Hope in The Grapes of Wrath: Theme & Symbols

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn that in 'The Grapes of Wrath' the characters survive in part by finding hope in one another and that Steinbeck uses symbols of hope as a way to represent the best of humanity in the novel.

Hope Saves 'The Grapes of Wrath From Despair

To read The Grapes of Wrath is to know that it is not a happy novel, but then again, most serious literature is not. However, even when writing on serious matters, as Steinbeck does in The Grapes of Wrath, his characters, especially the Joads, seek hope during times of darkness. Throughout the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck offers a through line of hope, both thematically and through symbolism, which parallels the suffering his character experience. We might argue that Steinbeck does this to save the novel from its own difficult subject matter.

An Oklahoma dust storm
Dust Storm

Searching for Hope

In The Grapes of Wrath opening, Steinbeck describes the drought in Oklahoma, highlighting the dying corn crops and the dirt that blew across the plains, covering everything in a layer of dust. We understand that this is the beginning of the drought, and people are worried, but they have hope that it will not be their ruin. We see children looking to adults for hope and women to men for the same. Consider the following quote from Chapter One:

'Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust… And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men--to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly... and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and the women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes... After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and there was no break.'

From the above passage we realize the severity of the situation for the farmers, that there is very real concern about for their farms. Even as the men scan their dying crops, the women seek hope in their faces, so long as the men don't ''break,'' they feel certain all is safe. Though it may seem counter intuitive to feel safe in the anger of the men, we come to understand that anger is hopeful. To ''break'' would mean there was no hope. So when the men become angry, the women understand this to mean not all hope is gone. The children also look for signs of ''breaking,'' of despondency, in the adults. To see despair in the adults is to give the children reason not to have hope. This looking to another for signs of not ''breaking'' contributes to the thematic through line of maintaining hope in the novel.

The Road to California: A Symbol of Hope

Although the road the migrants take to California is not an easy one for them to travel, and even today Historic Route 66 can be pretty rough for modern vehicles, it still symbolized hope for the future. Oklahoma had become a place of loss, but the road leading to California, a state the that promised work and prosperity, was a place of hope. And though Steinbeck writes that the road could be cruel, he also writes that the way migrants helped one another renewed their faith in humanity. Consider the following quote from Chapter 12:

'There was a family of twelve and they were forced off the land. They had no car. The built a trailer out of junk and loaded it with their possessions. They pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. Five of them road in the sedan and seven on the trailer... The man who pulled them fed them. And that's true. But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith. The people in flight from terror behind--strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.'

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