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Symbolism and Themes in the Grapes of Wrath

Spiritualistic Symbolism and Themes in the Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath is the Pulitzer prize winning novel of the acclaimed American writer, John Steinbeck. The Nobel laureate author comprehends the plight of a poor American family - The Joads who are victims of poverty, misery and ill-treatment.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
The Great Depression period in America was filled with intense poverty and suffering. People had lost their jobs and lands. It was a hopeless situation for the poor and the middle-class in America. This background itself provides a compelling narrative for the author. The characters undergo an increasing intensity of pain and suffering, as they face each day laden with a host of problems. Amidst these grave circumstances, the protagonist has not given up on his endeavor to search for a better future, if not for him, then, at least for the forthcoming generation.

Transcendental Symbolism

The author brings to light a very crucial aspect of human beings. The spiritual beliefs, and adherence to a morally correct behavior is tested to the core in an adverse condition. The Joad family's determination, particularly Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Rose of Sharon to live through the hardships is a test of the human spirit. They stood by their attributes when circumstances were bearing them down to forfeit them. This spirit of standing by one's beliefs is what shapes the character of an individual. Economically and socially, human beings have been known to suppress other humans in order to maintain their dominance. Symbolism of what lied in store for the Joad family was depicted in their family dog's death at the gas station. Ross of Sharon - the Joad daughter, giving birth to a stillborn baby in times of starvation is symbolic of the hope that entails the human character. The way in which the baby's corpse was disposed off had hints of Moses' character from the Bible. Thus, the author includes many symbols referring to episodes in the holy book.

History is full of examples of bondage, slavery, and atrocities committed by a certain class on the poor and the helpless. The novel describes the reluctance of a favored class of society, in this case the Californian society, to assimilate the mass influx of their fellow countrymen. They feared that the migrant population may seize their lands and jobs, and in the process become the dominant class. This led them to savagely defend their position by treating the incoming flow of people as animals, denying them lodgings and rightful wages for their work. This behavior is symbolic of the eternal struggle in the history of civilization, to maintain dominance over another race, religion or culture. Humans do it because of their inherent fear that the other class may seize their 'dignified' position in society, and not so much because of the dislike of that class, although they do justify it by the same.

The 'Helpful' Belligerence

The novel emphasizes the fact that the resolve of human beings to fight for their rights is absolutely essential to maintain their dignity. In fact, the tremendous hatred against injustice is what makes a man to retain his honor and dignity. The women folk in the migrant population believe that their husbands, sons and brothers fear starvation and suffering. This inspires a deep sense of anger in them against their oppressors, which in turn gives them an aura of self-respect.

According to the author, selfishness and altruism go hand-in-hand. The migrant population understood the need to remain united, and therefore exhibited a rare sense of care and concern for fellow migrants despite their individual concerns. On the other hand, the privileged class entered into a nasty competition to sustain their atrocious behavior and push the oppressed further into the depths of poverty. It is adversity and not prosperity that brigs forth the best virtues in man.

The novel also reasserts the emotional and psychological strength a woman possesses. The Joad family men, on their way to California are lost into deep thought and lost in reflecting upon their past. It is Ma Joad who assumes the responsibility of the entire family, breaching all norms of traditionally patriarch society, and successfully looking after everyone's needs. Pa Joad, although skeptical of her dominance initially, knew deep within that she was more than capable of taking over the family onus.

The light and dark shades characterizing a person's response to circumstances are vividly described in this book. Thus, 'The Grapes of Wrath' highlights many virtues that characterize humans and their adaptation to the world around them.