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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The Character of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

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On the surface, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the westward travels of an Oklahoma family turned off of their land. Beneath that surface, Steinbeck has captured all of the teeming, seething turmoil that spelled the life of the poor tenant farmer in the 1930’s, and he has brought it into a correlative position to the larger forces which govern our lives. It is the story of a family uprooted, who is forced to adapt to new standards and a new way of life while grasping tenuously onto their personal dignity. In turn we have a parable of the demise of the single for the rise of the many: the family is breaking up, and its importance and identification is being absorbed by the larger community, the “Okies.”

As he examines the social forces at work bringing change to both large and small groups, Steinbeck gives us the individual to serve as the monitor, or, perhaps, the example of these events: Tom Joad. For it is Tom’s growth which serves as a focal guideline to the growth of the mass; and Steinbeck, through Tom, allows the reader to understand the detail of the larger changes by making Tom the example through his own perceptions of his personal changes. “This growing awareness on the part of the people en masse is paralleled by the education and conversion of Tom and Casey.”(1)

The book begins with Tom as the solitary figure making his way down the road. He is alone. He is seeking to return to an environment which has been secure and in which his role has been primary – his family. He knows nothing of the changes that nature and economics have brought to his native countryside and is only concerned that he get there to reassume his position and find some personal comfort. His concerns are only his own, but they are not allowed to stay that way for long. With the arrival at his old home, the discovery of its destruction, the meeting of Casey and the intrusion of Muley Graves, a larger picture starts to impose itself on Tom, and his concerns grow larger in scope through the book. They grow first to his family, then to the small group (Joads and Wilsons), then to the small community (tent camps and government camps) and finally to the entire community (society and a universal one).

Peter Lisca writes that “At the beginning of the book, Tom’s attitude is individualistic. He is looking for himself. As he puts it, ‘I’m still laying my dogs down one at a time,’ and ‘I climb fences when I got fences to climb.’”(2) He comes home a hero, returning from a strange and exotic world, prison. He is seeking to find his old niche but times have changed, and he is immediately thrust into a leadership role by which he must help the family move out. Tom is caught between generations: he is the only one of the Joad children who is both old enough to assume responsibility and young enough to adapt to the new life ahead. Put into this position, he begins his personal growth.

With his little brother, Al, Tom relates to the machines newly found a necessity. They fix the truck and the Wilson’s car and keep them running because, as Griffin and Freedman point out, “The young people are more in tune with the machines of their times, whereas the older ones are not prepared to accommodate to the exigencies of the industrial economy.”(3) Or, as Tom says to Casey, “Got to grow into her when you’re a little kid. . . . It ain’t jus’ knowin’. It’s more’n that. Kids now can tear down a car ‘thout even thinkin’ about it.”

But, being the right age is not the sole factor which puts Tom into a leader role. As we see in two incidents involving strangers, Tom is a person of acute perception and understanding of others. Given the repeated and somewhat desperate questions of a gas station owner they meet along the road, Tom cuts right to the heart of the man’s situation telling him he’ll soon be on his own journey, to which the man can only reply, “How’d you know?” And, again, at the junk yard where Tom and Al go to get parts for the car, they are met by a one-eyed attendant filled with hatred and self-remorse. But Tom sees right through his act and strongly belittles him for not putting a patch over his bad eye and going out to meet the world instead of complaining and sitting in his room feeling sorry for himself.

Tom is also manually able. He can fix the car, drive the truck, pick cotton, fight and skin a rabbit. The ability to perceive the situation, coupled with the manual skill to deal with what must be dealt with, allows Tom to be the key to survival. “The commonplace details of indigent life magnify in their importance because of their consequences.”(4) Tom has the ability to deal with these details both psychologically and physically.

The family leaves home in search of a new life. The road they travel is crowded with thousands of others just like them; and so, inevitably, they are then to become part of different larger communities. The first encounter is with the Wilsons, and it is more an exchange of services than anything else, with the Wilsons providing a place for Grandpa to die and a winding sheet for him, while the Joads provide mechanical know-how. It is in this context that Tom gets his first experience at a group situation, but also gets his first set-back when Ma rejects his plan to have the group split up when the Wilson’s car breaks down. This set-back is at once a character builder for Tom and the first indication of the impending changes for the family as evidenced by Ma’s unusual take-over. At their first tent camp in California, the Joads get their first solid group identification through being branded as Okies by the hired vigilantes and by being thrown out along with the others as their camp is burned.

But it is in the context of the government camp that the first true sense of something larger than “I” begins to emerge. Tom shares breakfast with a family, and they tell him of some work. “In their willingness to share even their work with Tom, they demonstrate the . . . reflexive turning from ‘I’ to ‘We’. . . .”(5) Here also Tom first encounters real democracy and something approximating individual worth in a larger context. The workings of the camp, being a place run by its residents, serve to introduce Tom to the new idea that everyone can work for the greater good and that everyone can affirm his own personal worth through interaction with others.

Forced to end their stay at the government camp in order to find work, the Joads find themselves being used as strike breakers at a peach orchard. When he attempts to discover what the strike is about, Tom encounters Casey who was headed for jail the last time they saw each other. Here Casey further adds to Tom’s growth by explaining the strike and how the strike breakers were dividing their own people against their own cause. “Well-” he says, “tell the folks in there how it is, Tom. Tell ‘em their starvin’ us an’ stabbin’ theirself in the back.” They talk of conditions in the government camp where the deputies are not allowed, and Casey cries, “Cops cause more trouble than they stop.” Witness soon after that to Casey’s murder, Tom is forced into exile because of a tell-tale swelling of his face which marks him as the man who retaliated against Casey’s killer.

