Applications Of Symbols In Grapes Of Wrath English Literature Essay

The novel The Grapes of Wrath, the greatest work of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature in 1962, traces the difficult journey of poor farmers from the Dust Bowl poverty of Oklahoma to the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley.

The general background of this novel was that: during the early 1930s, a severe drought led to massive agricultural failure in parts of the southern Great Plains. These areas were covered with loose, exposed topsoil. Crops withered and died without rain; the topsoil was picked up by the wind and the whole region was covered with billowing dust. The afflicted region became known as the “Dust Bowl.” By the mid-1930s, the drought had done great damage to countless farm families, and America had fallen into the Great Depression. Unable to survive in hometown, thousands of families traveled to California hoping to find new means of survival. However, the farm country of California quickly became overcrowded with the migrant workers. They not only had no job or food to support the family but also had to face prejudice and mockery from the Californians. The migrant workers lived in crowded, dirty camps called “Homerville”. Many people who lived in the camps could not find a job and starved to death. Seeing the hardship of the people, John Steinbeck decided to write a novel about the plight of migrant farm workers.

The Grapes of Wrath is an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the Great Depression. In this work, Steinbeck reveals the distress and suffering of American rural residents and their disillusionment with the promise of The American Dream. Driven by social and economic forces, the family has to leave the place and move west to California, where they expect to find work. During the long journey, they meat the Wilson family with whom they shared dangers and privations. On the way, Grampa and Granma die, while Noah leaves the family. The rest of them arrive in California only to find the labor market had already saturated. Then Connie deserts the family. Jim Casy is arrested in stead of Tom and Floyd and later he appears as a labor organizer but is killed by vigilantes. In this fight, Tom kills one of vigilantes and hides himself in order not to be caught. But one day Ruthie reveals Tom’s burrow inadvertently, so he has to leave the family. He decides to commit himself totally to the cause of workers’ rights rather than the fortunes of his own family. On a raining day, Rosharon delivers a baby but is a stillborn. The novel ends with Rosharon give her milk to an anonymous old man in the barn.

Through the novel, it is not difficult to see a sequence of symbols, because they are so obvious and abundant. In fact, it is these symbols that impart this work its emotional works. Therefor, let’s talk about symbols first of all.

Symbols exist everywhere in our daily life. The indicative meanings of some symbols are universally acknowledged. For example, a rose symbolizes love; olive branch indicates peace, etc. But a literary symbol functions in a different way. Generally speaking, a literary symbol does not have a common social acceptance. It is a symbol a poet or a writer uses for the purpose of his work, and it can be understood only in the context of his writings. Most symbols in literature focus on the relationship between the visible and what they suggest beyond the visible. By studying the concealed meaning of the symbols, readers can achieve a better understanding of the writings. Therefore, symbol is regarded as a specific and expressive device in the artistic creation. Broadly speaking, literary symbols can be divided into two types: those embody universal meanings and those suggest a certain connotation only in a given text. A literary symbol does not have a common social acceptance; it is a symbol the poet or the writer adopts for the purpose of his works, and it is to be understood only in the context of that particular work. By using symbols the writer conveys his meaning in a special way that will allure the senses and emotions of the readers. Most symbols in literature focus on the relationship between the visible and what they suggest. This relationship can light up a flame of response in the hearts of the readers. So a symbol is regarded as one of the most frequently used devices in literature. But symbols based on their own interpretations of the novels. There is no absolute right or wrong interpretation, though some are more evident than others. Since people all have different understanding of certain subjects due to varied life experience, they comprehend literature differently in the area of “reading” the symbols. The multiplicity of interpretation is what makes literature (especially modern literature) rich and interesting to read.

In The Grapes of Wrath, there are a lot of symbols which embrace abundant meanings. For example, there appears a turtle in the beginning of the novel. In our daily life the turtle is the embodiment of longevity and tenacity. Correspondingly, in the novel, the turtle symbolizes those tough people who had to go through great hardships. And, we may see the grapes only as the symbol of harvest. However, in the Bible and this novel, the grapes also mean the wrath, the disillusionment of the hope. We can not grasp this meaning without the text, for it is the text itself that gives the literary meaning to the “grapes”. Such kind of symbols is very obvious in the novel, and they all deserve close attention and elaborate illustration.

The novel The Grapes of Wrath shows us a tragic picture at the very beginning. Large amount of the description of the dust creates a constrained atmosphere for the whole novel. People who are living in this kind of environment also suffer from the decline of economy. But they never give up. The turtle on the road is the incarnation of their strong will and tenacity. They will save themselves from this desperate situation.

