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Examples of Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

''The Grapes of Wrath'' is littered with symbolism as John Steinbeck tries to share the horrors of the California migrant workers during the Great Depression. This lesson addresses both the dark and hopeful symbols within the story.

Grapes of Wrath Synopsis

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is the story of a family originally from Oklahoma that travels to California to work in a migrant working camp. This all happens during the Great Depression, when people were very poor and struggling to survive. The novel follows the Joad family and their struggles as they travel from camp to camp trying to find work. They perform jobs like ditch digging and peach and cotton picking. They lose people along the way, and others struggle to find enough money to survive. However, despite their trials, they're still able to find love and hopefulness along the way.

Steinbeck originally got his idea for the story while writing articles on the migrant workers in the 1930s. While interviewing these workers, he realized the horrific times they were going through and how poorly they were treated by farmers in California. Although this book is fiction, it shines light on a real issue that actually effected change to labor laws.

Symbols of Trials and Tribulations

John Steinbeck's novel is a dark story which lends itself to dark symbols. The following symbols are some that symbolize the trials the Joad family endures.

  • Dustbowl - The original place that the Joads lived was called the Dustbowl, which was a dry place that had become impossible to farm. The symbolism here is religious, and refers to the desert of Egypt and the challenges that the people had to face, which foreshadows the future trials of the Joad family, and that leaving the dustbowl was just going to perpetuate their challenges.
  • The Joads' Dog - The death of the Joad family dog happens early on in the book, as the family is on their way to California. The luxury car that runs over the dog, and the death of the dog seem to be foreshadowing the death that they will experience along their journey. It also foreshadows the trouble the Joads will face once they make it to California, and how the greedy California farmers will oppress the migrant workers.
  • Blood - There are many instances involving blood throughout the novel, whether due to the death of the dog, the killing that takes place, the fight with police, and even just the blood from the work being done on the farms. Steinbeck seems to use these bloody moments to symbolize death.

Dual Symbolism

There are two symbols that seem to symbolize different meanings at different times, which is why it is important to review them.

  • Route 66 - There are two symbols that can be gleaned here. First, one can infer that Steinbeck was using Route 66 to symbolize the saving of Noah and his family in the Old Testament, and the trials they went through until the land could be seen again. The land being seen again symbolizes work and money, which equates to life for the Joad family. However, the road also symbolizes hope for the Joad family since they are on their way to an allegedly better life.
  • Birth and Death of Baby - The birth of Rose of Sharon's baby happens towards the end of Steinbeck's novel. The actual birth symbolizes a new beginning for the Joad family, but is overshadowed by the realization that the baby is stillborn. The death of the baby symbolizes the constant strife of the Joads and the lack of hope for a better tomorrow.

Symbols of Hope

Although hope is rare within The Grapes of Wrath, there are some symbols that point towards hopeful things for the Joad family and for all of the migrant workers.

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