Hiding in a dark womb-like cave, Tom now has time to meditate on all he has experienced and all Casey has said to him. “Tom is the first Joad to extend his vision. . . . Tom has to leave the family to protect them, but now he also has a more important reason. He has seen the folly of a narrow family devotion . . . and plans to work for a cause transcending family lines.”(6) He will do “What Casey done.” So Tom’s personal expansion reaches a climax. Steinbeck does not go on with Tom after that, but leaves his readers to find their own comprehension of what he will find in a new and larger world.

So it is Tom’s development which parallels the larger social phenonmenon to which Steinbeck is alluding, and by doing so it is his development which is the guide for our understanding of what is happening. “. . . as the family grows weaker, the communal unit of united workers, which came to birth in the roadside camps on the westward trek, grows stronger, and this upward movement is accompanied by the growth of Casey and Tom Joad in inderstanding the forces at work.”(7)

“Everything you do is more’n you,” Ma says to Tom and so indicates how far he has come. In the end she knows that he has to go, for she understands something of the death of the family, and she knows Tom has learned a lot. In conclusion, then, we can see how Tom has gone through the change of being his own man and a non-understanding victim of societal forces to being a man aware of those forces which are working on him and one who is seeking a universality. Pascal Covici writes that “Tom Joad’s journey toward social maturity climaxed by Tom’s rebirth as the successor to Preacher Casey grips the imagination of most readers. Tom, becoming a man, transcends the simple practicality of his father and sees, as Casey saw, the large implications of corporate ownerships as it cancels out considerations of human need and human feeling. Even more to our contemporary point may be Casey’s sense – to which Tom also comes – of mankind as ‘one big soul’. . . .”(8)

Or, as Tom puts it: “Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casey knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.” He has realized his relation to other men and his responsibility to them, and he intends to act upon them; he has gone from a directionless life of accepting things as they come to a feeling of action and purpose.

Walter Fuller Taylor puts it this way: “In much of Steinbeck’s story, Tom Joad is just the individual man Tom Joad; toward the close he becomes an embodiment – a self-conscious, highly articulate embodiment – of the workingman’s resistance to injustice everywhere.”(9)

All notes are taken from The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, edited by Peter Lisca, published by Viking Press, New York, 1972, as part of the “Viking Critical Library Series.” Page numbers refer to that volume.

1. Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction,” p. 744.

2. Peter Lisca, p. 744.

3. Robert J. Griffin and William A. Freedman, “Machines and Animals: Pervasive Motifs in The Grapes of Wrath, p. 781.

4. John R. Reed, “The Grapes of Wrath and the Esthetics of Indigence,” p. 833.

5. Pascal Covici, Jr., “Work and Timeliness of The Grapes of Wrath,” p. 822.

6. J. P. Hunter, “Steinbeck’s Wine of Affirmation in The Grapes of Wrath,” p. 810.

7. Joseph Fontenrose, “The Grapes of Wrath,” p. 784.

8. Pascal Covici, Jr., p. 815.

9. Walter Fuller Taylor, “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered,” p. 758.

Biblical Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath

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The biblical symbolism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can be viewed as essentially messianic in nature. However, this is not to say that the message or point of the novel is in itself religious. Walter Fuller Taylor, in his commentary on the work, makes the relevant point that Jim Casy, a figure who is depicted in a very Christ-like manner by Steinbeck, actually denies any similarity between the Son of God and himself. Indeed, “the theology and ethic of Casy’s religion have little…to do withChristianity.”(1) All of life, as Casy conceives it, is unified in a holy transcendental soul whose capacity for goodness can be vitiated only by any act which has at its root individual selfishness: “But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella harnessed to the whole shebang – that’s right, that’s holy.”(2) The message of salvation that Casy brings and that Tom Joad carries forward is one of adaptation to the environment of the world. The constant reference is to an earthly salvation in which man can survive happily; the codes of behavior are natural actions. Steinbeck has none of his characters aspire to a higher spiritual plane. The hierarchy of values, as he dramatizes it, has been aptly cited as the need and dependency which man evidences in respect to the “primal elements (water, sun, fire, land) . . . sex, womanhood, family life, death, mutualism of spirit. . . .”(3) In short, the messianic word is an emphatic reminder of the individual’s place in the scheme of humanity. The only sin is failure to recognize such a relationship. As such, this message is not in the tradition of the Messiah.

