in his lifetime, just as the Joad family does. Noah Joad reminds readers, of course, of the Biblical Noah, another loyal follower of God who builds an ark to protect his family from the coming apocalyptic flood. When the Joad family, upon reaching California, stops to camp by the Colorado River, Noah chooses to stay behind, claiming he is irrevocably drawn to the water: "It ain't no use. I was in that there water. An' I ain't a-gonna leave her” (18.116).

Jim Casy is believed by most literary critics and other scholars to be a Christ figure. The most obvious indicators are the shared initials between the two of them and Jim’s, a former preacher, deeply religious nature. Jim is a noble, self-sacrificing character who, in a Christ-like manner, goes to jail in the place of his friend Tom Joad, and later emerges as a leader of the mistreated and abused migrant workers.

The Joads encounter Ivy and Sairy Wilson in their journey, and the families decide to join forces for strength in numbers in confronting the challenges ahead. Ivy, an evergreen plant, represents eternity, fidelity, and strong affectionate attachment—this certainly sums up the strength of the Joad family as they rely on each other and the bonds of family to endure.

At one point in the novel, Ma Joad says to Tom, “Why, Tom—us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on” (20.359). This underscores the powerful religious themes that play out throughout the novel, epitomizing the resilience and faith of the downtrodden, a people that Christ himself was known for championing.