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...
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