Earlier, the biblical symbolism was described as related to the concept of a savior. This is because those references not conspicuously involving Casy and Tom as either Moses or Jesus do relate significantly to a race of people wandering in search of salvation in one form or another. The mythic image of the journey that Steinbeck sustains throughout the novel suggests that of the Hebrews who fled to Canaan to escape the oppression in Egypt. Very specific parallels have been noted: the drought and barren soil relate to the Egyptian plagues; the corporations which invaded Oklahoma and the banks which took over the farms have biblical reflections in Pharaoh and the Egyptian tormentors; California, the destined land of hope and opportunity can be likened to Canaan, while the people of Hooverville find appropriate ancestors in the inhospitable Canaanites.(4)

The biblical parallels continue throughout the text of the novel. Perhaps, most significantly, these references work as actions. Ma Joad constantly refers to her family and traveling companions in a phrase borrowed from the Book of Psalms: “For He is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”(5) This identification is given valid dimension when Uncle John places Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child in an apple box and sends it as a message to their oppressors: “And then he leaned over and set the box in the stream and steadied it with his hand. He said fiercely, ‘Go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way. That’s the way you can talk. . . . Maybe they’ll know then.’”(6) The image of Moses, placed as an infant in a basket, is inescapable. Also, notable is the messianic tone of the parallel. The dead child will beget condemnation upon those who closed their hearts to the wanderers in much the same manner as the words and commandments of the Lord were to be made known to his people by Moses, thereby effecting either salvation or condemnation.

The foregoing illustration calls attention to a rather important point. The presence of the biblical references themselves in no way, as it were, baptize Steinbeck’s novel. Indeed, they are instrumental in turning the scope of the narrative to a seemingly broader spectrum, but only when they suggest prefigured actions can be thought to be anything more than decorative. This is due to the fact that the basic ideas that constitute the dynamic interplay between characters are not as releavant to the traditions of Judaism or Christianity as the mere presence of biblical images might suggest. “Many critics have found in Steinbeck’s work an element of the mystical, the mysterious, or the religious. But as Steinbeck’s search for spiritual values looks inside human experience, nature and the life process, it is theleological only in the scientific (not the metaphysical) sense of the term.”(7) This is not to argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a failed symbolic attempt. It is, on the contrary, a most interesting adaptation of far reaching terminology to suggest dimension and scope. There is nothing in the text which indicates that a new theology or moral ethic is to be developed. Steinbeck goes just as far with his symbols from the bible as his characters go with the lessons and messages they have learned from that book. Indeed, in the passages in which references are made to the Leviathan of scripture and the monster devouring the once fruitful land of Oklahoma, Steinbeck is picturing in the most vivid terms possible the nature of the struggle the Joads must endure. They must match their humanity against the cold mechanistic society of corporations and banks at home and depersonalized robots in California. The terrifying monster of scripture is a most fitting evocation of exactly the kind of battle the Joads must wage.(8)

The culminating movement of the novel is hardly of tremendous spiritual depth. It does represent a triumph of heart over mind, however. J. P. Hunter has not ineffectively termed it a movement from I to we.(9) When Rose of Sharon gives nourishment to the dying stranger, she epitomizes the successful journey of the Joads. “In their hesitancy and confusion in the old times, the Joads had been powerless to change their fate. Unlike the turtle who dragged through the dust and planted the seeds of the future, they had drawn figures in the dust impotently with sticks.”(10) As a result of Rose of Sharon’s act, the Joads become vitalizing principles, spreading and sustaining life around them.

Steinbeck’s incorporation of biblical symbols is, it seems, purposely erratic. We could not select an overriding image and use it constantly without risking its abandonment at the conclusion of the narrative because his point is not to be made by a symbol but, rather, by the gradual evolvement of a consciousness of good acts and their necessary place in the scheme of human relationships. The essence of the conversion that occurs can be found in the conflict between the Joads and the Leviathan. Growth, industrialization and increased economic productivity characterize the forces that almost destroy Tom and his family. But, at the same time, these are the forces that stood for the development and enrichment, so it was thought, of the American dream. The image of the self-reliant man making his own way stands in sharp contrast to the victims of greed and selfishness depicted in the pages of The Grapes of Wrath. Death is the consequence of such independence of spirit;(11) the natural mode of existence on the farm, having been mechanistically devoured, must find a rebirth in the lives of those who once maintained an intimate conduct with the life of the world through the things in the world. At the conclusion of the novel, people are all that remain. Rose of Sharon’s action is the augmentation of a new intimacy with the life of the world.(12)

1. Walter Fuller Taylor, “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered,” in John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath, Peter Lisca, ed., (New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1972), p. 759.

2. The Grapes of Wrath, p. 110.

3. Eric Carlson, “Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath,” in The Grapes of Wrath, p. 755.

4. Joseph Fontenrose, “The Grapes of Wrath,” in The Grapes of Wrath, p. 790.

5. Psalm XCV, 7, as quoted in Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction,” in The Grapes of Wrath, p. 739.

