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The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Chapters 1–3

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Steinbeck consistently and woefully points to the fact that the migrants’ great suffering is caused not by bad weather or mere misfortune but by their fellow human beings. Historical, social, and economic circumstances separate people into rich and poor, landowner and tenant, and the people in the dominant roles struggle viciously to preserve their positions. In his brief history of California in Chapter 19, Steinbeck portrays the state as the product of land-hungry squatters who took the land from Mexicans and, by working it and making it produce, rendered it their own. Now, generations later, the California landowners see this historical example as a threat, since they believe that the influx of migrant farmers might cause history to repeat itself. In order to protect themselves from such danger, the landowners create a system in which the migrants are treated like animals, shuffled from one filthy roadside camp to the next, denied livable wages, and forced to turn against their brethren simply to survive. The novel draws a simple line through the population—one that divides the privileged from the poor—and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.

The Saving Power of Family and Fellowship

The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the story of two “families”: the Joads and the collective body of migrant workers. Although the Joads are joined by blood, the text argues that it is not their genetics but their loyalty and commitment to one another that establishes their true kinship. In the migrant lifestyle portrayed in the book, the biological family unit, lacking a home to define its boundaries, quickly becomes a thing of the past, as life on the road demands that new connections and new kinships be formed. The reader witnesses this phenomenon at work when the Joads meet the Wilsons. In a remarkably short time, the two groups merge into one, sharing one another’s hardships and committing to one another’s survival. This merging takes place among the migrant community in general as well: “twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” In the face of adversity, the livelihood of the migrants depends upon their union. As Tom eventually realizes, “his” people are all people.

The Dignity of Wrath

The Joads stand as exemplary figures in their refusal to be broken by the circumstances that conspire against them. At every turn, Steinbeck seems intent on showing their dignity and honor; he emphasizes the importance of maintaining self-respect in order to survive spiritually. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of the novel. The Joads have suffered incomparable losses: Noah, Connie, and Tom have left the family; Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn baby; the family possesses neither food nor promise of work. Yet it is at this moment (Chapter 30) that the family manages to rise above hardship to perform an act of unsurpassed kindness and generosity for the starving man, showing that the Joads have not lost their sense of the value of human life.

Steinbeck makes a clear connection in his novel between dignity and rage. As long as people maintain a sense of injustice—a sense of anger against those who seek to undercut their pride in themselves—they will never lose their dignity. This notion receives particular reinforcement in Steinbeck’s images of the festering grapes of wrath (Chapter 25), and in the last of the short, expository chapters (Chapter 29), in which the worker women, watching their husbands and brothers and sons, know that these men will remain strong “as long as fear [can] turn to wrath.” The women’s certainty is based on their understanding that the men’s wrath bespeaks their healthy sense of self-respect.

The Multiplying Effects of Selfishness and Altruism

According to Steinbeck, many of the evils that plague the Joad family and the migrants stem from selfishness. Simple self-interest motivates the landowners and businessmen to sustain a system that sinks thousands of families into poverty. In contrast to and in conflict with this policy of selfishness stands the migrants’ behavior toward one another. Aware that their livelihood and survival depend upon their devotion to the collective good, the migrants unite—sharing their dreams as well as their burdens—in order to survive. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck constantly emphasizes self-interest and altruism as equal and opposite powers, evenly matched in their conflict with each other. In Chapters 13 and 15, for example, Steinbeck presents both greed and generosity as self-perpetuating, following cyclical dynamics. In Chapter 13, we learn that corporate gas companies have preyed upon the gas station attendant that the Joads meet. The attendant, in turn, insults the Joads and hesitates to help them. Then, after a brief expository chapter, the Joads immediately happen upon an instance of kindness as similarly self-propagating: Mae, a waitress, sells bread and sweets to a man and his sons for drastically reduced prices. Some truckers at the coffee shop see this interchange and leave Mae an extra-large tip.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Improvised Leadership Structures

When the novel begins, the Joad family relies on a traditional family structure in which the men make the decisions and the women obediently do as they are told. So invested are they in these roles that they continue to honor Grampa as the head of the family, even though he has outlived his ability to act as a sound leader. As the Joads journey west and try to make a living in California, however, the family dynamic changes drastically. Discouraged and defeated by his mounting failures, Pa withdraws from his role as leader and spends his days tangled in thought. In his stead, Ma assumes the responsibility of making decisions for the family. At first, this shocks Pa, who, at one point, lamely threatens to beat her into her so-called proper place. The threat is empty, however, and the entire family knows it. By the end of the novel, the family structure has undergone a revolution, in which the woman figure, traditionally powerless, has taken control, while the male figure, traditionally in the leadership role, has retreated. This revolution parallels a similar upheaval in the larger economic hierarchies in the outside world. Thus, the workers at the Weedpatch camp govern themselves according to their own rules and share tasks in accordance with notions of fairness and equality rather than power-hungry ambition or love of authority.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Rose of Sharon’s Pregnancy

Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy holds the promise of a new beginning. When she delivers a stillborn baby, that promise seems broken. But rather than slipping into despair, the family moves boldly and gracefully forward, and the novel ends on a surprising (albeit unsettling) note of hope. In the last few pages of his book, Steinbeck employs many symbols, a number of which refer directly to episodes in the Bible. The way in which Uncle John disposes of the child’s corpse recalls Moses being sent down the Nile. The image suggests that the family, like the Hebrews in Egypt, will be delivered from the slavery of its present circumstances.

The Death of the Joads’ Dog

When the Joads stop for gas not long after they begin their trip west, they are met by a hostile station attendant, who accuses them of being beggars and vagrants. While there, a fancy roadster runs down their dog and leaves it for dead in the middle of the road. The gruesome death constitutes the first of many symbols foreshadowing the tragedies that await the family.

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GOW Chapter 20

by teamME815, August 10, 2012

Tom, after he gets turned away from the north town decides to go around the angry californians to a work camp safe for his family and away from cops

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25 out of 60 people found this helpful

Role of Ma Joad

by fallen_angel14, August 16, 2012

Ma Joad is basically the only reason the family is still together. She gives support to the family and carries most of the burden

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34 out of 42 people found this helpful

west coast beats all

by WildlifeRunner19, March 31, 2013

i do appreciate steinbeck's powerful insight on migrant work in california despite a small resentment at his shaming of my state

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3 out of 16 people found this helpful

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