The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Symbols


Land Turtle

Steinbeck uses the land turtle as a symbol of narrow vision, which enables individuals and businesses to plod ahead on a determined path, one step at a time. In Chapter 3, the narrator states, "A land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing." On a personal level, Tom and Ma both take the land turtle approach. For Ma, this approach enables her to persevere against hardship. For Tom, though, this attitude is limiting because it prevents him for having a wider vision, like Casy. Eventually, Tom breaks out of the land turtle approach when he sees people as belonging to one big soul. Yet, on a broader level, Steinbeck applies the narrow vision of the land turtle to the large landowners and the Bank as they single-mindedly achieve their goals of more profits.

Bank Monster

The "Bank monster" described in Chapter 5 is a symbolic entity that represents the system of the Bank and other big businesses. According to this system, the Bank and other big businesses need to make more and more of a profit to survive. All the people who work for the monster, no matter how lofty their positions, are really the slaves of the monster, dedicated to providing it with more profits. During this process, contractors order people off land and workers plow over homes all in service of the monster. In California, the monster also exists. Working for the monster, large farmers attract more migrants than are necessary for the jobs available in order to keep wages down, keep prices up, and create more and more profits.

Dying Dog

In Chapter 13, the death of the Joads' dog foreshadows the many tragedies the family will face. Dogs get run over near highways all the time. It's inevitable, the gas station owner states:. "A dog jus' don' last no time near a highway." With their poverty and lack of work, the Joad family is also in a precarious situation. Tragedies for them are just as inevitable as a dog being run over on the highway.

Grapes of Wrath

For Steinbeck, the "grapes of wrath" represent the growing anger within the souls of oppressed migrants. This symbol appears at the end of Chapter 25, in which the author describes how big farmers harvest crops, including fruits such as grapes. This harvesting is inhumane because the process involves destroying food instead of allowing hungry people to eat it. Steinbeck takes the imagery of grapes and turns it into a symbol for the migrants. As the big farmers harvest grapes to produce wine, a symbolic crop referred to as the grapes of wrath grows within the souls of the hungry people who watch this process. Instead of producing poor-quality wine, the grapes of wrath are "growing heavy for the vintage." A vintage often refers to a yield of grapes that produces a potent wine. Steinbeck got the phrase "grapes of wrath" from a verse in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which reads "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." God, Steinbeck hopes, will trample out the conditions that produce the grapes of wrath.

Dead Infant in an Apple Box

In Chapter 30, Steinbeck uses the dead infant in an apple box as a symbol that refers to the biblical story of the infant Moses being cast off in a papyrus basket in a river. In the Bible, the basket connects with Noah's ark. As Noah's ark rescued humankind, the "ark" of Moses will also rescue the people of Israel. In The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby in the apple box will show people in town the hardships and horror that the migrants are dealing with.

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