6. The Grapes of Wrath, p. 609.

7. Eric Carlson, p. 755.

8. John R. Reed, “The Grapes of Wrath and the Esthetics of Indigence,” The Grapes of Wrath, p. 828.

9. J. P. Hunter, “Steinbeck’s Wine of Affirmation in The Grapes of Wrath,” The Grapes of Wrath, p. 809.

10. J. P. Hunter, p. 812.

11. Frederic I. Carpenter, “The Philosophical Joads,” in The Grapes of Wrath, p. 716.

12. Frederic I. Carpenter, p. 719.

The Relevance of The Grapes of Wrath Today

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The Grapes of Wrath is arguably John Steinbeck’s finest novel and the summation of his California experience. His first two novels received little attention from the critics or the public. His third, Tortilla Flat (1935), a novel set in his native Monterey, found a national audience. He followed this success with In Dubious Battle (1936) and Of Mice and Men (1937), novels that explore the conditions suffered by migrant workers in California. These conditions were made worse by the massive influx of Midwesterners who had fled the drought and the economic depression of the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) recounts the plight of the underclass in the story of the Joads, a family from Oklahoma, who lose their farm and travel to California, the land of milk and honey, only to find their hopes and expectations dashed. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath traces the decline of the family and the rise of the community as the basic unit of social structure in the United States. What precipitated this evolution is a social and economic situation that no longer allowed family farms to provide enough income for a family to survive. With the industrial revolution and the development of tractors, family farms were giving way to factory farming. One of the difficulties Steinbeck faced was how to demonstrate the shared plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples without lapsing into abstractions. On the other hand, were he to tell the story of one person or one family, he would risk obscuring the universal nature of their distress. Steinbeck resolved this problem in several ways. By writing his narrative in the third person and diffusing attention across several characters, he prevents readers from sympathizing too closely with any one individual. To support his universal thesis, Steinbeck intersperses chapters within the Joads’ story that move the narrative away from the Joads in order to discuss Judeo-Christian and American sociopolitical traditions that relate to the novel’s themes.

Of the novel’s thirty chapters, only fourteen tell the story of the Joads. The other sixteen chapters offer thematic or symbolic counterpoints to the story of the Joads. An early chapter, for example, follows a turtle’s indomitable progress over the land and across a highway, where it is struck by a passing vehicle. Subsequently, the seeds caught on the turtle’s shell are inadvertently planted as they are plowed into the soil. The turtle serves as a symbol for the Okies, their movement, and their indomitable will, which tie their destiny to the land.

Other chapters, from descriptions of apocalyptic dust and floods, to the presentation of used-car salesmen, the selling of household items, and the flight of 200,000 migrants over Route 66, expand the focus beyond the particular plight of the Joads. Steinbeck augments this movement from the particular to the universal by employing a diversity of narrative styles, thereby giving voice to a nation in transition. For example, in one chapter he uses the cadences of a used-car salesman trying to fast-talk his customers. In other chapters, he employs the diction, phrasing, and sentence structures of the Bible, of the poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, and of the colloquial speech patterns of the Okies. Still other chapters follow the conventions of journalism and documentaries.

The novel is divided loosely into thirds, according to the setting of the action. In Oklahoma, the Joads ready themselves for their journey; across Route 66, they flee the Dust Bowl for the promised land; and, in California, they attempt to make a new life for themselves. This division supports a pointed analogy to the Old Testament exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt to Canaan. The Dust Bowl’s drought and the banks’ persecutions parallel Egypt’s plagues and the Pharaoh’s oppressions. The journey undertaken by hundreds of thousands of displaced Midwesterners is similar to that of the Hebrews. California is the land of milk and honey, but its citizens are less than welcoming to the migrants. Similarly, Canaan, the promised land of the Old Testament, resisted the influx of Hebrews. More specific parallels follow from the analogy. For example, the family name of Joad invokes Judah; the slaughtering of pigs just before the Joads depart is similar to the sacrifice of lambs; and the grandparents die on the journey, just as do the elders during the exodus. These and other references to the Old Testament help Steinbeck universalize the Joads, though not without cost. Some critics have found that by the end of the novel, Ma, Tom, Rose of Sharon, and the other characters serve little more than an allegorical or symbolic function. They, therefore, seem to lose some of their human appeal.

The novel also has its parallels to the New Testament in its language, imagery, and the values it conveys. Jim Casy’s teachings and his self-sacrifice evoke Jesus Christ’s teachings and his sacrifice. From this perspective, parallels emerge between the twelve Joads and the twelve apostles. Connie, for example, is a Judas figure who leaves the family for an alleged three dollars a day. As strong as these references to the Judeo-Christian tradition are, however, The Grapes of Wrath is not an exercise in piety. Steinbeck strikes a decidedly anti-religious tone early in the novel, where Casy explains why he has given up his ministry. Moreover, the evangelists who preach sin and damnation in the camps are treated with scorn.

A second major strain of social and political thought comes from nineteenth- and early twentieth- century America. Casy recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson and his theory of the transcendental oversoul when he says that everyone “jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul,” an idea that is later picked up by Tom. But Emerson’s emphasis on individualism falls by the wayside in Steinbeck’s novel. When he shares his string of rabbits with Tom and Casy, Muley Graves gives an early nod to the novel’s communal undertones: “I ain’t got no choice in the matter,” he says, “if a fella’s got somepin to eat an’ another fella’s hungry— why, the first fella ain’t got no choice.” From the Wilsons’ sharing of their resources with the Joads on the road, to the final scene—Rose of Sharon’s giving her breast milk to a starving man—the novel displays the importance of a mass democracy.

Ma recognizes that the power of the people is in their community. She worries Tom will do something foolish after learning that the banks have foreclosed on farms throughout Oklahoma: “Tommy, don’t you go fightin’ ’em alone. They’ll hunt you down like a coyote. Tommy, I got to thinkin’ an’ dreamin’ an’ wonderin’. They say there’s a hun’erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy—they wouldn’t hunt nobody down—.” The novel also demonstrates the pragmatism of philosophers William James and John Dewey, who argued that political, social, or economic ideas are only important or relevant in their practical consequences in the world. The world in The Grapes of Wrath is a world of action.

