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Biblical Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath"

Hausarbeit 2011 12 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. The Biblical Story of Exodus in The Grapes of Wrath:
2.1. The Exodus of the Joads

3. Conclusion

4 Works Cited

1. Introduction

In 1938 John Steinbeck began writing The Grapes of Wrath, a novel which was to gain him his greatest acclaim. This novel is set in the time of the Great Depression and of the Dust Bowl1 in America. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck tries to expose the hardships and plights of the people dispossessed from their lands during that time. People like the Joads from Oklahoma that were to become exploited migrant workers in California, a place which they thought the Promised Land.2

Hence, Steinbeck gained the reputation of being a “proletarian writer” because he sides with the common worker.3 Thus, The Grapes of Wrath also belongs to Steinbeck’s Labor Trilogy.4 What is more, his novel was sharply criticized and very much discussed at the time of its publication: “It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national radio hook-ups; but above all, it was read”.5 In spite of all this critique, in 1940 Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this novel and in 1962 he also won the Noble Prize for Literature.6

Hence, the Grapes of Wrath must be more than simply a piece of propagandistic writing. In point of fact, “Steinbeck patterned the book on far more universal themes, both the biblical story of Exodus, and also humanity’s capacity for survival (…) in the face of (…) calamity”.7 It is very interesting that Steinbeck uses biblical parallels in his story. Thus, he alludes to the Old Testament, the Israelites and the Exodus as well as to Christ and the New Testament. In other words, one might also say that Steinbeck takes the reader through the development of the Bible in order to reveal the migrants’ developing humanity and religion.8

This is already suggested by the title of this novel for it is taken from The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe.9 The fact that Steinbeck’s great American novel seems to rely firmly on a biblical consciousness is suggested in this context because the lyrics of the Battle Hymn also refer to the biblical passage Revelation (14:19-20). This passage appeals to deliverance in the final judgement.10 Hence, as far as the novel is concerned, it is suggested that there will also be deliverance of the workers after managing all their hardships and developing compassion and humanity.

Therefore, The Grapes of Wrath shows both elements from the Old and the New Testament. Biblical symbols from the Old Testament are of course the Exodus of the Joad family, the Dust Bowl as the plague, their truck as Noah’s Ark and finally the deluge. Key elements from the New Testament are for instance the baptism of Tom Joad, the communion of Rose of Sharon and Jim Casy and Tom Joad as Christ-like figures.

In the following, this paper will deal with the function of biblical symbols in The Grapes of Wrath. First of all, it will be argued that the Joads undergo the biblical story of Exodus in this novel. Secondly, it will be shown that both Jim Casy and Tom Joad are Christ figures. What is more, it is also important to take a closer look at the role of humanity and compassion taking the example of Rose of Sharon.

2. The Biblical Story of Exodus in The Grapes of Wrath:

2.1. The Exodus of the Joads

Ever since the first writings and reports of the Puritans and the colonial founders, America has been regarded as the Promised Land, the New Canaan or the New Jerusalem. Hence, for example William Bradford, a colonist who described the arrival of pilgrims at Plymouth regarded the pilgrims as chosen people similar to the Israelites of the Old Testament.11 This comparison Bradford and his companions found justified because like the ancient Israelites they were also persecuted in their homelands for religious reasons. Thus, the pilgrims left Europe for a new Promised Land, i.e. America.12

For this reason, it is not surprising that Steinbeck also deals with the Biblical story of Exodus in The Grapes of Wrath and uses religious symbolism. Hence, The Grapes of Wrath shows the structure of the Biblical Exodus because it is also concerned with the major themes of hardships, journey, captivity and the Promised Land.13 Thus, one might claim that the Joads experience an American Exodus. Forced off their land by pawn agents and brokers during the Depression, the Joads lose their home and decide to go to the Promised Land which is in their case California. They are convinced to go to the west coast for “[t]here’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange”.14 Hence, similar to the Israelites of the Old Testament they must leave their home and cross the desert in order to reach the land of “milk and honey”, a place of “fruitions of hope”.15

Therefore, the Joads prepare their journey to California and buy a truck which resembles Noah’s Ark.16 Most tellingly the Joad family has twelve members. This seems to draw a parallel between the twelve Joads and the twelve tribes of Israel. What is more, the Joads final meal before leaving Oklahoma for California also resembles the Jewish Passover (cf. Ch. 10). At this occasion, the Joads kill pigs, eat their flesh and bones and conserve the remainder for their long journey. The Joads last feast in Oklahoma like the Passover is celebrated in order to “remember the binding together of the family through God’s promise that preceded the Israelite’s flight from Egypte”.17 Hence, it is also telling that facing different hardships the Joads show a great will to survive.

