Color Imagery in The Grapes of Wrath

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 will examine the color imagery that is used by John Steinbeck in ''The Grapes of Wrath'' to describe the setting and the characters in a way that gives the readers emotional insight.


The Beatles song, 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' uses a great deal of imagery. The first sentence is 'Picture yourself in a boat on a river - With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.' Imagery is a vivid description that allows the reader to visualize the character, setting, or event in a song or story. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses a great deal of color in his imagery in a way that becomes symbolic of the mood. Let's examine his use of the following colors: yellow, gray, and red to describe the setting in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.


Yellow and gold symbolize new hope and prosperity. When Tom is paroled after serving his time for homicide, he is given a fancy new outfit to restart his life in. Among the clothing he is given is a very impractical pair of fancy yellow shoes. It didn't take long to break them in. The narrator writes, '~Joad took a few steps, and the flourlike dust spurted up in front of his new yellow shoes, and the yellowness was disappearing under gray dust.'' Tom's hope is fading as quickly as the yellow shoes turned gray.

When he arrives at his Uncle John's house, a yellow shepherd dog is there to greet him. The dogs don't last, either. Two of them have to be given away, and one is hit by a car before they ever made it to California.

The narrator writes, ''The yellowing, dusty, afternoon light put a golden color on the land. The cornstalks looked golden.'' While there may appear to be hope from the beautiful yellow light that is cast on the land, the crop is bad.


The least hopeful color that is used to describe the Oklahoma land is gray. We already saw an example of Tom's yellow shoes turning gray. The narrator writes, ''The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.'' Using gray to describe the land shows that it has become desolate due to the dust storms and drought conditions.

The sky is also described using gray. The narrator writes, ''The dawn came, but no day. In the gray 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.'' The dust storms have turned the sky gray and are blocking out some of the sun's rays so that everything looks dreary.

When the sunshine does break through, the ''cornstalks threw gray shadows sideways now, and the raw smell of hot dust was in the air.'' There is just no escaping the gray all around them.

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