Among many images used by the author, the image of “dust” emerges in the first chapter of the novel. On the one hand, the dust which is filling the air and covering sun establishes the basic tone of oppression, helplessness and tragedy of the work, on the other hand, omnipresent dust forebodes the situation that the life of the Joads and other farmers is going downhill day by day.

On November, 1933, great dust began to blow in America and gradually covered the vast land of Texas and southern Dakota. We can learn the force with which the dust broke out and its destruction from many notes written by people who encountered the dust. In the east of Kansas the green grassland was covered with luxuriant leaves and colorful flowers, and a bumper harvest was in the offing, all of these beautiful scenes were contrasted with the waste land covered with the dust. Many people also recorded the miserable life of those families which were forced to leave the area.

With the vivid description of the objective world and the description of the spiritual world, the author aims to make readers realize the crisis which is coming but could not be seen. The constrained atmosphere is built up by such a picture: “The dawn came, but no day. In the grey sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn”. In the poetic first chapter, the word “dust” occurs over 27 times. Through the use of every possible visual and actual effect of the dust, the author related the dust with those lifeless and spiritless things: “the earth dusted down in dry little streams,” “little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust , and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, carried it away,” “the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yard”. Under the pen of the author, the wind has become the spokesperson of the devil of dust-it “races over the land, helps the dust control other natural things like the air, the sky, the sun and stars. Women have to fight against the dust which “settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes”. Children in rags could only play in the dust. At the same time, men’s patience also faces unprecedented test, because they has to face “the ruined corn, dying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust”.

In the first chapter, the author brings the symbolic function of the dust into full play. It intensifies one of the motifs the novel wants to deliver-the decline of the economy will accumulate into disaster and the depressed dust will lead to the break of the family. Because the dust is everywhere, we can say that it symbolizes the declining destiny of the Joads and other people who leave their native place, and move westward to look for their ideal paradise, their Canaan, because their fate is subjected to the fatal attack.

In the extremely destructive force of nature, there exist people who keep on fighting in spite of all setbacks in order to survive, to look for beautiful life. In the third chapter of the novel, the description of the turtle exactly reflects the unyielding characteristic of people. If we carefully research the turtle’s adventure, we can see that “he came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him”; he came across a small hill, and through great struggle he came over it; he slid up a four-inch-high concrete wall… In the process of his creeping, he killed a red ant, and “one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg”. After that, he moved across the road, and was hardly killed. A woman driver swung to the right in order not to hit it, while another driver, the driver who allowed Tom to take a lift, saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. The turtle struggled hard so that escaped death by sheer luck. Another point which deserves attention is that in this chapter, the author painstakingly describes the old, sufferable, even primitive features of the turtle: its high-domed shell, hard legs, yellow-nailed feet and fierce, humorous eyes, etc.

We can grasp the uncommon symbolic meaning through the author’s realistic description. Firstly, it represents the survival and the mysterious and natural life-force. Just with this force, could it not fear of any frustrations and continue its hard efforts again and again. In the novel, the peasants represents by the Joad family also rely on this unbending will-power to move forward their “happy land”-California. The author also implies as that in the great effort of these peasants of finding their new life, they will need to suffer a lot and face many difficulties like that turtle, even the threat to their lives. Besides, we should also notice another important symbolic meaning of the turtle: “as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds”. From this we can see that the turtle which was moving forward composed a brilliant song of life, because of its efforts, the life of nature could circulate and the hope of people also could continue.

The spirit of the turtle is fully embodied by those brave and westward peasants represented by the Joads. The reason they leave their hometown is that in their eyes there still exists the dream that God had bestowed happy land to them. This land is so fertile that before departure, Grampa have been already full of desire. First time, he dreamed, “‘jus’ let me get out to California where I can pick m an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch a grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ’em on my face an’ let ’em run offen my chin’ “. Second, Grampa declared, “‘they’s grapes out there, just a-hangin’ over inta the road… I’m gonna pick me a wash tub full of grapes, an’ I’m gonna set in em, an’ scrooge aroun’, an’ let the juice run down my pants’”. And he was dreaming of the bright future third time: “‘I’m getting’ hungry. Come time we get to California I’ll have a big bunch a grapes in my han’ all the time, a-nibblin’ off it all the time, by God! ‘”. For Grampa, for the Joads too, grapes stand for the dream of the Promised Land. Nevertheless, in the novel, the grape not only stands for richness and abundance, it also represents suffering, anger and revenge. The Promised Land is in fact a vicious land, pervasive with greed. It turns out to be a land that without milk and honey. Thus the grapes of plenty and promise become bitter and is replaced by the grapes of wrath. Before the publication of the book, Steinbeck insisted to print “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the first page, because the title of the book came from one sentence of this song-“My eyes have been the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”. Besides, the author was also deeply influenced by the Bible when choosing the title. And the song alluded to the Old Testament in the Bible, such as, “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter”, and “In those days they shall say no more. The fathers have eaten a sour grape”, “and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. The reference is also reinforced in one of the novel’s inter chapter: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, heavy for the vintage.” From this we can see that the author seemed to express his deep feeling: the explosion of people’s wrath will be as inevitable as the wrath of God. They revenge themselves on those who have oppressed them and finally liberate themselves.