Nonetheless, the Joad family seems to be falling apart after leaving for California. Hence, Grampa Joad is soon to die after leaving his home, a home he did not intend to leave behind.18 He never wanted to go to the west coast even though he saw California as a place of hope and promise dreaming of grapes19 in abundance: “I’m gonna pick me a wash tub full of grapes, an’ I’m gonna set in ‘em, an’ scrooge aroun’, an’ let the juice run down my pants” (Ch. 10, p. 107). Thus, his fate might be compared to that of Lot’s wife. Lot’s wife did not want to leave her home in Sodom either and consequently she was turned into a pillar of salt.20 This is further emphasized by the fact that at Grampa’s funeral Tom Joad cites Lot’s wife by saying: “’An’ Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord’” (Ch. 13, p. 167).21

However, the family further unravels because Noah Joad leaves them soon. As the Joads stop by the Colorado River on their way to California and the men want to refresh themselves in the water, Noah undergoes a kind of baptism. He then voices his intention of being different from the other Joads and to lead a life of his own. He rejects their way of living and wants to “abandon the belief system many Oakies adhere to”.22 Therefore, he refuses to go on with them. In fact, Noah is very much attracted to the water. Hence, he “[l]ike[s] to lay [in the water] forever. Never get hungry an’ never get sad. Lay in the water all life long, lazy as a brood sow in the mud” (Ch. 18, p. 239). He wants to walk down the river and live solely by fishing. Thus, one might say that Noah “is baptized into a new life separating himself away from the Joads and migrants alike”.23

In fact, water is a very important symbolic element in this novel. Not only is Noah baptized by the water but the Joads also become symbolically baptized as they stop at the Colorado River before crossing the desert. To the Joads the river becomes an “experience of initiation and naming”.24 For at the river, the Joads are given new names, they become “Oakies” (cf. Ch. 18, p. 241). Thus, the reality of becoming migrant laborers in California draws nearer to them. Similar to the Israelites who had to cross the Red Sea, the Joads are expecting hope and a brand-new life on the other side of the river. However, “like those fleeing Egypt, the Joads are made to wait for their reward”25 and encounter many difficulties and hardships just like the Hebrews in the Exodus.

However, at first sight, California indeed seems to be a New Canaan. As the Joads arrive at the fertile San Joaquin Valley they seem to have indeed discovered the Promised Land:

They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them, and then – suddenly they saw the great valley below them. (…) The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses.

And Pa said, “God Almighty!” (…) Ruthie and Winfield scrambled down from the car, and then they stood, silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley. The distance was thinned with haze, and the land grew softer and softer in the distance. (…) Ruthie and Winfield looked at it, and Ruthie whispered, “It’s California.” (…) “’There’s fruit,’ he [Winfield] said aloud” (Ch. 18, p. 267).

Although this view of California seems to be perfect the Joads still encounter difficulties there. They also realize that people refuse to help them. Thus, for instance the gas station attendant sends them away for he thinks they are beggars. Hence, the Joads have to admit that they are not welcome in California. In fact, the Californians are like the Egyptians in the Old Testament.

A very important and symbolic character in this novel is of course the former preacher Jim Casy who has become unsure of his belief. He is picked up by the Joads along their way to California. Casy appears to be quite tolerant and believes in humanity and man’s natural goodness. Thus, he tells Tom of his opinion that “’[t]here ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say’” (Ch. 4, p. 27). Casy is in point of fact a Christ-like figure. First of all, his initials are the same as Jesus Christ. What is more, like Christ Casy also went into the wilderness for intense prayer before returning to society. Hence, Casy withdraws himself for four years from the public in order to develop his religious beliefs and his commitment to humanity.26 Like Christ, Casy also becomes “a herald of a new consciousness, bringing also through his commitment to humanity and his sacrifice a promise of a new beginning”.27

Hence, it is not surprising that Casy also sacrifices himself for the Joads. In order to save Tom Joad Casy takes the blame for Tom hitting a guard in Hooverville. As Casy is carried away by the police he feels proud of his sacrifice knowing that it will have a great impact on Tom’s life. Hence, “[o]n his [Casy’s] lips there was a faint smile and on his face a curious look of conquest” (Ch. 20, p. 314). Later Casy is clubbed to death and like Christ he forgives his murderer by saying: “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’ ” (Ch. 26, p. 456). This clearly alludes to Christ’s statement to God when he was crucified. Christ also asked God to forgive his murderers because they did not know what they were doing. This is certainly a very powerful act of forgiveness and it enables Casy to triumph over his murderers.