Although Steinbeck gave a democratic voice to the migrant workers, the emphasis upon community and the general critique of capitalism and exploitation led to early charges that the novel advocated communist principles. Protests followed, fueled in part by the character Jim Casy’s rejection of religion. These protests focused attention not on the novel as a work of literature, but on issues of representation and whether it depicted reality or was merely propaganda. There was little doubt that the social and economic conditions of the migrant workers were as Steinbeck reported. He had toured the Hoovervilles and had worked with the migrants in 1936. Issues of representation, therefore, were not about the specific details of the Hoovervilles and the orchards, but about the entire socioeconomic system, whether or not it was failing, and what to do about it. In this debate, the Joads moved from the world of fiction to impact the real world, much as earlier novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example) had forced social change. This debate continues in light of the social, political, and economic changes in the fifty years since the novel’s publication. Although the Joads, Jim Casy, and the thousands of migrants are firmly rooted in the circumstances of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath also rewards interpretations informed by more recent trends in criticism. Thus, the novel is still relevant with regard to questions about the role of children in the novel, the distinct issues of class, and the decided victimization of people of other races or nationalities. This criticism piece is copyright of eNotes.

Source: Richard Henry, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Henry is a professor at the University of Minnesota.

The Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Its Place in the Curriculum

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Steinbeck’s success in creating a potent or powerful novel may be seen in the characters of the novel, in the complete structure of the novel, in the use of symbols especially the contrast of the animal with the mechanical aspects of life, in the powerful and varying prose styles of the novel and finally in a set of themes that reflect traditional American values. Moreover, in several of these aspects of the novel, Steinbeck drew on Biblical and religious materials that add to the richness and depth of the book.

The novel’s ability to catch and keep the reader’s interest owes much to its characters, whom Steinbeck has endowed with vitality and thematic significance. Many readers have seen embodiments of basic Christian virtues in such characters as Ma Joad, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, and Rose of Sharon. Tom Joad’s growth in insight illustrates one of the important themes in the novel. Whether Tom or Jim Casy best illustrates a Christ figure depends on the reader’s interpretation of the novel; each character has seemed to some readers to be illustrative of Christ’s self-sacrificial life.

The structure of the novel is based on the Joads’ journey westward. The journey gives the novel a mythical quality and achieves emotional power by relating the Joads’ journey to that of many previous journeys, including the exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt to the promised land as well as westward journeys of the American Western myth. The ironic differences between the promised land found by the Hebrews in Palestine and the tragic plight of the Joads in California is not lost on the reader.

Steinbeck’s use of a series of interludes as he tells the story of the Joads is an effective method of relating the particularities of the Joad family to a more universal set of realities. There are sixteen of these interchapters; these do not refer to the Joads, Wilsons, or Wainwrights. Instead, Steinbeck uses these chapters to tell of the larger significance of the situation in which the Joads find themselves. The interchapters draw on the material which Steinbeck had found in his visits to the migrant camps and his observations of the general situation of drought and depression.

Several of the memorable features of the novel appear in these interchapters, the turtle in chapter three, the tractor episode in chapter five in which an old farmhouse is destroyed by an enormous tractor. The farmer stands helplessly by with a rifle. The observation that nature imitates art, that life is often parallel to great works of literature, is illustrated by the tragic event in Minnesota in which a farmer, dispossessed of his farm by the bank that owned the mortgage, shot and killed two officials of the bank, then later killed himself. Would that farmer have committed such a violent and useless act if he had read and thought about The Grapes of Wrath?

Chapter eleven describes a vacant house, symbolic of the many vacant houses left across the deserted rural landscape. In other interchapters, Steinbeck discusses land ownership in California, the development of the migratory labor situation, and the accompanying results for society. In the final interchapter Steinbeck describes the rain which sets the scene for the last chapter of the book with its poignant episode of Rose of Sharon feeding the starving old man.

While some readers have felt that scene unrealistic, others have seen in it a poetic, or mythical, or metaphorical effort to realize several themes of the book—especially the traditional Western world theme of the essential oneness of humankind. Rose of Sharon cannot save her own baby, but she can still serve as one who ameliorates suffering and demonstrates the ennobling possibilities for humanity, in even the worst of situations.

The varying prose styles add to the strength of the book. In [A Case Book on “The Grapes of Wrath”] Peter Lisca has shown how the prose has a Biblical ring in several places, for example in the passage comparing horses and tractors. Lisca makes this clear by printing the passage in the style of the Psalms:

The tractor had lights shining,
For there is no day and night for a tractor
And the disks turn the earth in the darkness
And they glitter in the daylight.
And when a horse stops work and goes in the barn

There is a life and vitality left,
There is a breathing and a warmth,
And the feet shift on the straw,
And the jaws champ on the hay,
And the ears and eyes are alive.
There is a warmth of life in the barn,
And the heat and smell of life.

But when the motor of a tractor stops,
It is as dead as the ore it came from.
The heat goes out of it
Like the living heat that leaves a corpse.

