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.
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.
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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.