Study Guide

The Grapes of Wrath Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By John Steinbeck

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Road

Whoever said a road is just a road has not read The Grapes of Wrath. From the minute we watch Tom Joad return home after four years in prison, roads take on great meaning. His "dark quiet eyes became amused as he stared along the road" (2.53), the road that will take him home at last. Then, Route 66 is "the mother road, the road of flight" (12.1), and it is the lifeline, the thing that allows thousands of families to pursue their hopes and dreams. But it is also the road that leads to their misery in California.

We think it's interesting to note that Route 66 never really intersects with any other major highway or road – it goes in two directions only. When you are on Route 66, you can either go forward in search of opportunity, or you can go backwards and return to the poverty you came from.

We also learn that roads are dangerous places. If you are a turtle or a dog trying to cross the road, there's a good chance that you will get run over. In the world of this novel, drivers like to create road-kill. The road can also be dangerous if your car breaks down far from the next town.

Bugs

We don't know if you noticed, but there are lots of insects and insect-y images in this novel. When Tom Joad hitches a ride with a truck driver, a grasshopper finds its way into the truck cabin, and "Joad reached forward and crushed its hard skull-like head with his fingers, and he let it into the wind stream out the window" (2.56). This moment certainly gives the phrase, "smooshed like a bug," a new meaning.

Our narrator pays special attention to the insects that populate the farmland, and we are reminded of that Biblical story in the Book of Exodus that describes the swarm of locusts that descended upon Egyptian crops after the Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrew slaves. We also are reminded of July 26, 1931, when a swarm of grasshoppers hit the Midwest region of the United States, destroying crops and devastating farms. The swarm was so thick, that the sun was temporarily blocked (source). Because of these stories, we fear insects and we know them to be capable of ruining a farm.

However, in The Grapes of Wrath, we also notice how easy it is for humans to kill insects, and there's a violence to the way, for instance, Tom crushes the grasshopper. We begin to see similarities between the way humans treat insects and the way landowners treat tenant farmers.

Music

There may not be iPods, pianos, or rock bands in this novel, but there is certainly a lot of music. The used cars that carry thousands of migrant workers to California have an unusual and unique music. Those who drive these cars learn to listen intently for their rhythms and melodies. One family listens as "the high hum of the motor dulled and the song of the tires dropped in pitch" (2.64). Learning to listen to the car's music becomes a means of survival. Our narrator describes the panic and anxiety that comes from driving a used car across the country:

Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of our hand on the gear-shift level; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses, for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean – a week here? (12.6)

Making music is one of the most natural things for humans to do. We've been making music for thousands and thousands of years. So, whenever we hear music or whenever music is present, we know humans are tapping into their ancient abilities and desires. We know that their celebrating or mourning, we know that they are expressing themselves in some way. What does it mean, then, that Tom Joad makes and hears more music in prison than he does when he is a free man? He tells the preacher, "me an' some guys had a strang band goin'. Good one. Guy said we ought to go on the radio" (4.68). What other examples of music do you detect in this novel?

The Turtle, the Joad Dog, and Other Furry Friends

Remember that dang turtle in Chapter Three? You know the one. The turtle who kept trying to cross the road, who was dead set on going in a specific direction, but who was nearly run over by cars, and who was picked up and stuffed into Tom Joad's coat? We know what you were thinking when you read this chapter: "Um, Mr. Steinbeck? We like turtles and all, but what the HEY is so important about this turtle? Why do you keep writing about him?"

Well, this stubborn and determined turtle, who almost becomes a Joad pet, reminds us of the stubborn and determined ways of the Joad family and other migrant worker families who persevere even after being kicked off of their farms, cheated by used car salesmen and merchants, and set back by sickness and loss. The turtle accepts the challenges that come his way, but he never forgets where he is going.

Another animal reference is the cat that Tom Joad sees. He recognizes it as an old family cat hanging around his abandoned family farm. Just like the migrant workers, the cat has been turned out of its home. The cat now lives in the wild and must survive on mice and other creatures. It has been transformed from a domestic pet to a wild animal.

We also want to mention the way in which the Joad's dog dies. Sure, the Joads didn't really have a lovey-dovey relationship with this dog, and didn't even have a name for him, but he is the family dog nonetheless. This dog is run over by a speeding, westbound car, and his body is so mangled as a result that his guts lie strewn on the road. We get the feeling that his death foreshadows the gruesome circumstances that lie ahead for the Joads, and of the tough, unrelenting life that awaits them. Times are hard, and people are so desperate and angry that they will not hesitate to run over a dog, or to ruin a family's life.

The cars on the road are also like animals, "limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling" (12.44). We watch humans kill animals without a second thought (remember the Joad pig fest?), and we begin to see similarities between the ways humans and their furry friends behave during desperate times.

Yellows, Grays, and Reds

Our narrator often describes the gold and yellow color of the Oklahoma landscape. He says, "The yellowing, dusty, afternoon light put a golden color on the land. The cornstalks looked golden" (4.70), and we can't help but think of gold and money when we notice yellow things in this novel. It's as though the land is reminding its inhabitants of how it once was rich, lush, and profitable.

Similarly, our narrator talks about the "red country" and the "gray country" of Oklahoma, and we are reminded of the dismal reality of the Dust Bowl drought, and of the blood, sweat, and tears that have been poured into the land. The landowners and bankers are planting cotton in the place of corn, knowing full well that the cotton will bleed the soil dry, will take any last moisture from it. One farmer describes this effect, saying, "You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it" (5.5). He knows that he can resuscitate his land if he is given a chance: "If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land" (5.6).

Farming

Farming is about life, cultivation, and growth. However, with advances in technology and science, we watch farming transition from a human-run to a machine-run art. In this novel we watch this transition, and we see how farming becomes influenced by scientific advancements. We watch farmers fight against this change, "for nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates; and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, not salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis" (11.1).

Farmers recognize that the machines that begin to take over their farms and that literally kick them out of their homes are essentially non-living things that can never understand the land. These farmers feel that, "the machine man, driving a dead tractor on the land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land" (11.1). We witness the art of farming trapped in a war between old and new, between human and machine.

The Bank Monster

When landowners kick tenant farmers off of the land, they tell them that the banks are hungry, that the bank is part of a hungry monster that cannot be sated. The tractors become the "snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines" (5.41). When the tenant farmers try to figure out who is in charge, who they can complain to, the tractor-monsters simply say, "Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up'" (5.63). There is no one, specific person to blame, no single person in charge. The banks in the East are hungry for money, but we never get to see the faces of their agents, we never meet a specific landowner or banker. We only know they exist, and that they are turning families out of their homes.

Blood

The Grapes of Wrath is full of blood. Consider the slaughtering of the pigs, the way Tom cuts his hand fixing the touring car (and then uses his urine to make it stop bleeding), the Joad dog that gets run over, the farmland that is being bled dry by drought and by cotton, Rose of Sharon's baby's birth, and more. We also know that the "grapes of wrath" in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" refers to injustice and spilt blood. Blood signals both life and death, so let's pay attention to moments in which it bubbles to the surface of this novel.

The West

The idea of going west has been a central part of the American consciousness for a long time. Remember Louis and Clark? Remember the Gold Rush? People have been heading west for years in search of fortune, opportunities, and warmer weather. California has always been a symbol of wealth and opportunity for much of American history.

However, this novel complicates that myth, showing instead the misery and desperation that fills California's verdant hills. Our narrator often describes the setting sun, offering specific description of the western sky. He says, "Only the unbalanced sky showed the approach of dawn, no horizon to the west, and a line to the east" (8.1), as though suggesting that the West represents the unknown, uncharted territory.

As nice as this image is, there's something a little unsettling about a horizonless horizon. Again, we find another jarring disquieting description of the western sky, as our narrator describes, "The stars went out, few by few, toward the west" (10.203). It's as though the west is eating the stars for dinner, is devouring the only glimmers of light amidst the night sky. The Grapes of Wrath puts a new, dark spin on the American ideal of moving westward and seeking fortune.

The Sun

The sun is an omnipresent force in the Joads' life, one that they cannot escape. Many Joads have to sit on top of the family truck on their way to California, and our narrator describes, "Their faces were shining with sunburn they could not escape" (13.18). In this way the sun is almost violent. We also know that there has been a devastating drought in America over the past decade, which has contributed to the arrival of Dust Bowl storms. The sun is a dangerous power.

However, the sun is not always a destructive symbol in this novel. Our narrator describes the sun in hopeful language when he says, "The red sun set and left a shining twilight on the land, so that faces were bright in the evening and eyes shone in reflection of the sky. The evening picked up light where it could" (13.174).

Racism

We learn much about racism in 1930s America throughout the novel, and we are reminded that we are exposed to one perspective on life during this time: that of a poor, white family of Oklahoman farmers. While the novel spends the majority of its time studying the Joads, we know that thousands of other families have been affected by the Dust Bowl, and we know that the Joad experience cannot be completely representative of all other families' experiences.

Racial epithets are rampant in the world of this novel, and we hear stories about how ancestors of tenant farmers violently stole land from Native Americans. In trying to defend his land from being taken by the landowners, one tenant farmer argues, "Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away" (5.19), hoping to convince the landowners to let him keep his land. When the landowners do not listen to him, the tenant farmer grows more and more enraged, and says, "Maybe we can kill banks – they're worse than Indians and snakes" (5. 25). Not only does this remind us of another group of people who were kicked off the same land, but in this language, we hear the hot coals of hate and of violence.

We also know that Grampa Joad has been no stranger to racist acts. Tom Joad describes the "time Grampa an' another fella whanged into a bunch a Navajo in the night. They was havin' the time a their life, an' same time you wouldn' give a gopher for their chance" (18.87). Through this novel, we're reminded indirectly of the bloody way in which Native Americans were killed and driven from their lands. Now in this story we watch the Joads and other farming families fight over and eventually lose the same land.

There are moments when we also recall the hate-filled racism that afflicted America following the Civil War. The guards who patrol the fields in California, looking for migrant workers trespassing on the land (trying to grow food), comment, "Why, Jesus, they're as dangerous as n*****s in the South! If they ever get together there ain't nothin' that'll stop 'em" (19.43). In this horrific language, we hear and see a cross-section of America's struggle with racism, hate, and intolerance. Check out Shmoop History's "Jim Crow in America" for a detailed exploration of this dark chapter in American history.

Pregnancy

Well, there's only one main pregnant lady in the novel, and that's Rose of Sharon. Whenever we see signs of babies in books, we sit up straight and pay attention, because babies are usually a sign of new life, new beginnings. Babies are cool because they ensure a family will continue to exist over another generation. So it's a pretty big deal that Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. The promise for new life and new start is not realized. However, Rose of Sharon is able to bring life to the world by nursing a nearly starved man.