Animals in The Grapes of Wrath: Symbols, Imagery & Quotes

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we examine John Steinbeck's use of animals and insects as symbols in ''The Grapes of Wrath''; a story about the Joad family facing obstacles as they move from Oklahoma to California.


Think about some of our nation's symbols. We have a flag, a song, and even a national bird. Symbols are things that represent bigger ideas. The American flag is more than just a piece of cloth; it symbolizes freedom, loyalty, and unity. The Grapes of Wrath contains many animal and insect symbols. Let's examine some animal symbolism from the novel.

The Bee and the Grasshopper

After getting out of prison, Tom Joad manages to get a ride from a trucker to his parents' home. When a bee flies into the cab of the truck, ''the driver put out his hand and carefully drove the bee into an air stream that blew it out of the window.'' The bee symbolizes the times we find ourselves in trouble and someone gives us a hand to lead the way out.

When a grasshopper flies into the cab, Tom has a different response. The narrator says, ''Joad reached forward and crushed its hard skull-like head with his fingers, and he let it into the wind stream out the window.'' The grasshopper symbolizes being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong person. Some people (the trucker) will offer you a hand, while other people (Tom) will crush you.

The Cat

When Tom gets home, he finds his family farm empty except for the cat. As he approaches the cat, it refuses to come near him. It is apparent that the cat has been fending for itself for quite some time. At Tom tries to put the pieces together, he says, ''No, it's more'n jus' this place. Whyn't that cat jus' move in with some neighbors-- with the Rances.''

Tom realizes that something big has happened because there aren't any neighbors. Everyone is gone. After a former neighbor arrives to explain that Tom's family has lost their property, the neighbor offers to share a couple of rabbits he caught for dinner. The narrator explains, ''The gray cat came out of the barn shed and trotted miaowing toward the fire, but, nearly there, it turned and went directly to one of the little piles of rabbit entrails on the ground.''

The Joad family cat symbolizes the their displacement. It lived happily as the family pet until the bank drove them off of the property. Now, it scavenges for its food and doesn't trust anyone. Just like the Joads, it goes to desperate measures to survive.

Joad Family Dog

When Tom catches up with his family, they are days away from loading the truck and driving to California. There is only enough room to take one of the dogs on top of the truck, so the other two are given to their former neighbor. After stopping to get gas, the Joads pull the dog off the roof so he can drink from a muddy puddle of water. He tried to cross the road when, ''A big swift car whisked near, tires squealed. The dog dodged helplessly, and with a shriek, cut off in the middle, went under the wheels. The big car slowed for a moment and faces looked back, and then it gathered greater speed and disappeared. And the dog, a blot of blood and tangled, burst intestines, kicked slowly in the road.''

After the gruesome death, Tom drags the dog's body to the side of the road. Pa said, ''I don' know how we was gonna feed 'im anyways. Just as well, maybe.'' The poor dog is the first of many casualties along the way. On the farm, walking in the road isn't that dangerous, but on the highway, it's deadly. The Joad family dog symbolizes the unknown hazards the Joads will face.

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