Religious Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

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Religious Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

In his novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck portrays the movement of a family of migrant workers, the Joads, from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. Steinbeck's novel, though it is surprisingly lacking in surface-level symbolism, was "conceived [on] simultaneous levels of existence, ranging from socio-economic determinism to transcendent spirituality" (DeMott, xiii). One of the many levels on which this novel can be read is as a parallel to the stories of Christ and the Exodus (Louis Owens, John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, quoted in DeMott, xiii). Steinbeck intertwines allegories based on these two stories throughout his novel. Through these intertwined religious textures, and the destitution and depression that constitutes the greater part of the novel, Steinbeck conveys the message of the impending "death of religion" while at the same time establishing his novel as a sort of new gospel for the people.

On the surface, one can read Steinbeck's novel in one of two ways: by reading the longer, even-numbered chapters, one gains a close understanding of the life of this particular family. But by reading the shorter, odd-numbered, "intercalary" chapters, which could almost constitute a short novel in and of themselves, one begins to comprehend the "epic sweep" of the exodus of multitudes of workers to California, the apparent promised land. Steinbeck intended to separate these two stories in the reader's mind, as we see in his journal kept while writing the book, published later as Working Days:

I find that I am not very satisfied with the numbering of these chapters. It may be that they simply will be numbered with large nume...

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...apes highlight the differences between the times in which the two stories were written, and the flaws of the culture in which Steinbeck wrote. The approach of looking at this epic as it relates to the Christian tradition sheds some new light on it, and in addition shows that Steinbeck truly meant this work to be remembered for all time.

Works Cited

DeMott, Robert. "Introduction". The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1992: vii-xliv.

Levant, Howard. "The Fully Matured Art: The Grapes of Wrath". The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Survey. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

New Revised Standard Version Bible. New York: American Bible Society, 1989.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Steinbeck, John. Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath. Ed. Robert DeMott. New York: Viking, 1989.
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