Allegory in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Meaning

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn about allegory, consider several of the allegories Steinbeck uses in the 'Grapes of Wrath', and come to understand what these allegories mean for the novel.

Allegory Refresher

An allegory is a story that represents something else; something with a larger meaning. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck uses allegory to symbolize the hardships that face migrant farmers. A few of the more famous allegories in The Grapes of Wrath are the story of the turtle and a biblical Moses allegory. Although there are numerous allegories worked into the novel, in this lesson we will focus on the two above and a few others, including a socialist allegory.

The Allegory of the Turtle

As the turtle makes his way to the highway, crawling through grass and and thistles, taking the same path traveled by animals and insects alike, he is determined. He carries himself forward and without looking back until he reaches the edges of the pavement. On the pavement his travel is less difficult, even though a woman driving a car must swerve to miss him. And still another car, this one driven by a man, swerves to hit him. And when the latter succeeds, the turtle is sent flying from the highway, upside down for some time until he is able to to pull himself right side up again. Determined, he continues to move forward.

We might ask ourselves why Steinbeck includes the narrative of the turtle, and though it may not seem important to The Grapes of Wrath, as we come to know the Joads better, the turtle story begins to make more sense within the context of their own travels on the road. Much like the turtle, the Joads' struggle on Highway 66 as they leave behind their Oklahoma homes in search of work in California. Also like the turtle, the Joads encounter people who go out of their way to help them, or at the least, not hurt them. Think of Mrs. Wainwright in Chapter 30 when she tends to both Ma and Rose of Sharon during and after the birth of the stillborn child. And just as the man who went out of his way to hurt the turtle, so did some go out of their way to make life more difficult for the Joads. Consider the camp owner in Chapter 16 who refuses to allow Tom to camp with the rest of the family unless he pays him more money.

Although these are only a few examples of how the turtle story actually represents the larger story of the Joads, we can surmise that Steinbeck includes the turtle narrative early in the book to mirror what happens to the Joads throughout it.

The Allegory of the Joad's Dog

Historic Route 66
Route 66

In Chapter 13, the Joad's family dog is killed by a speeding driver while the family stops at a service station for fuel and water. While the story of the actual death of the dog is tragic in its own right, we can consider it as a kind of warning story. Much like the turtle story, the Joads' dog's tragic death serves as an allegory for what will befall the Joads. For instance, death of family members beginning with Grampa, who dies shortly after the dog. Of course it's not so simple as the pet's death foreshadowing the death of human family members, so much as it is a symbol of the hardships of the road. While traveling on the highway, the Joads lose Grampa and Granma, one right after the other. And although Rose of Sharon's baby and Reverend Casy both die in camps, they are both still living just off the road.

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