In a different style, Steinbeck describes a folk dance in chapter thirteen; “Look at that Texas boy. Long legs loose, taps four times for every damn step. Never see a boy swing aroun’ like that. Look at him swing that Cherokee girl, red in the cheeks and her toe points out.” Throughout the novel the prose style varies to fit the subject under consideration. Lisca illustrates this point further by reference to chapter seven in which there is a description of the sale of used cars: “Cadillacs, LaSalles, Buicks, Plymouths, Packards, Chevvies, Fords, Pontiacs. Row on row. Headlight glinting in the afternoon sun. Good Used Cars. Soften ’em up, Joe. Jesus I wisht I had a thousand jalopies. Get ’em ready to deal, and I’ll close ’em.”

Steinbeck’s use of symbols in the novel is another of the ways in which the Joads’ predicament is shown to extend their own limited situation. These include the turtle, the vacant houses, the enormous tractor, the worn out automobiles, Rose of Sharon nursing the old starving man, the grapes, both in the title and throughout the novel as a symbol of plenty and as ironic counterpoint of the denial of plenty to the Joads, Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child, set adrift to float down the stream, again in ironic counterpoint to the child Moses in the Bible, who became a saviour of his people. The Joads’ journey is itself an archetype of mass migration, as Lisca suggests. These symbolic objects or actions are carefully integrated into the action of the novel, contributing to the artistic success of the whole book.

Symbolic contrasts between animals and machines appear frequently in the book. Generally, the animal references stand for life and the references to machinery stand for depersonalized, inanimate ways of dealing with human problems. “I lost my land, a single tractor took my land.” The phrase “tractored out” or “tractored off” appears often. Some animal references are derogatory, as when human beings behave like ants, or fight like a couple of cats. But generally, as in the contrast between horses and tractors quoted above, animal references are hopeful and positive; mechanical references suggest the destructive and negative aspects of contemporary life. The turtle, for example, symbolizes the persistence of living beings in spite of danger or hardship. As machines threaten the turtle, so machines threaten the farmer. As the turtle persists, so will the Joads.

The thematic structure of the book is a major source of its continuing power. In the decades since its publication readers have seen a number of traditional American ideas that complement each other in the texture of the book. While some critics have seen tension in the ideas of the book, on the whole most readers have seen artistic integrity in the book’s thematic structure.

Frederick Ives Carpenter [in A Case Book on “The Grapes of Wrath”] suggested, not long after the book’s publication, that a number of the most characteristic American ideas appeared in the book—“the mystical transcendentalism of Emerson,” “the earthy democracy of Walt Whitman,” the “pragmatic instrumentalism of William James and John Dewey.” Other readers have seen in the book the agrarian philosophy of Thomas Jefferson— a faith in the small farm that has strongly influenced our society. It was agrarianism that led to the homestead laws passed by the Republican Party when Abraham Lincoln was president, and that lay back of a variety of twentieth-century efforts to assist farmers and protect the family farm.

No feature of the book is better illustrative of the tendency of the American novel to protest the conflict between American ideals and American practice than the novel’s agrarianism. The Joads have as a major motivation their desire to own a piece of land, where they can raise the grapes of plenty, enough so that Pa Joad can squash the grapes across his face and feel the juice run down his chin, a destiny he is not to achieve.

The essential reality of the Joads’ predicament is demonstrated by the fact that between 1940 and 1980 the number of American farms declined from 6 million to 2¼ million. Millions of Americans in that period left their farms for life elsewhere, as the Joads left their Oklahoma home. That migration of millions of people from rural areas to the city affected the United States in many ways—increasing crime and welfare on the one hand, and providing a ready force of factory workers on the other. Few people note that, as the novel implies, we pay for our food not only at the grocery store, but also in taxes caused by crime and welfare.

It is an ironic possibility that if all the political and editorial language calling for the preservation of the family farm were printed in a single set of volumes, it might exceed the attacks on The Grapes of Wrath. But it is doubtful that any other American novelist has so vigorously upheld the ideal of the American family farm or so artistically protested the failure of our society to make that ideal possible in reality.

The transcendentalism in the book has led to two groundless charges by the critics, first that the book is atheistic, as expressed in the ideas of Jim Casy, and second that the book is collectivist, a code word meaning sympathetic to communism. These misreadings of the book grow out of an ignorance of transcendentalism and a misinterpretation of the call for unified action presented by the book.

The concept of the oversoul, in Emerson and in this book, is an affirmation of the universal pres- ence of deity in all aspects of life. Emerson coined the term “oversoul” to express his understanding of the Christian tradition as he learned it from many Puritan sermons as well as from his reading of Luther, Calvin, Milton, and other theologians, as the literary historian Perry Miller has shown. Though Jim Casy probably had not read any works of theology, he does express the transcendental concept of the oversoul several times in the book in such language as this: “Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” Transcendentalism has been criticized for its vagueness, but rightly or wrongly, it is an effort to assert that spiritual values are present in, and ultimately control, the material reality of the visible universe. It is clearly not the intent of Emerson nor of Jim Casy to deny the existence of deity. The charge of atheism is often made by those who say, “If you don’t accept my definition of God, you must be an atheist.” Neither Emerson nor Jim Casy would have agreed that they were atheists.

In fact the four major characters, Ma Joad, Tom, Jim Casy, and Rose of Sharon represent Steinbeck’s effort to dramatize Biblical and Christian values in a realistic way among an unlikely group of poor and deprived persons. Ma Joad is one of the few saints in American literature. The qualities of saintliness—a cheerful and self-sacrificial life, and an understanding and consistent love for others—are realistically embodied in this portrait of a poverty stricken Oklahoma farm wife. Ma Joad’s family disintegrates, her few possessions are lost, and she finds herself on the brink of starvation. Yet she does not fall into despair or bitterness but continues to respond in a helpful and life affirming way not only to the members of her own family but also to hungry neighbor children and a starving, unknown man. Ma Joad is a vivid dramatization of the “love that passeth understanding.” It is hard to imagine what a truly saintly life would be like in the twentieth century. Steinbeck’s imagination has given us a believable picture of a saint from an unlikely source—an Okie, an uneducated, migrant fruit picker, driven from her home to wander the land in search of a place to live.

Tom Joad illustrates the Biblical theme of growth, the Biblical assertion that the good life requires continued rebirth. Furthermore, Tom illustrates the Biblical notion that even the most unpromising persons have the possibility of a new life. Tom comes out of prison an unchanged person, selfishly individualistic, primarily interested in sex and drinking, though he does have a strong love for his family. But the events that follow, and the influence of his mother and of Jim Casy, greatly change him.

As the Joads experience the loss of their land, the breaking up of the family, near starvation, brutal treatment by police and landlords, and the death of Jim Casy, Tom grows in “wisdom and stature” to quote the Biblical phrase. When Ma Joad told Tom, “You’re spoke for. . . . " she contributed to his growth. When Jim Casy spoke of the Oversoul, Tom listened and grew out of his selfish concerns with his own satisfactions. He became aware, as his mother made clear to him, that he had to be concerned, not only for his own family’s welfare, but for the welfare of all families, that the death of his sister’s child was loss to all families, that the birth of a healthy child was cause for celebration by all families. He became quite willing to work for other families, even if it cost him his life, as it had cost the life of Jim Casy.

When Tom told his mother goodbye, as he set out to carry on the mission that he had learned from Jim Casy, she spoke with sorrow, “How’m I gonna know about you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’t know.” But Tom tells her it doesn’t matter. He explained in terms of the lesson he had learned from Casy of the Oversoul, of which all human beings are a part. Though we appear to be isolated individuals, still there is a transcendental unity that joins us:

I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where— wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there. See?

Though the dialect is lower class Okie, the ideas are derived from the Gospel of John.

Some would-be censors have mistakenly asserted that Steinbeck is sympathetic to communism. Steinbeck was in fact rather conservative; he supported the war in Vietnam, for example. His insistence in several works of fiction on the right of each person to his own piece of land can hardly be reconciled with communist tendencies toward collectivist forms of agriculture. However, Steinbeck’s views outside the book are irrelevant to the implications of the symbols and actions in the book. It is clearly wrong to judge a book by the actual or assumed characteristics of the author.

The call for united action which runs through the book is not to be identified with the term “collectivist” as a synonym for communist. There is a tension between the individual and the group in the book, but its reconciliation is in the traditional Western world notion of the oneness of the humankind, as for example in the famous passage from John Donne, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

The book calls for unified action that will preserve the right of farmers to their own farms, that will provide food for the hungry, that will subordinate the machine to the needs of the garden and to the needs of the human beings who toil in the garden. The book’s call for unified action to meet the disasters of the 1930s is no more collectivist than was the action of the colonists who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor or who took up arms at Concord to fight the redcoats. There are many illustrations in the book of the need and ability of ordinary citizens to work together in solving problems, as for example when the migrants helped each other on the journey, or maintained order in the camp. This aspect of the novel is typical of American pragmatism—not of Marxist ideas.

In the original meaning of the word, a classic is a book taught in the classroom. Steinbeck’s book is certainly a classic in this sense of the word. As with a number of other classics, it is likely that many people read this book in high school. This use is appropriate because the book lends itself well to studying many aspects of American literature and life. The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer prize in 1940 and is one of the major works of an American novelist who won the Nobel prize in 1962. It is difficult to understand how any American high school or college could forbid the teaching or use of the book while maintaining a claim to act as a proper agency for the education of the young in this democratic republic.

Source: Lee Burress, “The Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Its Place in the Curriculum,” in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, Scarecrow Press, 1993, pp. 278–86.

The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study

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[In The Grapes of Wrath, function], not mere design, is . . . evident in the use of characterization to support and develop a conflict of opposed ideas—mainly a struggle between law and anarchy. The one idea postulates justice in a moral world of love and work, identified in the past with “the people” and in the present with the government camp and finally with the union movement, since these are the modern, institutional forms the group may take. The opposed idea postulates injustice in an immoral world of hatred and starvation. It is associated with buccaneering capitalism, which, in violent form, includes strikebreaking and related practices that cheapen human labor.

The Joads present special difficulties in characterization. They must be individualized to be credible and universalized to carry out their representative functions. Steinbeck meets these problems by making each of the Joads a specific individual and by specifying that what happens to the Joads is typical of the times. The means he uses to maintain these identities can be shown in some detail. The least important Joads are given highly specific tags—Grandma’s religion, Grandpa’s vigor, Uncle John’s melancholy, and Al’s love of cars and girls. The tags are involved in events; they are not inert labels. Grandma’s burial violates her religion; Grandpa’s vigor ends when he leaves the land; Uncle John’s melancholy balances the family’s experience; Al helps to drive the family to California and, by marrying, continues the family. Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, and Tom carry the narrative, so their individuality is defined by events rather than through events. Ma is the psychological and moral center of the family; Pa carries its burdens; Rose of Sharon means to ensure its physical continuity; and Tom becomes its moral conscience. On the larger scale, there is much evidence that what happens to the family is typical of the times. The interchapters pile up suggestions that “the whole country is moving” or about to move. The Joads meet many of their counterparts or outsiders who are in sympathy with their ordeal; these meetings reenforce the common bond of “the people.” Both in the interchapters and the narrative, the universal, immediate issue is survival— a concrete universal.

