Without Tom, and without food or work, the Joads sink, in the novel’s final chapter, to their most destitute moment yet. Nonetheless, the book ends on a surprisingly hopeful note: Steinbeck uses a collection of symbols, most of them borrowed from biblical stories, to inject a deeply spiritual optimism into his bleak tale. Thus, while the rain represents a damaging force that threatens to wash away the few possessions the Joads have left, it also represents a power of renewal. The reader recalls Steinbeck’s phrasing in Chapter 29, in which the text notes that the downpours, although causing great destruction, also enable the coming of spring: we read that the raindrops are followed by “[t]iny points of grass,” making the hills a pale green.

Even the events surrounding the birth of the dead baby contain images of hope. As Uncle John floats the child downstream, Steinbeck invokes the story of Moses, who, as a baby, was sent down the Nile, and later delivered his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land of Israel. As John surrenders the tiny body to the currents, he tells it: “Go down an’ tell ’em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way. That’s the way you can talk.” The child’s corpse becomes a symbolic messenger, charged with the task of testifying to his people’s suffering. (Again, in John’s speech we find an allusion to the life of the Hebrew prophet: his words echo the refrain of the traditional folk gospel song “Go Down, Moses.”)

Says . . . he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says . . . [his piece] wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.

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The closing image of the novel is imbued with equal spiritual power as Rose of Sharon and the starving man in the barn form the figure of a Pietà—a famous motif in visual art in which the Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ in her lap. As Rose of Sharon suckles the dying man, we watch her transform from the complaining, naïve, often self-centered girl of previous chapters into a figure of maternal love. As a mother whose child has been sacrificed to send a larger message to the world, she assumes a role similar to that of the mother of Christ. Like Mary, she represents ultimate comfort and protection from suffering, confirming an image of the world in which generosity and self-sacrifice are the greatest of virtues.