In a 1937 radio interview, John Steinbeck made reference to the famous French critic Nicolas Boileau who said that kings, gods, and heroes were the only fit subjects for literature. In that interview, Steinbeck added:
The writer can only write about what he admires. Present day kings aren’t very inspiring, the gods are on a vacation, and about the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor …. And since our race admires gallantry, the writer will deal with it where he finds it. He finds it in the struggling poor now. (qtd. in DeMott x)
Two years and a half before the publication of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck was commissioned to write a series of articles for the San Francisco News under the title of “The Harvest Gypsies”. That series of articles was on the disturbing conditions in the agricultural belt of the San Joaquin Valley. The focus was to be on the migrants’ plight and the government’s efforts to supply sanitary camps for them. That series of articles signaled Steinbeck’s mounting concern for the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants. Steinbeck’s response to the human misery he saw in the migrants’ camps can be sensed in the language of the articles he wrote. In those articles, “the sentences are terse, clipped, unornamented. Portrait after heartrending portrait emerged on those pages. And it was clear that the journalist was also the novelist with a larger story to tell, the story behind that misery and need” (Timmerman, John Steinbeck’s Fiction 103).
At that time, California was just beginning to learn about the huge number of families arriving from Oklahoma and the surrounding plain states, and Steinbeck’s seven articles included in that series brought the public attention to the serious challenges that confronted the newcomers in the state’s Central Valley (Gregory 71). To conduct that series of articles, Steinbeck made a tour of “Hoovervilles”, the camps of the itinerant workers, in the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys. There, he worked beside the field laborers and reported his observations of their living and working conditions. Steinbeck noticed that:
The harvesters of California crops were no longer Mexicans and Orientals; now most of them were Okies and Arkies, families that had been evicted from their farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and neighboring states. They had been tenant farmers or sharecroppers, burdened with heavy mortgages, and natural and economic forces had conspired to force them off the lands which they had called home. (Fontenrose 67)
In the southern states, dust storms and erosion exhausted the land and completed what the economic depression had begun. As a result, the banks and agricultural corporations found it “more profitable to foreclose mortgages and terminate tenancies, combine many farms into one plantation and put it all to cotton”. Also, the bank used agricultural mechanization and found that one man with a tractor could work an entire plantation for three dollars a day. As a result, the tenant farmers and their families were evicted and replaced by tractors and many went to California because they heard that many men were needed to pick the crops there (Fontenrose 68).
In the fall of 1937, John Steinbeck went to Oklahoma to join the migrants in their journey westward and worked with them in the fields after they had reached California (Fontenrose 68). While working with the ranch workers, Steinbeck found the true gallantry in the struggling poor who inspired him to write his most famous and controversial novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Therefore, The Grapes of Wrath was a product of Steinbeck’s own experience and observation and its realm was genuine.
The Grapes of Wrath is “an attempted prose epic, a summation of national experience at a given time” (Levant, “The Fully Matured Art” 7). The Grapes of Wrath is about the vagaries of staple-crop agriculture which causes the breakup of families. It is about “a man of humble origins and Christly virtues, a lay minister for a time, who emerges during the course of the novel as a scapegoat for the people he represents” (Seelye 152). This man is killed by the “exploitative, capitalistic agribusiness, figured as intolerant, bigoted, and ignorant wielders of absolute authority” (152). This novel focuses on the family and on the values prompted by domestic virtues by means of “scenes of women who are central to the plot, who prove far stronger than the men with whom they associated, it stresses the importance of motherhood, figured as a positive force working to maintain the coherence of the family” (152) at the time when the male authority is disempowered by centrifugal social forces.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family and many others like them, sharecroppers who migrate against their will from the dust-bowl of Oklahoma to California. In Oklahoma, the life is really hard but predictable and possible, but in California the life is uncertain. In California, the Promised Land of the migrants, the fruits rot on the ground behind barbed-wire fences and the grapes are the grapes of wrath. The novel takes the story of the Joads and makes it the basis of a story about a certain social group. In this novel, John Steinbeck:
Usually holds in a creative tension his desire to deal with the individual family and his desire to paint the picture on a large canvas which has room for many other social units and classes. He portrays the group inevitably westward, regardless of the births, loves and deaths that take place on the journey. (Perkin 82)
The story begins when young Tom Joad, a prisoner parolee, meets Jim Casy, a former preacher who has given up his calling, on his way to his family’s house. Casy accompanies Tom, but they become surprised when they find that the Joads house and all houses and farms around it are deserted. They are told that the Joads live now with Tom’s uncle in his nearby house, and they prepare to move to California.