Throughout the novel, it is not difficult to find Christian symbols which help a lot to build up the theme of the novel. Among them, the symbolic meaning of Jim Casy and Tom Joad are very obvious and significant, and deserve us special attention.

In the novel, Jim Casy is a former preacher who gives up his ministry out of a belief that all human experience is holly. His image is frequently related to Jesus-the first letters of their names are the same. Like Jesus, Jim has rejected the rigidity of the old ideas of religion and justice, such as theological notions of sin: “they ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.” Casy’s breaking down of the old religion enables him to develop an awareness of collectivity. With the growth of his social consciousness, Casy’s christainity is broadened. He defines the religious impulse as human love and identifies the Holy Spirit as the human spirit in all mankind. He said, “what’s this all, this sperit?… It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust sometime”. His words can be considered the paraphrases of the words of Jesus, who said, “God is love,” and “A new commandment give I unto you: that ye love one another” in the New Testament. This is the truth Casy deeply believed in. That is why he gives himself up t save Tom and Floyd and was put into prison. He learned that man’s spiritual brotherhood must express itself in a social unity, so that he finally became a labor organizer. Casy preaches his new gospel as a new revelation to save people fro destruction.

Of cause, Casy knows that the old religion will reject his new gospel. “You can’t bold no church with idears like that.” Tom pointed this out, “People would drive you out of the country with idears like that”. In both cases, people really do so. But he is still preaching for the cause, sacrificing himself selflessly for it. His Christ-like development is complete when he is killed in the middle of a stream. He says to his assailants, “‘You fellas don’ know what you’re a-doin’” which is reminiscent of Christ’s “Forgive them for they know not what they do” when crucified.

As the novel’s protagonist, Tom appears to be good-natured and thoughtful. Though he kills a man and is put into prison for four years, he never wastes his time with regrets. After leaving prison, Tom comes across the former preacher Jim Casy. From then on, they two begin the journey of migrants together. There are sufficient details to identify him as a type of Moses at the beginning. For example, he leads his people as they journey toward the Promised Land. And Moses, he has committed an act of violence by killing a man and has been in prison for four years before he joins the family and becomes their leader. Just as Moses has Aaron as his spokesman truck driver, Tom also has a younger brother, Al Joad who serves as a vehicle for the leader. Before reaching California, he hears and rejects the evil reports of some Oklahomans going back from it, just like Moses does to Hebrew “spies” before he got to the Promised Land. After they arrive in California, Tom’s role has changed; he becomes a disciple of Casy instead of being Moses. Because his burrow is revealed by his younger sister Ruthie Joad, he must escape and leave his family. When he tells Ma goodbye and explains why hr must leave, he says a lot about Casy to Ma: “Casy spouted out some scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire scripture.” He repeats what Casy has told him about two being better than one and rehearsed Casy’s teaching about the individual and collective soul, recalling that Casy went into a wilderness to find his soul, and then he found. “His little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole,” he explains to Ma Casy’s theory of Christian Socialism. “‘Tom,’ Ma repeats, ‘what you gonna do?’ ‘What Casy done,’ he said”. And when Ma objects, “‘How ‘m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I should n’ know. They might hurt ya. How ‘m I gonna know?’” Tom responds by citing Casy’s logic. Like Casy, Tom is ready to sacrifice his life for his fellow men. In the way, he gradually grows strong and becomes a faithful disciple of Casy.

