The Grapes of Wrath: Symbols and the Theme of Man vs. A Hostile Environment

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel by John Steinbeck that exposes the
desperate conditions under which the migratory farm families of America during
the 1930\'s live under. The novel tells of one families migration west to
California through the great economic depression of the 1930\'s. The Joad
family had to abandon their home and their livelihoods. They had to uproot and
set adrift because tractors were rapidly industrializing their farms. The bank
took possession of their land because the owners could not pay off their loan.
The novel shows how the Joad family deals with moving to California. How they
survive the cruelty of the land owners that take advantage of them, their
poverty and willingness to work.
The Grapes of Wrath combines Steinbeck adoration of the land, his simple
hatred of corruption resulting from materialism (money) and his abiding faith
in the common people to overcome the hostile environment. The novel opens with
a retaining picture of nature on rampage. The novel shows the men and women
that are unbroken by nature. The theme is one of man verses a hostile
environment. His body destroyed but his spirit is not broken. The method used
to develop the theme of the novel is through the use of symbolism. There are
several uses of symbols in the novel from the turtle at the beginning to the
rain at the end. As each symbol is presented through the novel they show
examples of the good and the bad things that exist within the novel.
The opening chapter paints a vivid picture of the situation facing the
drought-stricken farmers of Oklahoma. Dust is described a covering everything,
smothering the life out of anything that wants to grow. The dust is symbolic
of the erosion of the lives of the people. The dust is synonymous with
"deadness". The land is ruined ^way of life (farming) gone, people ^uprooted and
forced to leave. Secondly, the dust stands for ^profiteering banks in the
background that squeeze the life out the land by forcing the people off the
land. The soil, the people (farmers) have been drained of life and are
The last rain fell on the red and gray country of Oklahoma in early May.
The weeds became a dark green to protect themselves from the sun\'s unyielding
rays....The wind grew stronger, uprooting the weakened corn, and the air became
so filled with dust that the stars were not visible at night. (Chp 1)
As the chapter continues a turtle, which appears and reappears several
times early in the novel, can be seen to stand for survival, a driving life
force in all of mankind that cannot be beaten by nature or man. The turtle
represents a hope that the trip to the west is survivable by the farmer
migrants (Joad family). The turtle further represents the migrants struggles
against nature/man by overcoming every obstacle he encounters: the red ant in
his path, the truck driver who tries to run over him, being captured in Tom
Joad\'s jacket: And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the
driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. The driver of the truck works for
a large company, who try to stop the migrants from going west, when the driver
attempts to hit the turtle it is another example of the big powerful guy trying
to flatten or kill the little guy. Everything the turtle encounters trys its
best to stop the turtle from making its westerly journey. Steadily the turtle
advances on, ironically to the southwest, the direction of the mirgration of
people. The turtle is described as being lasting, ancient, old and wise: horny
head, yellowed toenails, indestructible high dome of a shell, humorous old eyes.
(Chp 1) The driver of the truck, red ant and Tom Joad\'s jacket are all symbolic
of nature and man the try to stop the turtle from continuing his journey
westward to the promise land. The turtle helps to develop the theme by showing
its struggle against life/ comparing it with the Joad struggle against man.
The grapes seem to symbolize both bitterness and copiousness. Grandpa
the oldest member of the Joad family talks of the grapes as symbols of plenty;
all his descriptions of what he is going to do with the grapes in California
suggest contentment, freedom, the goal for which the Joad family strive for:
I\'m gonna let the juice run down ma face, bath in the dammed grapes (Chp 4)