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Biblical Allusions and Imagery in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

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Biblical Allusions and Imagery in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

 

 

        John Steinbeck always makes it a point to know about his subjects

first hand.  His stories always have some factual basis behind them.

Otherwise, he does not believe that they will be of any value beyond

artistic impression.  Therefore, most of his novels take place in

California, the site of his birth and young life.  In preparation for

writing his novels, Steinbeck would often travel with people about whom he

was going to write.  The Grapes of Wrath was no exception to his other

works.  To prepare for it, he joined migrants in Oklahoma and rode with

them to California.  When he got to California, he lived with them, joining

them in their quest for work.  By publishing these experiences and trials

of the migrants he achieved an effect that won him the Nobel Prize for

literature in 1962. The writing of The Grapes of Wrath coincided with the

Great Depression.  This time of hardship and struggle for the rest of

America gave Steinbeck inspiration for his work.  Other peoples' stories of

everyday life became issues for Steinbeck.  His writings spoke out against those who

kept the oppressed in poverty and therefore was branded as a Communist

because of his "voice."  Although, it did become a bestseller and receive

countless awards, his book was banned in many schools and libraries.

However, critics never attacked The Grapes of Wrath on the artistic level

and they still consider it a beautifully mastered work of art.  More than

any other American novel, it successfully embodies a contemporary social

problem of national scope in an artistically viable expression.1   In The

Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck utilizes Biblical imagery and allusions to

illustrate the struggle of the Joad family as a direct parallel with that

of the Hebrew people.

 

        Steinbeck bolsters the strength of structure and character

development in the book through Biblical allusions and imagery.  Peter

Lisca has noted that the novel reflects the three-part division of the Old

Testament exodus account which includes captivity, journey, and the

promised land.2  The Joads' story is a direct parallel with that of the

Hebrews.  Just as the Hebrews were captives of the Pharaoh, the Joads' are

captives of their farm.  Both make long and arduous journeys until they

reach their promised land.  Israel is the final destination for the Hebrews

and California plays the same role for the Joads.  Hunter mentions several

of the parallels in the novel. When the Joads embark on their journey,

there are twelve members which corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel

who are leaving the old order behind. They mount the truck in ark fashion,

two by two, as Noah Joad observes from the ground.  This chapter ten scene

is an allusion to the story of Noah's Ark: 3

 

". . . the rest swarmed up on top of the load, Connie and Rose of Sharon,

Pa and Uncle John, Ruthie and Winfield, Tom and the preacher.  Noah stood

on the ground looking up at the great load of them sitting on top of the

truck. 4"

 

Grampa's character is an allusion to the story of Lot's wife. He is unable

to come to grips with the prospect of a new life, and his recollection of

the past results in his death.  Lot's wife died in the same manner.  She

turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back into her past.  The

parallel is emphasized by the scripture verse, a direct quotation from Lot,

which Tom uses to bury him with.5 Uncle John's character resembles that of

the Biblical character Ananias because he withholds money from the common

fund just as Ananias did.  Both characters are similar in their selfish

desires and they each undergo a moment of grace when they admit to their

sins thus becoming closer to God.

 

        Lewis suggests that Tom Joad is an illuminating example of what

Steinbeck considers to be the picaresque saint.7  Tom also serves as a

Moses-type leader of the people as they journey toward the promised land.

Like Moses, he has killed a man and had been away for a time before

rejoining his people and becoming their leader.  Like Moses he has a

younger brother(Aaron-Al) who serves as a medium for the leader.  Shortly

before reaching the destination, he hears and rejects the evil reports of

those who have visited the land(Hebrew "spies"- Oklahomans going back).8

This parallel ends before the completion of the story just as most others

in the novel do.  Many parallels are not worked out completely and as

Hunter notes, the lack of detailed parallel seems to be deliberate, for

Steinbeck is reflecting a broader background of which the exodus story is

only a part.9 Several Biblical allusions come from New Testament stories.

