Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

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Symbols and Symbolism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath is extremely complex, with many images drawn from the Old and New Testaments. However, Steinbeck as usual was eclectic in his use of symbols, and a great deal of the novel is given to either pagan and universal archetypes, or to highly original meanings unique to the author's own vision and experience. While acknowledging the Judeo-Christian content, these other symbols are just as important, and an exploration into their use in Steinbeck's work, reveal their real significance.

Much of the existing critical discussion of The Grapes of Wrath has focused on the pervasive Judeo-Christian symbolism of the work, particularly
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Casy takes advantage of the over-wrought girls in his congregation ("to me they was holy vessels. I was savin' their souls. An' here with all that responsibility on me I'd just get them frothin' with the Holy Sperit, an' then I'd take 'em out in the grass") (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, page 18). Then he comes to the conclusion that "there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do." (Ibid, page 19) At this point he becomes a true servant of mankind, not of anything higher. Casy is portrayed as none too attractive, yet the lynchers who kill him identify him as "that shiny bastard" (Ibid, page 344); he is tranformed by the magnitude of his act, yet he himself "stared blindly at the light (Ibid, page 344)". Christ prayed to be spared His dreadful death; Casy "dodged down into the swing" (Ibid, page 344).

Shockley identifies Tom Joad as the disciple to Casy's Christ, basing his argument on Tom's pivotal dialogue with Ma in the cave, when he decides to take over Casy's task, and promises to "be all around in the dark" in a