Where does the term used in the title of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath come from and what is its significance?
The title of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is an allusion to a phrase in the very open stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was sung by supporters of the Union during the American Civil War:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
The title was suggested to Steinbeck by his wife; he told his agent that he liked the suggestion because the original song was a march and the subject of his novel was a kind of march. He also said he liked the title because it helped place his book squarely in the American tradition. He hoped it might help protect the book from charges that its politics were un-American.
The title has been seen as relevant to Steinbeck’s novel for a number of different reasons, including the following:
- The title implies the struggle for freedom from oppression and injustice in American history. The novel can be read as depicting a later struggle for freedom from oppression and injustice.
- The title may imply that those guilty of oppression and injustice deserve to be punished and that perhaps eventually they will be punished. In this sense, the title can be read as an ominous warning.
- The title alludes not only to the “Battle Hymn” but also the Bible (specifically to Rev. 14:19). The title thus adds biblical weight to the book and may imply that oppressors and the unjust deserve punishment from God. The title is just one of many Biblical allusions in the novel.
- The title may function as a warning about eventual revolution if injustices are not remedied (see especially Chapter Nine).
- In the words of Richard Gray in his Brief History of American Literature,
As its title indicates, as well as its narrative drive, The Grapes of Wrath is an angry but also an optimistic book, [recalling] “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic” with its prophecy of truth marching to victory . . .