On the other hand, the individualized credibility of the Joads is itself the source of two difficulties: the Joads are too different, as sharecroppers, to suggest a universal or even a national woe, and they speak an argot that might limit their universal quality. Steinbeck handles these limitations with artistic license. The narrative background contains the Joads’ past; their experience as a landless proletariat is highlighted in the narrative foreground. The argot is made to seem a typical language within the novel in three ways: It is the major language; people who are not Okies speak variations of their argot; and that argot is not specialized in its relevance, but is used to communicate the new experiences “the people” have in common as a landless proletariat. However, because these solutions depend on artistic license, any tonal falseness undermines severely the massive artistic truthfulness the language is intended to present. So the overly editorial tone in several of the interchapters has a profoundly false linguistic ring, although the tonal lapse is limited and fairly trivial in itself.

The Joads are characterized further in comparison with four Okie types who refuse to know or are unable to gain the knowledge the family derives from its collective experience. They are the stubborn, the dead, the weak, and the backtrackers; they appear in the novel in that order.

Muley Graves is the stubborn man, as his punning name suggests. He reveals himself to Tom and Casy near the beginning of the novel. His refusal to leave Oklahoma is mere stubbornness; his isolation drives him somewhat mad. He is aware of a loss of reality, of “jus’ wanderin’ aroun’ like a damn ol’ graveyard ghos’,” and his blind violence is rejected from the beginning by the strongest, who oppose his pessimism with an essential optimism.

Deaths of the aged and the unborn frame the novel. Grandpa and Grandma are torn up by the roots and die, incapable of absorbing a new, terrible experience. Rose of Sharon’s baby, born dead at the end of the novel, is an index of the family’s ordeal and a somewhat contrived symbol of the necessity to form the group.

The weak include two extremes within the Joad family. Noah Joad gives up the struggle to survive; he finds a private peace. His character is shadowy, and his choice is directed more clearly by Steinbeck than by any substance within him. Connie has plenty of substance. He is married to Rose of Sharon and deserts her because he has no faith in the family’s struggle to reach California. His faith is absorbed in the values of “the Bank,” in getting on, in money, in any abstract goal. He wishes to learn about technology in order to rise in the world. He does not admire technique for itself, as Al does. He is a sexual performer, but he loves no one. Finally, he wishes that he had stayed behind in Oklahoma and taken a job driving a tractor. In short, with Connie, Steinbeck chooses brilliantly to place a “Bank” viewpoint within the family. By doing so, he precludes a simplification of character and situation, and he endorses the complexity of real people in the real world. (In Dubious Battle is similarly free of schematic characterization.) In addition, the family’s tough, humanistic values gain in credibility by their contrast with Connie’s shallow, destructive modernity. The confused gas station owner and the pathetic one-eyed junkyard helper are embodied variations on Connie’s kind of weakness. Al provides an important counterpoint. He wants to leave the family at last, like Connie, but duty and love force him to stay. His hard choice points the moral survival of the family and measures its human expense.

The Joads meet several backtrackers. The Wilsons go back because Mrs. Wilson is dying; the Joads do not stop, in spite of death. The ragged man’s experience foreshadows what the Joads find in California; but they keep on. Some members of the Joad family think of leaving but do not, or they leave for specific reasons—a subtle variation on backtracking. Al and Uncle John wish deeply at times to leave, but they stay; Tom leaves (as Casy does) but to serve the larger, universal family of the group. Backtracking is a metaphor, then, a denial of life, but always a fact as well. The factual metaphor is deepened into complexity because the Joads sympathize with the backtrackers’ failure to endure the hardships of the road and of California, in balance with where they started from—the wasteland—while knowing they cannot accept that life-denying solution. All of these choices are the fruit of the family’s experience.

A fifth group of owners and middle-class people are accorded no sympathetic comprehension, as contrasted with the Joads, and, as in In Dubious Battle, their simply and purely monstrous characterization is too abstract to be fully credible. The few exceptions occur in highly individualized scenes or episodes (Chapter XV is an example) in which middle-class “shitheels” are caricatures of the bad guys, limited to a broad contrast with the good guys (the truck drivers, the cook), who are in sympathy with a family of Okies. This limitation has the narrative advantage of highlighting the importance and vitality of the Okies to the extent that they seem by right to belong in the context of epic materials, but the disadvantage of shallow characterization is severe. Steinbeck can provide a convincing detailed background of the conditions of the time; he cannot similarly give a rounded, convincing characterization to an owner or a disagreeable middle-class person.

On the whole, then, fictive strength and conviction are inherent in the materials of The Grapes of Wrath. The noticeable flaws are probably irreducible aspects of the time context and of narrative shorthand counterpointed by a complex recognition of human variety in language and behavior.

Source: Howard Levant, The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study, University of Missouri Press, 1974, pp. 104-108.

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Critical Overview


The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck