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Grapes of Wrath: Biblical Alusion

December 6, 2018 0 Comment

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’tsic no sin and there ain’tsic 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.