Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath is extremely complex, with many images drawn from the Old and New Testaments. However, Steinbeck as usual was eclectic in his use of symbols, and a great deal of the novel is given to either pagan and universal archetypes, or to highly original meanings unique to the author’s own vision and experience. While acknowledging the Judeo-Christian content, these other symbols are just as important, and an exploration into their use in Steinbeck’s work, reveal their real significance.
Much of the existing critical discussion of The Grapes of Wrath has focused on the pervasive Judeo-Christian symbolism of the work, particularly the identification of Jim Casy with Jesus Christ. Undeniably, Steinbeck intended this association; but to attempt to force the book’s rich imagery onto the Procrustean bed of only one religion is to do it a disservice. Perhaps the central device that powers The Grapes of Wrath is the contrast and conflict between a benevolent, passionate and altruistic life force and a destructive, selfish or, worse yet, uncaring negativism.
Martin Shockley, in his critical essay entitled “Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath”, enumerates the Biblical references that pervade the novel, among them, the Okies as “a homeless and persecuted people…seeking their own Promised Land” (the Israelites) (Shockley, page 139), and most obviously, Jim Casy as Christ. First of all, the initials J.C. signal Steinbeck’s intent; also, Jim goes “into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out sumpin”, then embraces an ideal of love for his fellow man (“Maybe it’s all men and women we love”), takes on t…
…ess kindness, rolled together into a series of evocative and timeless images and symbols that suggest a means of moving forward toward a positive future.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel, (1986). “Indestructible Women in The Grapes of Wrath”; Leone, Bruno, Editor (1996). Readings on John Steinbeck, San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
Hunter, J.P., (1963). “Artistic and Thematic Structure in The Grapes of Wrath”; Leone, Bruno, Editor (1996). Readings on John Steinbeck, San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
Shockley, Martin, (November 1956). “Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath”; Leone, Bruno, Editor (1996). Readings on John Steinbeck, San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
Steinbeck, John, (1996). The Grapes of Wrath. (14th edition). New York: Bantam Books.
Steinbeck, John, (1960). To A God Unknown (8th edition). New York: Bantam Books.