Tom and Casy arrive at Uncle John’s house just in time to join the Joads in their journey westward. Starting off with little money and few possessions, having had to sell stock, implements, and furniture, at outrageously low prices, the whole family of Joads and Jim Casy travel in an old Hudson sedan converted into a truck. However, the main problem which the Joads face is that Tom is on parole and if he gets in trouble or is caught leaving Oklahoma, he will be sent right back to McAlester.
On the road to California, the Joads encounter many hardships and the family crumbles. Grampa Joad dies immediately after separating his homeland. Granma dies while they are crossing the Arizona desert. Moreover, Noah, Tom’s retarded elder brother, leaves his family at the Colorado River and Connie, Rose of Sharon’s husband, abandons his wife for dreams of a three-dollar-a-day job driving corporate tractors in Oklahoma.
The further west the Joads go, the more resistant and unfriendly the people are towards them. From the day of their entry in California, the Joads experience the hostility of California policemen and residents. In California, the Joads move from camp to camp in a futile search for work and their living conditions worsen. On the second day, camping in a Hooverville near Bakersfield, the Joads see the misery and hunger of the migrant workers and the cruelty and arrogance of the deputy sheriffs.
On this day, a contractor drives up looking for product pickers. It is a trick because a deputy sheriff is with the contractor and plans to arrest the “Okies” and clean out the camp. In the ensuing altercation, the deputy is knocked unconscious by Tom. Casy takes the blame and tells Tom to escape so he will not be returned to prison in Oklahoma. Upon hearing about Casy’s sacrifice, Uncle John gets drunk to drown his feeling of worthlessness. The family hears a rumor that the Hooverville will be burnt to the ground by townspeople who are angry at the migrants, so the Joads decide to leave the Hooverville for another camp. As the Joads leave, an angry mob warns them not to return. Tom drives the truck south in search of the government camp, with the glow of the Hooverville burning in the night behind them.
The Joads arrive at a federal government camp for farm workers where they stay for a month. In the government camp, the Joads enjoy the friendliness, cleanliness and self-government of this institution. Unfortunately, the Joads feel compelled to leave the government camp because of the rarity of work in the neighborhood, aside from a short-term job that Tom finds. The Joads drive northwards and find work picking peaches on the Hooper Ranch, which provides miserable lodgings and an overcharging company store. When the Joads arrive at the Hooper Ranch, they are escorted by the police into the orchard. They soon realize that they have been brought in as strikebreakers, and Tom discovers that Casy, after a short time in jail, is now a strike leader.
As Tom talks with Casy, vigilantes attack the strike committee’s tent. When an agent kills Casy with a club, Tom seizes the club and avenges his friend by killing the agent, but he receives, in turn, a severe blow on his face from another vigilante. Keeping Tom undercover because of his swollen face, the Joads leave the Hooper Ranch and go to the cotton fields. While they work, Tom remains hidden in the nearby thicket, until his young sister is heard boasting to other children that her elder brother has killed a man and is hiding now in the trees. Fearing being arrested by the police, Tom decides to leave his family, after telling his mother that he is going to carry on Casy’s work for the union of the farm laborers to demand justice.
The next day, a torrential rain falls and floodwaters rise. Rose of Sharon’s sudden labor prevents the Joads from leaving the boxcar for higher ground. Several families stay to help Pa dig a dike. A giant tree topples, spins slowly through the water, and destroys the dike. The waters quickly rise, eliminating any chance for immediate escape. Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn child. Eventually, the family is able to leave the boxcar. Al, Tom’s brother, stays behind with his new bride-to-be. The family wades through the flood until they find a barn on higher ground. Inside are a boy and his father who is near death. As they settle in, Ma and Rose of Sharon exchange a look, and the novel ends with Rose of Sharon suckling the starving man with her breast milk.
When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he did not expect that it would be one of the most famous novels in America or it would attain a widespread recognition, though he had high hopes for its effectiveness. Given the drastic plight of migrant workers situation in California during the Depression, Steinbeck refused intentionally to write a popular book or to court commercial success. To Steinbeck’s surprise, The Grapes of Wrath turned out to be not only a fine book, but the most renowned and celebrated of his seventeen novels.
It was ironic that shortly after its official publication date on April 14, 1939 (the fourth anniversary of “Black Sunday,” the most devastating of all Dust Bowl storms), fueled by the early 150 reviews that appeared in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals during the remainder of the year, The Grapes of Wrath climbed to the top of the bestseller lists for most of the year (Demott x-xi).
The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, and eventually, it became “the cornerstone of his Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel Prize, and proved itself to be among the most enduring – and controversial – works of fiction by any American author, past or present” (Demott xi). According to Robert Demott, what really sets out The Grapes of Wrath to be the “American Book” is that it contains Steinbeck’s “liberal mixture of native philosophy, common-sense leftist politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, homespun folk wisdom, and digressive narrative form – all set to be bold, rhythmic style and nervy, raw dialogue” (xi). Robert Demott points out that the Grapes contains “multiple streams of subjective experience, current history, ameliorism, graphic realism, environmentalism, biblical themes, literary traditions, and symbolic forms gather to create the ‘truly American book’ Steinbeck had planned” (xxxviii).
As for the reaction to The Grapes of Wrath, it ranged from “an unbounded, almost reverent enthusiasm to strident condemnation” (Crockett 193). Shortly after the novel’s publication in 1939, vehement condemnations of the novel and its writer appeared and continued for years afterward. However, it was strange to find that many of the loudest outcries against the novel came from people who “had not even read it” and among them is the governor of the state of Oklahoma at that time. According to H. Crockett, many of the critics and academics who disapproved the novel concentrated on what they called Steinbeck’s exaggeration of the calamity of the migrant workers in order to strengthen sympathy for the Okies. Therefore, they accused Steinbeck of excessive sentimentality in his writings (193). In 1950, Edmund Wilson dismissed the novel by writing, “it is as if human sentiments and speeches had been assigned to a flock of lemmings on their way to throw themselves into the sea” (42).
In his article “American Joads”, Louis Owens refutes these condemnations of sentimentality. Owens argues that Steinbeck is obsessed with America as a subject throughout his career. According to Owens, the myths deeply ingrained in the American consciousness and the patterns of thought that have carried the Americans from wilderness to the world power appear again and again in Steinbeck’s novels (70).
Furthermore, Owens asserts that “Steinbeck recognized deep within the American and the universally human psyche a need to believe in the possibility of beginning anew, of returning symbolically from the exile of maturation and experience to a lost Eden and lost innocence” (70). America was this new Eden in the eyes of the original English colonists. On the other hand, the Americans have ever translated that dream of recovering Eden into the American dream, the dream of shedding the past and starting over. Owens tries to explain this dream from Walt Whitman’s and Benjamin Franklin’s perspectives as follows:
For Walt Whitman this meant an outright denial of original sin, a chance to proclaim himself Adam – the representative American – newly born into innocence. For Benjamin Franklin it meant a chance to create oneself in the pattern of one’s imagination, free of any burden of guilt …. It is this refusal to see the evil we do and the belief in an Eden just west of the next mountain range that Steinbeck saw as the most dangerous flaw in the dream. (71)
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tries to evoke this pattern of American thought. This pattern, that begins with thoughts of a new Eden and moves inexorably westward represents the illusory hope voiced by a migrant in one of the novel’s interchapters: “Maybe we can start again in the new rich land – in California, where the fruit grows we will start over” (87). The impossibility of such a dream is made clear in the answering voice:
But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man – he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place – everyone a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. (87-88)
To refute the condemnations of sentimentality, Louis Owens asserts that Steinbeck takes pains to place the Joads and the Dust Bowl migrants as “a whole securely within this pattern of American history and simultaneously to avoid the sin with which he has often been charged: sentimentalizing his characters” (71). From the very beginning, Steinbeck implies that the sharecroppers are not that image of completely innocent people. Although he makes it clear that they are the victims of an inhumane economic monster – personified by the enormous, impersonal tractors raping the land, the sharecroppers are not willing to leave their land, even if the price of maintaining it is war and death.
When the sharecroppers plead with the owners for a chance to remain on the land, Steinbeck intentionally tries to taint their wish when one of the croppers argues: “Get enough wars and cotton’ll hit the ceiling” (32). Here, “While the reader is likely to sympathize with the powerless tenant farmer, the tenant’s willingness to accept war as the price for a chance to remain on their farms and thus further “cotton-out” the land is difficult to admire at any level” (Owens 71-72).
Furthermore, Steinbeck makes it clear that the migrants “are firmly fixed in a larger, even more damning American pattern”. This American pattern intended by Steinbeck is “the westering pattern of American history”. According to Louis Owens, when the explorers arrived at the Atlantic seaboard seeking Eden, they found a rocky and dangerous paradise with natives who aggressively resent the discovery of their land. On the other hand, the explorers thought that Eden must lie ever to the west, over the next hill, across the next plain. But the Pacific Ocean stopped them and they ended up shaking their fists at the Pacific that stopped them and broke the pattern of displacement (72).
Furthermore, Steinbeck makes it clear that the croppers are part of this damning American pattern when the representative tenant voice declares to the owners that his grandfather “had to kill the Indians and drive them away” (33). By doing so, Owens insists that Steinbeck attempts to ensure that the readers hear:
a powerful echo of the Puritan forebears who wrested the wilderness from the serpent Satan and his Indian servants, killing and displacing the original inhabitants of the New Canaan. It is difficult to feel excessive sorrow for these ignorant men who are quite willing to barter death to maintain their place in the destructive pattern of American expansion – a pattern that has ravaged a continent …. The small farmers of this novel proudly proclaim their grandparents’ theft of the land from the Indians, freely acknowledging that murder was their grandparents’ tool. They argue that they should be allowed to stay on and raise more cotton because war will boost the price of cotton. Then they tell the owners that they will kill the land with cotton. These small farmers are far from anyone’s ideal. They are clearly a part of a system that has failed and in the process that has violated the continent. (72-74)
In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants are the representative Americans and their westward journey is America’s. This westward journey is the movement that encapsulates the direction of the American experience. The horrors that confront the migrant workers on their way to California have been brought on by the Americans themselves, Steinbeck implies; no one is innocent. This notion is evident when, near the novel’s conclusion, Uncle John puts Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby in an apple box and releases it in the flood stream. Uncle John says to the stillborn baby fiercely, “Go down an’ tell ’em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way. That’s the way you can talk” (448). It seems that Steinbeck intends to make an allusion to the baby Moses – in the Edenically suggestive apple box – through this stillborn baby. Here, Louis Owens points out that this Moses is “stillborn because the people have no further need for a Moses. There is no Promised Land and nowhere else to go, no place for a Moses to lead his chosen people. The American dream to the west is shattered, the dangers of the myth exposed” (“American Joads” 74).
In addition to the accusations of sentimentality, The Grapes of Wrath had been banned repeatedly by libraries and school boards for its rebellious theme and nervy frank language. For example, the board of supervisors of the Kern County Free Library, in an unprecedented step in the history of Kern County, decided to ban the novel from the library. The passion of the board can be witnessed in the wording of the resolution which states:
WHEREAS John Steinbeck’s work of fiction, “The Grapes of Wrath”, has offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignorant, profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner, and WHEREAS, Steinbeck presents our public officials, low enforcement office and civil administrators, business men, farmers and ordinary citizens as inhumane vigilantes, breathing class hatred and divested of sympathy or human decency or understanding toward a great, and to us unwelcome, economic problem brought by an outstanding influx of refugees …, and WHEREAS, “Grapes of Wrath” is filled with profanity, lewd, foul, and obscene language unfit for use in American homes, therefore, be it RESOLVED, that we, the BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, in defense of our free enterprises … request that use and possession and circulation of the novel, “Grapes of Wrath”, be banned from our library and schools. (qtd. in Lingo 352)
Replying to these condemnations, Marci Lingo states that the refugees from the southern states, such as Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, came to California in vast numbers. Although the migrants were needed, they were hated. In California, the migrants felt the dislike of the resident for the outlander in every district they arrived at. The main reason behind that hatred, as the Californians alleged, was that the migrants were ignorant and dirty people, they were carriers of disease, they increased the necessity for police and tax bill for schooling in a community, and that if they were allowed to organize they could, simply by refusing to work, wipe out a season’s crop (354-356).
Therefore, the refugees, who were escaping drought and disaster in their native estates, were vulnerable to exploitation as they were willing to work for virtually any wage, to the growers’ great delight. At the time when growers insisted that there was “an acute shortage of farm labor at that time, statistics show a high surplus of workers, keeping wages low, so low that … seventy thousand migrant workers were starving in San Joaquin Valley in July 1937 – at the height of the harvest season” (Lingo 353).
The Grapes of Wrath was also denounced by “right-wing ministers, corporate farmers, and politicians as communist propaganda, immoral, degrading, warped, and untruthful” (Demott xi). The denunciation of the novel was very heavy from the part of the American government to the extent that an Oklahoman congressman, one of the book’s early detractors named Lyle Boren, called it “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind” (qtd. in Demott xi).
In spite of the condemnations of the detractors, there have been champions of Steinbeck’s writing among academic and popular critics, such as the Californian writer, Gerald Haslam who declares, “John Steinbeck was the writer who taught me that literature could be about real people in real places” (qtd. in Demott xiii), Howard Levant who calls it “The fully matured art” and Peter Lisca who states that this novel is “An achievement of genius”. Moreover, Malcolm Cowley writes on The Grapes of Wrath, “A whole literature is summarized in this book and much of it is carried to a new level of excellence” (qtd. in Owens, “Deadly Kids, Stinking Dogs” 220).
Besides, The Grapes of Wrath had been praised by the left as a triumph of proletarian writing, nominated by critics and reviewers as “The Great American Novel,” given historical vindication by:
Senator Robert M. La Follette’s inquiries into California tyrannical farm labor conditions, and validated by Carey McWilliams, whose own great work, Factories in the Field, is the renowned sociological coun¬terpart to Steinbeck’s novel. The Grapes of Wrath was defended on sev¬eral occasions by President and Eleanor Roosevelt for its power, integrity, and accuracy. For instance, after inspecting California migrant camps in 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt said, “I have never thought The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated.” (Steinbeck responded gratefully: “I have been called a liar so constantly that… I wonder whether I may not have dreamed the things I saw and heard.”). (Demott xl)
Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few American novels that have attracted such passionate attacks and equally passionate defenses. The Grapes of Wrath proves itself to be far from being a mere propaganda. This is because it is much more profound than even its contemporary partisans realize, as it becomes one of the few modern novels to achieve true epic proportions. In this regard, Robert Demott declares, “If a literary classic can be defined as a book that speaks directly to readers’ concerns in successive historical and cultural eras, no matter what their critical approaches, methods, or preoccupations are, then surely The Grapes of Wrath is such a work” (xi).
Concerning the novel’s form, John Steinbeck told the literary critic Harry T. Moore that “he was improvising his own “new method” of fictional technique: one that combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama” (Demott xvi). The Grapes of Wrath is in thirty chapters, fourteen of which carry the Joad story. As for the other sixteen chapters (called inter-chapters), they are either expository essays or sketches of typical situations in the great migration. The interchapters are lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group because they present the economic, social and historical background of all the migrants. These interchapters are alternating with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s exodus to California. On these interchapters, Robert Demott argues that:
Steinbeck structured his novel by juxtaposition. His “particular” chapters are the slow-paced and lengthy narrative episodes that embody traditional characterization and advance the dramatic plot, while his jazzy, rapid-fire “interchapters” work at another level of cognition by expressing an atemporal, universal, synop¬tic view of the migrant condition …. The novel demonstrates how form itself is a kind of magic lantern, a shifting lens for magnifying and viewing multiple perspectives of reality. (xvi)
As for the interchapters, Joseph Fontenrose points out that some of them are masterpieces in themselves. He also notices that Steinbeck uses a variety of prose styles in them. Fontenrose expounds this notion in the following lines:
In these short sketches, he Steinbeck could experiment, endeavoring in each to evoke both a vivid picture of something that happened and a feeling tone. He employs paratactic Biblical language, go-getter talk, conversational narrative in Okie speech, the soundtrack of documentary films. Some interchapters are literally poetic … if we convert the ostensibly prose sentences into an arrangement of phrases; we get irregularly rhythmic verses that recall the Psalms. (70)
In this regard, John Timmerman argues that the use of interchapters is a technique that functions in several ways. First of all, the interchapters “provide aesthetic richness by symbolic analogies that frame or support the narrative plot” (107). Timmerman states that the land turtle – which Tom Joad catches at the beginning of the novel – is perhaps the most notable example of the symbolic analogies which he refers to. The turtle carries its house on its back as the migrants carry their households on the backs of ancient vehicles. The “horny peak” and the “fierce, humorous eyes” of the turtle resemble both the grim determination and the quick capacity for joy in the migrants. Furthermore, the turtle’s instinctive sense of direction toward the southwest resembles the dogged determination of the migrants to reach California despite the many obstacles in their way. Finally, the turtle’s awkward gait, as it “jerked itself along”, resembles the overloaded and lurching trucks of the migrants (107).
This careful use of interchapters asserts that The Grapes of Wrath is not a “closed system of historical periodicity, but a relational field, a web of connections between text and context, nature and culture, physical earth and human inhabitants” (Demott xvi). These interchapters are expressly designed to hit the reader under the belt and to open him up with their rhythms and symbols. And once the reader is opened up, he becomes ready to receive the facts on an intellectual level. Moreover, the inner chapters “provide a kind of anthropological “thick description” of the American migrant plight” (Demott xvii). By using these interchapters, Steinbeck tries to historicize the Joad narrative by embedding his fiction in its contemporary milieu; conversely, he demonstrates the fluidity of history by re-creating it in fiction.
Here, C.S Lewis’s description of heaven can be applied to The Grapes of Wrath. In his concluding Chronicle of Narnia, The Last Battle, the British novelist, and literary critic C. S. Lewis describes heaven as an onion with the inside bigger than the outside. So that, with each ring one peels off, one seems to go further into new visions and new understanding. In this regard, John Timmerman thinks that this analogy may apply as well to all great works of literature, and among them is The Grapes of Wrath (102).
Like an onion, The Grapes of Wrath is a multi-layered work, as it is written in at least four layers which the reader can recognize according to his/ her intellectual and cultural background. This means that Steinbeck links the “trinity” of the writer, the reader, and the text in order to ensure maximum affective impact on the audience. In other words, Steinbeck intends to make the readers see and feel his work as if it is a living picture. “I am not writing a satisfying story,” he claimed to his editor, Pascal Covici in 1939:
I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags; I don’t want him satisfied…. I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written…. Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself. (qtd. in Demott xviii)
This means that the layers of The Grapes of Wrath range from socio-economic determinism to transcendent spirituality. Louis Owens expounds this idea as follows:
On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised Land. On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants. On a third level it is the story of a nation, Amer¬ica. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits. (“American Joads” 75-76)
As the narrative develops in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck makes frequent use of Biblical imagery, themes and symbols, and it is this, more than any other single factor, which “gives to the story an epic character and adds a sharpness to the archetypal American myth about the West as a land of opportunity and of plenty” (Perkin 82). According to Perkin, Steinbeck’s use of biblical imagery is direct in some places and inverted in some other places in the novel. Perkin states that “Direct biblical imagery” means “the invocation of a Biblical text or incident to have roughly the same significance in the novel as it has in the Bible” (82). Therefore, one finds high resemblance between the Book of Exodus, which includes the Ten Commandments and the sundry laws without which the children of Israel would be moving in a state of anarchy, and chapter 17 in the Grapes which contains a detailed description of the rules worked out by the migrants on their way to California. The rules worked out by the migrants are introduced by the sentence, “Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being” (Steinbeck 194).
On the other hand, “inverted biblical imagery” means “the use of part of a scriptural incident or narrative in an ironic manner or to make an opposite point in the novel” (83). The most obvious example of inverted imagery is seen in the fact that the children of Israel wanted to escape from Egypt and begin their journey to the promised land, whereas “the only thing the Joads and their neighbors wanted was to be left alone and not driven out by the remote decisions of bankers and the obvious furrows made by the caterpillar tractors across all previous homestead boundaries” (Perkin 83).
However, it seems that the “direct biblical imagery” is more prevalent in the novel than the “inverted”. This is evident in the direct analogy between the workers’ westward migration to California and the Exodus of the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land. There are also many direct parallels to the Bible, for instance, Jim Casy has the same initials of Jesus Christ, and he travels to California/ the symbolic Promised Land with twelve people (the members of the Joad family who are the same number of Christ’s apostles). Literally as well as figuratively, Jim Casy:
takes upon himself the “sins” of his people and goes to jail in Tom’s place in the altercation over the deputy at Hooverville. In his absence he has his role assumed by Jim Rawley, manager of Weedpatch, whose life is also dedicated to the Okie publicans and sinners, to serving the lowly. Like Casy, he doesn’t believe in the orthodox sin; sin is causing misery like hunger, cold, and unhappiness. (Crockett 196)
As Christ sacrifices himself for the sins of humanity, Jim Casy sacrifices himself for Tom Joad and gives up his life willingly for the laborers good. Thus, Casy becomes “a spokesman for the movement from “I” to “we” and assumes a degree of leadership in it before he is cut down by the landowners’ goons” (Timmerman 113). Moreover, there are parallels to Noah, Moses and Virgin Mary but the most notable parallel is to the Exodus journey which is reflected and paralleled by the journey to California.
One of the prominent parallels to the Bible is the title of the novel. Although the phrase – The Grapes of Wrath – is not found in the exact words in the Bible, it has a religious ring. The novel takes its title from Julia Howard Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that was written in 1861 during the American Civil War: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”. In particular, the novel’s title has a connection with the allusion in the second verse which bears a stirring call for victory over the forces which were repressing another downtrodden group (Crockett 194). The second verse also encapsulates the rage of the oppressed, prophesies the overthrow of suppression and envisions a strong freedom.
For Steinbeck, “titles were often a matter of large significance and no small difficulty. He wanted titles that somehow suggested at once the narrative accounting, the tone of the accounting, and its symbolic significance” (Timmerman 105). Therefore, he chooses this title for his novel because it has a special meaning in this book at several symbolic levels. To illustrate, in the Bible, the word “grapes” is mostly associated with the wrath of the God. The most familiar biblical analog occurs in the Book of Revelation. From Revelations comes the pronouncement that the wicked people who follow Babylon “shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (King James Bible, Rev. 14.10) and suffer torment. The avenging angel with a sickle shall harvest both the grapes and the vine and cast them in the winepress of the God’s wrath, and from the press when they are trodden, blood shall flow. This is narrated in the Bible as follows, “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (King James Bible, Rev. 14.19-14.20). Besides, from Deuteronomy Moses, speaking of the enemies of Jehovah and his people, says, “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (King James Bible, Deut. 32.32-32.33)
Therefore, Steinbeck picks this title in particular in order to equate the grapes of God’s wrath to “the fermenting wrath of the Okies which promises doom to the California deputies, farmers’ associations, Bank of the West – all groups who place their possessions above human welfare” (Crockett 194). Besides, it is worth mentioning that there are some places in the Bible where the grapes of wrath are juxtaposed and contrasted to the grapes of plenty. For instance, in the Book of Numbers, the spies come to the Brook of Eshcol in Canaan and return with a huge branch of grapes as a sign of the land of milk and honey. This parallels the prophecy of Deuteronomy that the Israelites would eat their fill of grapes. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck perceives the contrast because the “dream of grapes of plenty recurs in The Grapes of Wrath” (Timmerman 106). For example, Grampa Joad dreams of the grapes of plenty and says:
Jus’ let me get out to California where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch a grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ’em on my face an’ let ’em run offen my chin. (Steinbeck 83)
As well, Grampa declares, “They’s grapes out there, just a-hangin’ over inta the road. Know what I’m a-gonna do? I’m gonna pick me a wash tub full a grapes, an’ I’m gonna set in ’em, an’ scrooge aroun’, an’ let the juice run down my pants” (Steinbeck 93). In another situation, Grampa proclaims, “I’m gettin’ hungry. Come time we get to Cali¬fornia I’ll have a big bunch a grapes in my han’ all the time, a-nibblin’ off it all the time, by God!” (Steinbeck 103). Although the grapes represent the possible dream of California to be the Promised Land, “the Promised Land is a is a fallen land, riddled by greed, and as the prophecy of the sweet grapes is replaced by the reality of thin stew, the grapes of wrath take root in their place” (Timmerman 106).
Next to the Biblical significance of the title, Exodus imagery is considered the most significant direct parallel to the Bible. The story of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land is in “the forty chapter of the Book of Exodus and the thirty-six chapters of the Book of Numbers” (Perkin 85). The story begins when a man named Moses is called, through an experience at the burning bush, to return to Egypt to lead his enslaved nation to freedom and ultimately to a new Promised Land. After several confrontations with the Pharaoh and after ten plagues, Moses eventually leads the Children of Israel out of Egypt. On their way to Canaan, the migrants organize their community, and the Ten Commandments are given to Moses, there are wanderings, disappointments and battles. Although the Israelites arrive at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses and his people are not allowed to enter the land. As a result, the leadership passes to Joshua who undertakes the task of settlement (Perkin 85).
In the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel “longed to leave Egypt and they survived a grueling journey in the belief that Canaan, much of which was fruitful territory, was to be theirs” (Perkin 85). In contrast, the Joads do not want to leave their homeland and way of life, a kind of slavery though it is. When the capitalists forced the Joads out of their land, they undertake the migration buoyed up by baseless imagination and false hopes. While the story of the Israelites achieves success at the end of the journey, “the story of the Joads is one of ever increasing hardship, of the erosion of confidence, and of the hopelessness of their quest” (85).
According to Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath is divided into three consecutive chapters with no large grouping; but even a cursory reading reveals that the novel is made up of three major parts: the drought, the journey, and California” (“The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction” 302).
In a 1937 radio interview, John Steinbeck made reference to the famous French critic Nicolas Boileau who said that kings, gods, and heroes were the only fit subjects for literature. In that interview, Steinbeck added: