Religious Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath Essay

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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
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(Steinbeck, Working Days, 23-24)

Here, "general" refers to the "intercalary" chapters and "particular" refers to those chapters specifically telling the story of the Joads. In each of these two settings, Steinbeck introduces an allegory pulled from the Christian tradition. In the story of the Joads, we see the story of Christ, here represented in the figure of Jim Casy. The intercalary chapters, on the other hand, can be interpreted as patterned on the Biblical story of the Exodus. One of the effects of Steinbeck's separation of the two stories, for which he obviously strove, is that the religious undercurrents within the two stories are also cleanly separated. This effect helps to distinguish them and makes us, as readers, more likely to notice them.

In the novel, Jim Casy serves as a Christ-like figure. First, we can consider the obvious similarities between them. They share the same initials. In both cases, the figure has twelve primary followers. In Christ's case, there are the twelve apostles. In Casy's case, there are the twelve Joads: Granma, Granpa, Uncle John, Al, Ma, Pa, Tom, Noah, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, Winfield, and the unborn baby. These two similiarities, though, could be simply coincidence: "J. C." are fairly common initials, and twelve is not large enough of a number to really require explanation. More importantly, Casy is the person with the most ties to organized religion that we meet in the novel. He is a former…