Most prevalent among these allusions is the role of Jim Casy as a Christ

figure.  Hunter provides a plentiful supply of parallels between the life

of Jim Casy and the messiah whose initials he bears.  Just as Christ did,

he embarks upon his mission after a long period of meditation in the

wilderness.  He corrects the old ideas of religion and justice and

selflessly sacrifices himself for his cause.10  Unlike the parallel of Tom

and Moses, this one is followed and completed throughout the novel.  The

annunciation of Casy's message and mission sets the ideological direction

of the novel before the journey begins just as the messiah concept

influences Jewish thought for centuries before the New Testament times.11

Only gradually does he make an impression on the Joads who similarly to the

Jews were used to living under the old dispensation. Steinbeck finally

completes the parallel when Casy tells his persecutors, just as Christ did,

"You don't know what you're a doin'."12

 

        Steinbeck uses other New Testament allusions in addition to that of

the messiah. One of them is the final scene of the novel with Rose of

Sharon.  Just as Mary did, she becomes the mother of all the earth,

renewing the world with her compassion and love.13  Hunter makes several

conclusions from this scene.  First he notes that it is an imitation of the

Madonna and her child, baby Jesus.  He also states that by giving life to

the stranger she is symbolically giving body and wine.  In doing this she

accepts the larger vision of Jim Casy and her commitment fulfills the terms

of salvation according to Casy's ultimate plan.14 Geismar notes the

symbolic meaning of the final scene.  He states that Rose of Sharon's

sacrificial act represents the final breakdown of old attitudes and

climaxes the novel's biblical movement.15

 

        According to Robert Con Davis, Steinbeck's use of Biblical imagery

shows a genuine sense of  "reaffirmation" and hope in an otherwise

inhospitable modern world.16

 

        Once again, a Steinbeck novel has related the plight of an

oppressed people.  This time it is a parallel between the Joads and the

Hebrews.  The novel reflects the history of the chosen people from their

physical bondage to their spiritual release by means of a messiah.17  In

The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck does more than utilize the novel to voice

his social views.  He uses the novel as his medium to relay another set of

his beliefs, his religious views.  Warren French notes that Steinbeck feels

as though traditional religion no longer enables a man to see himself as he

is, that is laws are not applicable to situations in which contemporary man

finds himself.18  Sin, as he sees it, is a matter of the way one looks at

things.  Steinbeck illustrates this feeling best through the following

quotation made by Jim Casy in the novel, "There ain't[sic] no sin and there

ain't[sic] no virtue.  There's just stuff people do.20"  The overall theme

of the novel is that religion is a kind of affliction.21 Once again,

Steinbeck has embodied a serious problem of society in a beautifully

structured novel.  It is through the use of Biblical allusions and imagery

that he gives The Grapes of Wrath a powerful message along with pure

artistic genius.

 

Endnotes

 

1 Robert Con Davis, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Grapes of

Wrath. (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982), p. 1.

 

2 Peter Lisca. "The Dynamics of Community in The Grapes of Wrath," in From

Irving to Steinbeck: Studies of American Literature in Honor of Harry R.

Warfel. (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1972), rpt. in

Hunter, J. Paul. "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation," in Twentieth Century

Interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert Con Davis.

(Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982), p. 40.

 

3 J. Paul Hunter. "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation," in Twentieth Century

Interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert Con Davis.

(Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982), p. 40.

 

4 John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p.

84.

 

5 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 40.

 

6 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 40.

 

7 R.W.B. Lewis. "The Picaresque Saint," in Twentieth Century

Interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath, edited by Robert Con Davis.

(Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1982), p. 144.

 

8 Michael G. Barry, "Degrees of Mediation and their Political Value in

Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, " in The Steinbeck Question, edited by

Donald R. Noble. (Troy, NY: Whitson Publishing Company, 1993), p. 109.

 

9 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 42.

 

10 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 41.

 

11 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 41.

 

12 George Ehrenhaft. Barron's Book Notes on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of

Wrath. (Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1984), p. 19-20.

 

13 Keith Ferrell. John Steinbeck: The Voice of the Land. (New York, NY: M.

Evans and Company, Inc., 1986), p 110-11.

 

14 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 46.

 

15 Maxwell Geismar. "John Steinbeck: Of Wrath or Joy," in Writers in

Crisis: The American Novel, 1925-1940. (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1961),

p. 265.

 

16 Davis, Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath. p. 4.

 

17 Hunter, "Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation." p. 40.

 

18 Warren French. John Steinbeck: Twayne's United States Authors Series.

(New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961), p. 109-111.

 

19 Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. p. 328.

 

20 French, John Steinbeck: Twayne's United States Authors Series. p. 108-

-109.

 

 

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