War Imagery in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

In 'The Grapes of Wrath', Steinbeck uses war imagery to illustrate the difficult lives of the migrants as well as the conflict between the different classes during the Great Depression. This lesson looks at some examples of this imagery in context.

The Context of The Grapes of Wrath

Imagine if you and your family were suddenly told you had to leave the home where you'd lived for years. You would have to pack up what you could and hope to find a new life in an area you knew nothing about. Would this experience feel like evidence of economic adjustments to you? Or would you feel similar to a victim of war?

Although the Great Depression was not a war, this is surely what it must have felt like to its greatest victims. John Steinbeck uses war imagery to make this point throughout his work. Imagery is when writers use descriptive language to paint a picture that evokes certain emotions in their readers.

Tractors as Tanks

The Grapes of Wrath begins with descriptions of families being driven away from their homes and off their lands. The sharecroppers are no longer relevant in the new economy, which depends on machines working the lands more efficiently and for less cost. Although the families are not expelled with the kind of violence that is associated with war, Steinbeck makes the case that the effect of the expulsion is not much different.

In Chapter 14, he cleverly compares the tractors to tanks in order to make this point: 'But this tractor does two things - it turns the land and it turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both.'

While most of us look at tractors as benign machines that do not pose a threat to people, it is likely that the families who lost their homes looked at them somewhat differently; they were forced to leave their homes by these machines, just as they might have been driven away by tanks.

Steinbeck compares tractor to tanks

The Positive Side of War

In Chapter 14, Steinbeck highlights the silver lining of difficult times in human history. He makes the case that mankind is constantly moving forward, but has occasional setbacks. These setbacks are merely a 'half a step' backwards, and will not hold humanity back for long before people take another step forward toward progress.

Steinbeck argues that mankind goes into battle because of the passions on both sides, and that the time to worry is when people no longer care enough to fight. He writes, 'If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live - for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died.'

Bombs as Evidence of Passion

You probably find this graphic imagery of bombs being dropped and throats being cut as jarring. This powerful effect serves to invite empathy for the Joad family, as it indirectly compares the suffering in The Grapes of Wrath to the more objectively violent and gruesome struggles of war. Again, although superficially these two contexts look quite different, the lives of the migrant farmers are very much on the line, and their suffering is every bit as genuine.

In Chapter 14, Steinbeck is making the case that, just like in war, these difficult economic times are also an example of a half a step backwards that will be corrected in time, and it is evidence that at least humanity is trying to move forward.

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