A Point of View
The novel is narrated in the third-person voice (“he”/“she”/“it”). What is particularly significant about this technique is that the point of view varies in tone and method, depending on the author’s purpose. The novel’s distinctive feature is its sixteen inserted, or intercalary, chapters (usually the odd-numbered chapters) that provide documentary information for the reader. These chapters give social and historical background of the mid-1930s Depression era, especially as it affects migrants like the Joads.
These inserted chapters range from descriptions of the Dust Bowl and agricultural conditions in Oklahoma, to California’s history, to descriptions of roads leading west from Oklahoma. In the more restricted chapters that focus on the Joads, the point of view shifts to become close and dramatic. In addition, many of the inserted chapters contain basic symbols of the novel: land, family, and the conflict between the migrants and the people who represent the bank and agribusiness. The turtle in Chapter 3 symbolizes Nature’s struggle and the will to survive. It characterizes the will to survive of the Joads and “the people.”
John Steinbeck wrote some of his best fiction about the area where he grew up. The territory that Steinbeck wrote about is an area covering thousands of square miles in central California. He particularly used the Long Valley as a setting in his fiction, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown. The Long Valley, covering more than one hundred miles, lies between the Gabilan Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the Pacific Coast. The major site of The Grapes of Wrath is the San Joaquin Valley, which lies east of the Long Valley and the Gabilan Mountains. The Long Valley is also the general setting for Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952), two of Steinbeck’s other well-known works. This rich agricultural area is an ironic setting for a novel that examines the economic and social problems affecting people during the Depression. It was no promised land for the Joads and others like them.
One of Steinbeck’s major achievements is his remarkable descriptions of the environment and nature’s effects on social history. He was also ahead of his time in writing about the circumstances of the migrant workers and small farmers fighting corporate farms and the financial establishment decades before such subjects gained national press coverage in the 1970s.
The major symbol in the novel is the family, which stands for the larger “family” of humanity. The Joads are at the center of the dramatic aspects of the novel, and they illustrate human strengths and weaknesses. Dangers in nature and in society disrupt the family, but they survive economic and natural disasters, just as humanity does. At the end, the Joads themselves recognize they are part of a larger family. The land itself is a symbol that is equated in the novel with a sense of personal identity. What the Joads actually suffer when they lose their Oklahoma farm is a sense of identity, which they struggle to rediscover during their journey and in California. Pa Joad, especially, loses his spirit after the family is “tractored off” their land. He must cede authority in the family to Ma after their loss.
There is also a sequence of Judeo-Christian symbols throughout the novel. The Joads, like the Israelites, are a homeless and persecuted people looking for the promised land. Jim Casy can be viewed as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who began His mission after a period of solitude in the wilderness. Casy is introduced in the novel after a similar period of retreat. And later, when Casy and Tom meet in the strikers’ tent, Casy says he has “been a-gin’ into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out sumpin.” Also, Jim Casy has the same initials as Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Casy finally offers himself as the sacrifice to save his people. Casy’s last words to the man who murders him are significant: “Listen, you fellas don’ know what you’re doing.” And just before he dies, Casy repeats: “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’.” When Jesus Christ was crucified, He said, “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” Tom becomes Casy’s disciple after his death. Tom is ready to continue his teacher’s work, and it has been noted that two of Jesus’s disciples were named Thomas.
Biblical symbols from both Old and New Testament stories occur throughout the novel. Twelve Joads start on their journey from Oklahoma, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve disciples of Christ (with Jim Casy, the Christ figure) on their way to spiritual enlightenment by a messiah. Like Lot’s wife, Grampa is reluctant to leave his homeland, and his refusal to let go of the past brings his death. Later, the narrative emphasizes this symbolism when Tom selects a Scripture verse for Grampa’s burial that quotes Lot. The shifts between the Old and New testaments coalesce with Jim Casy, whose ideas about humanity and a new social gospel parallel Christ’s new religion two thousand years ago. Biblical myths also inform the final scene through a collection of symbols that demonstrate the existence of a new order in the Joads’ world. As the Joads seek refuge from the flood in a dry barn, the narrative offers symbols of the Old Testament deluge (Noah’s ark), the New Testament stable where Christ was born (the barn), and the mysterious rite of Communion as Rose of Sharon breast-feeds the starving man. With this ending, it is clear that this is a new beginning for the Joads. All the symbols express hope and regeneration despite the continuing desperate circumstances.
Allusions, or literary references, to grapes and vineyards are made throughout the novel, carrying Biblical and economic connotations. The title of the novel, from Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is itself an allusion dating back to the Bible’s Old Testament. In Isaiah 63:4-6, a man tramples grapes in his wrath: “For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” Steinbeck’s first wife, Carol, suggested the title after hearing the lyrics of the patriotic hymn: “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.” Steinbeck loved the title and wrote to his agent: “I think it is Carol’s best title so far. I like it because it is a march and this book is a kind of march-because it is in our own revolutionary tradition and because in reference to this book it has a large meaning. And I like it because people know the ‘Battle Hymn’ who don’t know the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
Indeed, Steinbeck knew that his unfinished novel was revolutionary and that it would be condemned by many people as Communist propaganda. So the title was especially suitable because it carried an American patriotic stamp that Steinbeck hoped would deflect charges of leftist influence. He decided that he wanted the complete hymn, its words and music, printed on the endpapers at the front and back of the book. He wrote his publisher: “The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They will try to give it the communist angle. However, the ‘Battle Hymn’ is American and intensely so. Further, every American child learns it and then forgets the words. So if both the words and music are there the book is keyed into the American scene from the beginning.”
An allegory is a story in which characters and events have a symbolic meaning that points to general human truths. The turtle in Chapter 3 is the novel’s best-known use of allegory. The patient turtle proceeds along a difficult journey over the dust fields of Oklahoma, often meeting obstacles, but always able to survive. Like the Joads, the turtle is moving southwest, away from the drought. When a trucker swerves to hit the turtle, the creature survives, just as the Joads survive the displacement from their land. Later, Tom finds a turtle and Casy comments: “Nobody can’t keep a turtle though. They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go-off somewheres.” The turtle is hit by a truck, carried off by Tom, attacked by a cat and a red ant, yet, like the Joads and “the people,” he is indomitable with a fierce will to survive. He drags himself through the dust and unknowingly plants a seed for the future.