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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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What literary devices are used in John Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath?

Literary devices John Steinbeck employs in The Grapes of Wrath include hyperbole, which he uses when he calls the bank a "monster." When the owners tell the tenants that the bank "isn't men, but ... can make men do what it wants," he's using personification. As money seems to be the main cause of the Joad's troubles, we might also say that the power of banks and money is a motif.

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John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is full of literary devices. Before we get to some of them, let's make sure we know what a literary device is.

Think about what a device is. A phone could be a device, so could a computer or a tablet. What do we do on these devices? We receive and send out information, even if that information is just a smiley face emoji.

Literary devices, too, are a way to convey information. Less technically, literary devices are ways for an author to tell a story or articulate an idea in a captivating or compelling manner.

One big idea in Grapes of Wrath is the evil nature of the bank. Steinbeck employs an array of literary devices to let us know how harmful banks are.

One such device is hyperbole. What does Steinbeck call the bank? He calls it a "monster." Perhaps he could've used a more subtle world. Maybe he could've dispassionately articulated to us what made the bank a monster. Yet by using such a dramatic, intense, and hyperbolic term, it becomes sharply clear to us, the readers, that the bank is bad.

Likening the bank to a monster is also a form of personification. No, Steinbeck is not calling the bank a person proper. Yet he is assigning an inanimate, insentient entity—the bank—traits and characteristics of a living and breathing thing.

When the tenants tell the owners that they might get their guns, how do the owners reply? They say,

You'll be stealing if you try to stay, you'll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants.

Keep in mind, we're talking about a bank, not a person. Yet the way the owners refer to the bank, it's as if they're talking about a person—a powerful person, a tyrannical person, or a monster.

We might say "the monster" is a motif of The Grapes of Wrath. That's another literary device. A motif is a recurring message or theme. We might want to think about how "the monster," the bank, and the general need for money is the primary cause of the Joad family's woes.

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The list of literary devices used in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a long one, but here are just a few examples.

Literary devices are forms of figurative language, also known as figures of speech. They are not to be taken literally: these statements are descriptive in nature, making what is being discussed or described more vivid in the reader's mind.

For example, there is the simile. This literary device compares two dissimilar things as if they were the same. They are, in fact, not the same, but they do share similar characteristics, and "like" or "as" is used. "She's like the wind" compares "she" to "wind." It does not mean that when she is around trees, trashcans and power lines are knocked down, or that she can lift a kite in the air. More likely it means that she is a free spirit and cannot be contained or controlled, anymore than the wind. 

In this example from the novel, several devices are used:

The Bank--or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.

First, a simile is used. The "Bank" or "Company" is compared to a monster. The bank is not a living thing, but associated with it is monstrous behaviors. It personified: that is, it is given human characteristics of needing, wanting, insisting, and thinking (and being monstrous—inferring intelligence). (It is also capitalized, as a name would be.) This quote also uses metonymy, where the name given to some thing comes from things associated with it. The bank is not a living thing, but those who run the bank—management, stockholders, etc.—are referred to en total as the "Bank" or the "Company" rather than managers or owners, and it is not the building's behavior that is monstrous, but the actions of those associated with it.

Personification is used again here:

And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

A fact does not scream, and repression does not work or knit.

The next quote is ironic. The definition of irony varies: it can be the difference between what is said and what is meant, or it can be the difference between what you expect to happen and what really happens.

You're bound to get idears if you go thinkin' about stuff.

It is an ironic statement in that ideas can only come by thinking; it is, however, inferred that one might avoid getting "idears" if one avoids thinking about things.

Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration. In the following, thousan' is used to indicate the wealth of possible life outcomes. While people have choices regarding how they choose to live or work, a thousand is an exaggeration. 

Up ahead they's a thousan' lives we might live, but when it comes it'll on'y be one.

There may be dozens of opportunities—choices to define our lives— but here the use of thousan' does not refer to an exact number, but to the vast amount of hope there is for a different life. The opportunities may be wide-ranging, but in the end we can choose only one. This infers that the choice is an important one, for it may be the only one we get.

Finally, personification is used again here:

Death was a friend, and sleep was Death's brother.

Death is not a human being: it is a state of being. Therefore, it cannot have the human characteristics of being a friend—or a brother; neither can sleep be a brother.

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