The novel mainly depicts two women images, one is Ma Joad, and another is Rose of Sharon. Most critics think that Ma is the most perfect image in Steinbeck’s works. She is regarded as family fortress, a strong unassailable position. However, she is not the only woman who could not be defeated in the novel-Rose of Sharon as her daughter, is also an unconquerable image. In the beginning, Rose of Sharon is “a plump, passionate boyden with cat-fights in bed, biting and scratching with muffled giggles and final tears”. As she is pregnant, she changes into “a balanced, careful, wise creature who smiled shyly but firmly. Her whole thought and actions are directed inward on the baby”. Her role gradually changes from a girl into a mother. She begins to think of herself, think about what a future mother should do. As they start their journey, Connie and Rose and Sharon have already lived in their own world: “The world had drawn close around them, and they were in the centre of it, or rather Rose of Sharon was in the centre of it with Connie making a small orbit about her”. Unfortunately, the cruel reality destroys their happy world. Connie leaves the family, even leaves his wife and unborn baby. Nevertheless, Rose of Sharon has undergone hardships and death. At the end of the novel, she is so strong that she has been ready to replace Ma as the pillar of the family. Taking a thorough view of the whole novel, it is not difficult to find that Rose of Sharon is all the time making the preparation for her duty. she is taught by Ma to take her own responsibility and is encouraged to wave the fan for dying Granma; although she is very weak because of innutrition and pregnancy, she still helps Ma to cook and wash; though abandoned by Connie, she is mentally and physically exhausted, she still struggles to earn money to support the family: she insists to pick cotton with other family members regardless of her sickness. Ma wants to persuade her but it is of no use at all.

Rosasharn joins to pick the cotton, but her physical health is even worse. Then Ma explains to her what are fear, loneliness and happiness in a woman’s life. The scene when Granma, Ma and Rosasharn are together in the tent reflected the continuance of life: Granma is dying, Ma is looking after her, and Rosasharn is pregnant. In the novel, Ma always encourages Rosasharn with her power and unyielding spirit. In two important scenes of the novel, Ma passes the torch to Rosasharn symbolically. In the first scene, the torch is passed on when Ma threads ear hole for Rosasharn. In order to rouse Rosasharn, Ma gives her a pair of golden ear-rings. Rosasharn has to bear the pain of piercing the ear hole which symbolically meant that she must stand the moment of replacing her mother.

The last scene of the book tells us that Rosasharn would become, after Ma, a new leader who has to endure humiliation in order to continue the family. In the barn, Ma’s image is extended by Rosasharn. After going through great sufferings, Rosasharn has developed into a tough woman like Ma. The relationship between them became equal. Before that, Rosasharn is always called “kid,” but in the last chapter, Steinbeck emphasizes their equal position: “the two women looked deep into each other”. In the large part of the novel, though Ma Joad always plays as a rouser, Rose of Sharon is the real fosterer instead of Ma. It is Rosasharn who saves the old anonymous man with her breast. The combination of her fertility and her selflessness symbolizes the procreation and hope.

As the symbol of survival, the image of Rose of Sharon is both ordinary and great. She is full of hope for the future. With this image the author expresses his idea that the Americans will never defeated by the difficulties and they will march forward courageously.

Steinbeck is really a master of symbolism. A thorough reading of his works reveals that various symbols interweave though almost all of his novels, while in this novel-The Grapes of Wrath, it is even more evident.

The dust and turtle appear in the first chapter hint at the great difficult people have to face and endure; the grapes mentioned several times in the novel indicate the hope in the beginning, while in the end, it becomes the symbol of anger, wrath; although fall into dire straits, the Joads still do not give up, Ma Joad gradually becomes the backbone of the whole family. It is Ma who tries all her best to unite the family together; with the teaching of Ma, Rose of Sharon finally bravely takes the responsibility. She transforms from an innocent girl into a mature, Madonna-like woman. From her, we can see a gleam of hope, and one’s confidence in man and human nature. Jim Casy and Tom Joad are two Christian-like people. Like Jesus, Casy regards the saving of the whole people as his holy cause; after his death, Tom follows in his steps, he becomes a faithful disciple of Casy. Of cause the author does not directly point out the symbolic meanings of these images in the novel. It is just the charm of symbolism-causes the story to stick in the readers’ mind and gives the story extended meaning beyond its surface meaning. Just imagine that the author writes this novel without these abundant symbols, how boring and plain it will become.

So many symbols that Steinbeck applies in the novel greatly add the sense of mystery and heaviness. It seems that none of them can be deleted. Each plays a very important role in the novel. What Steinbeck delivers in the novel is not only sympathy with the poor, but also the courage to fight the difficulties. The reading of the book can be a very odd experience: one senses despair as one reads along, and sees no prospect of compensation for all these suffering until one reaches the last chapter of the book. But actually, people always hold the belief that a better life will be possible.

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