Casy’s death indeed baptizes Tom Joad and thus he becomes a new Christ figure.28 Hence, in prison Tom has already been called “Jesus Meek”. He now takes up Casy’s ideals and devotes himself to the collective good. However, his character does not only show traits of Christ but of Moses as well because “he has killed a man and has been away for a time before rejoining his people and becoming their leader”.29 Thus, finally Tom becomes a new leader who will guide people to “a new understanding of the place they inhabit here and now”.30 In point of fact, in the new country there is neither place for a Noah nor for a Moses. This is the reason why Noah Joad is left behind at the Colorado River and Rose of Sharon’s baby as a Moses figure is stillborn.

In the final chapters of the novel the land is flooded by a sudden rainstorm that resembles a deluge. At first sight, this flood seems to stand for renewal and regeneration. However, during the flood Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child. The Joads cannot bury it in the rain and thus Uncle John decides to send the dead baby in a box down the flooding water. He sends the stillborn child away with the words: “’Go down an’ tell’ em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell’ em that way. That’s the way you can talk (…). Go on down now, an’ lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then” (Ch. 30, p. 528). This is clearly reminiscent of how Moses was sent down the river in the Old Testament.

Hence, one can say that “like the prophet of the Bible, this dead child is sent to testify for the people killed and ruined by their rulers”.31 However, one might also claim that the dead child implies that there is no Promised Land in California or elsewhere to be found and that there is no Moses to lead his chosen people to a place of hope. Thus, eventually hope is scattered and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath even becomes a jeremiad.32


1 In the 1930s the area from the Dakotas to the Texas panhandle was hit by a severe drought. This became known as the Dust Bowl. Cf. Cynthia Burkhead, Student Companion to John Steinbeck (London, 2002), p. 64.

2 At that time, many workers from Oklahoma migrated to California thus creating a crisis situation there. As a result, wages dropped and many families suffered from starvation. Cf. Louis Owens, “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath”. In: A New Study Guide to Steinbeck’s Major Works, With Critical Explications. Tetsumaro Hayashi, ed. (New York/ London, 1993), pp. 90-91.

3 Cf. Jeffrey Schultz & Luchen Li, Critical Companion to John Steinbeck. A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (New York, 2005), p. 90.

4 The Grapes of Wrath is the last novel in the Labor Trilogy. The other two novels in this Trilogy are In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men. In these novels Steinbeck expresses his sympathy with the workingman. Cf. ibid.

5 Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck cited from _of_Wrath. 06 Feb. 2009.

6 Cf. Schultz/Li, pp. 90-91.

7 Ibid, p. 91.

8 Cf. Aaron Davis, A Look at the Major Symbols in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. 06 Feb. 2009.

9 Steinbeck had difficulties finding a title for his novel. Hence, his wife Carol Henning Steinbeck suggested a title taken from the lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” (cf. Owen, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, pp. 102-103).

10 Cf. _of_Wrath. 06 Feb. 2009.

11 Louis Owens, “The American Joads”. In: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Harold Bloom, ed. (New York, 2007), p. 67.

12 In his work Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-50) William Bradford compares the pilgrims to “Moyses & the Isralits when they went out of Egipte” (ibid).

13 Cf. Davis, p. 1.

14 John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (London, 2000), Ch. 5, p. 39. In the following, it will be quoted from this edition.

15 Christine Deakers, The Grapes of Wrath and Biblical Allusions. 06 Feb. 2009, p. 1.

16 Cf. Davis, p. 1.

17 Burkhead, p. 78.

18 One might also say that the farmland of the Joads symbolizes their lives. Consequently, when it is taken away from them they have to die (cf. John Steinbeck, Strength Through Symbolism. 06 Feb. 2009).

19 “Throughout the novel grapes have symbolized the California Promised Land – and the American Eden – and served to link this new Promised Land with the biblical Canaan” (Owens, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 104).

20 Cf. Davis, p. 2 and 09 Feb. 2009.

21 Genesis 19:18. Cf. 09 Feb. 2009.

22 Deakers, p. 1.

23 Ibid.

24 Burkhead, p. 78.

25 Ibid.

26 Cf. John Steinbeck, Strength Through Symbolism. 06 Feb. 2009.

27 Owens, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 103.

28 Cf. Davis, p. 3, Owens, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 103.

29 Paul J. Hunter, „Steinbeck’s Wine of Affirmation.“ Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Grapes of Wrath (New York, 1982), p. 40.

30 Owens, The American Joads, p. 74.

31 Davis, p. 3.

32 A jeremiad is a prophecy of doom or a bitter lament. Cf. Owens, The American Joads, p. 74.


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Titel: Biblical Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath"