Symbols in The Grapes of Wrath: Drought, Dust, Rain, Flood

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 symbolism of the drought, dust, rain, and flood from John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath''. In this novel, the Joad family faces a variety of hardships as they leave their Oklahoma home during the Dust Bowl.

Definition and Background

In Katy Perry's 'Firework', the beautiful explosive is a symbol for letting yourself shine. Symbols are objects or events in a story that represent a bigger idea. In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family faces economic hardship during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Some of the symbols that are used include: drought, dust, rain, and flood. Let's take a closer look at some of the symbolism in this novel.


At the beginning of the novel, the Joad families are sharecroppers in Oklahoma, but when the drought hit, the corn no longer grew. A drought is a period of very little rain. Oklahoma went from being a fertile land to a wasteland in short order. The drought in this novel symbolizes more than just a lack of rain, but represents scarcity in all of its forms. When the drought hits Oklahoma, the Joads experience a lack of food, shelter, safety, and even basic human rights. The narrator writes, ''This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us.'' The quote indicates that what happens to the land happens to all of them.


The Dust Bowl was a combination of severe drought and wind erosion that lasted for about 8 years in the 1930s. During this time, huge dust storms called black blizzards decreased visibility and destroyed farms. The narrator describes the low visibility: ''When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards.'' Despite the fact that people kept their houses secured and wedged cloth around the windows and doors, the dust managed to settle on everything, both inside and out.

The dust symbolizes the unexpected sorrow and hardships that often appear in life. The misery and sadness can come in and touch every part of us. When that occurs, there is nothing we can do except figure out a way to deal with it. For the Joads, the dust ultimately forced them out of their comfortable existence and into a whole new world. While things didn't exactly get better once they arrived in California, they learned from their experience and found ways to survive.


While in Oklahoma, the farmers prayed for rain, but as migrant workers, rain means they can't pick the crops. While picking cotton, the rains begin. The narrator says, ''They raced at the picking, raced against time and cotton weight, raced against the rain and against each other--only so much cotton to pick, only so much money to be made.'' Although rain is the opposite of the problem they faced in Oklahoma, it is yet another example of how Mother Nature can work against the laborers. In moderation, rain can be a good thing, but in excess, it can also represent insurmountable odds.

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