Route 66 in The Grapes of Wrath: Symbolism & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the meaning of Route 66 in 'The Grapes of Wrath'. We'll discover what author John Steinbeck meant when he called it 'a migrant road', 'a mother road', and 'a road of flight'. We will explore the author's use of symbolism, biblical allusion, and other themes.

The Road with Many Meanings

''Well if you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66.''

You may recognize the lyrics from any one of the famous renditions of the song ''Route 66.'' Nat King Cole rolled it out in his 1946 R&B hit. Bing Crosby also released a version that year. Then Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, and John Mayer also put out their own recordings. But what initially inspired that cross-country trek?

Route 66 is a symbol of both comfort and hardship in The Grapes of Wrath.
Route 66

In The Grapes of Wrath, there's no symbol more loaded with meaning than the road. John Steinbeck writes about Highway 66 as a route on which migrants unify into a community. The road is at once a home for the migrants as well as a path that will lead them to opportunity. It's a symbol of both comfort and hardship. On the road, we see faith and hope as well as death and despair.

In this lesson, we'll explore the many meanings of Route 66 through its depiction in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

The Migrant Road

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath established the great American tradition of the road trip. Before the Ford Model T, the only way for average Americans to travel long distances across land was by railroad or horseback.

In Chapter 12, Steinbeck writes: ''Highway 66 is the main migrant road. … 66 is the path of a people in flight. ... 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.'' Route 66 represents flight, or migration. The migrants are ''refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership.''

Steinbeck imbues the journey with rich symbolism that resonates with biblical imagery. In literature, symbolism refers to the way an author represents symbols that stand for ideas or qualities. Route 66 symbolizes the migrant's journey: a forced exodus. Steinbeck draws a connection between the Okies' departure from the Dust Bowl and the biblical exodus from the Old Testament by using the road as a symbol of that journey.

The Exodus

By referring to Route 66 as a ''road of flight,'' Steinbeck draws an implicit allusion to the Israelites' flight from Egypt, as told in the Old Testament. The exodus, or mass migration of the Israelites out of Egypt, chronicles the flight of the Jews led by the prophet Moses. This journey includes the parting of the Red Sea, the Burning Bush, and the Ten Commandments.

Like the Israelites fleeing enslavement in Egypt, Steinbeck narrates the similarly harrowing journey of the Okies as they travel to California, the promised land, along Route 66. The Joads witness the death of Ma and Pa, stranded families living in broken-down cars, the lack of food and water, and sickening heat. You might say, in comparison to the Old Testament exodus, that the Joads had it easy.

Migrant Community

In the face of terrible hardship, Steinbeck manages to offer hints of hope. For example, at the end of chapter 12, Steinbeck tells an anecdote that should restore your faith in humanity:

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