The Grapes of Wrath: Essay Q&A

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1. How do both Jim Casy and Tom Joad function as "Christ figures" in The Grapes of Wrath? Discuss both similarities and differences between Jesus in the Bible and these characters in Steinbeck's book.
Both Jim Casy and Tom Joad illustrate salvation through sacrifice. Jim Casy strikes readers as a Christ figure almost immediately, even from the mere fact of his initials. Like Jesus coming out of the wilderness to preach the Gospel, Casy emerges from the Oklahoma dust bowl "preaching" (though he disavows the title "preacher") his own message of "good news": that all human beings are united in a universal spirit. From this spirit, all people can draw strength, for themselves and others. Salvation, in Casy's mind, is to be found not in looking to God, but in looking to and loving our fellow human beings. Like Jesus, Casy "ministers" among the common people, traveling with them on the road to California; unlike Jesus, Casy is intent on learning from them rather than teaching them. Like Jesus, Casy is willingly arrested and, like Jesus, he dies a martyr for his beliefs-his action in organizing the strike at the Hooper farm costs him his life. He even quotes Jesus' dying words as he is killed: "You don' know what you're a-doin.'" Tom Joad functions as a Christ figure in a slightly different way. Unlike Jesus and Casy, Tom does not emerge from the desert preaching any message; rather, he is a recently released convict, simply "puttin' one foot in front of the other." Neither Tom does not die a martyr's death (at any rate, not of which we are aware); however, like Jesus at his Ascension, he promises to remain with people always, even after his departure. As he tells Ma: "Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there . . . . I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build-why, I'll be there." Unlike Jesus, however, Tom does not seem to understand himself as a spiritual power somehow activating such struggles and triumphs; rather, he is a fellow participant in them. His individual spirit is a manifestation of the one, larger human spirit of which Casy spoke. His sacrifice is his continued life with his own biological family, given up in favor of life with the wider human family. In different ways, then, both Casy and Joad transcend ordinary human existence, and, like modern messiahs, show how others may do so as well: by surrendering themselves to the one spirit of which all life is a part.
2. Why does Steinbeck choose to structure the novel as he does, with alternating macrocosmic and microcosmic chapters? Use at least one specific pairing of chapters to examine Steinbeck's technique.
In alternating macrocosmic with microcosmic chapters, Steinbeck manages to give The Grapes of Wrath both particularity and universality. While the novel deals with timeless themes, the experiences of the Joad family and other "Okies" illustrate these themes in concrete ways. Steinbeck thus prevents his novel from becoming an abstract treatise on social theory; at the same time, he keeps it from becoming too time-bound. The story is simultaneously about the Great Depression and about human life in general (suitably so, since the connection of all human life is the novel's dominant theme). For example, in Chapter 5, readers learn about "the monster": The reified banking system that is driving farmers off their land. This chapter gives us an appreciation of the complicated social forces at work during the Depression, forces which, as the text says, men created but could not ultimately control. Chapter 6, however, shows us those forces at work in the specific life of Muley Graves. By focusing on Muley, Steinbeck allows us to feel the emotions behind the wide sweep of economic devastation. By balancing the universal and the specific, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, Steinbeck captures both the epic scale and personal emotion of a dark chapter in American history.
3. How does The Grapes of Wrath define the significance of "family"?
The novel shows us the importance of the biological family as a social unit, with its own ritualized customs (e.g., the fact that Grandpa is still allowed the right of first speech in a family council) and ways of providing identity to individuals (e.g., Ma's comment, "I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin' food an' shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They's been mean Joads, but never that mean"). Yet the book also stresses true family as all humanity. From Casy's key speech about the "one big soul ever'body's a part of," to the fact that the Wilsons are bound to the Joads because Grandpa died in the Wilsons' tent, to Rose of Sharon's nursing of the dying man at the novel's end, the story offers numerous examples of the importance of transcending biological boundaries in order to embrace one's fellow human beings. Steinbeck stresses that only when "I" becomes "we" and "my" becomes "our" (e.g., Chapter 14) can progress be made. Such solidarity is critical for survival-and true survival must be survival together. Looking out for one's own is not sufficient, as illustrated by both the implicit condemnation of Joe Davis's boy's remark, "A fella's got to eat" and the implicit commendation of Ma's decision to share stew with the hungry children of the Hooverville. Near the novel's close, Tom's decision to leave the Joad family and join his true family of all who are suffering and struggling brings the book's definition of "family" to its fulfillment. As Tom tries to explain to his mother, one person's struggle must become all people's struggle. This understanding of "family" is significant because it gives hope for the future, a hope that comes from faith in the human spirit.
4. What is the relationship between external authority and personal experience in The Grapes of Wrath?
The novel seems to argue that, while certain life lessons hold true for all people, these lessons cannot be simply taught; they must be experienced in order to be believed. For example, in Chapter 18, Ma attempts to reassure the worried Rose of Sharon, telling her that, in times of change, bearing up under suffering and dying are "two pieces of the same thing." She wishes she could make Rose understand, but admits that Rose will have to experience this phenomenon in her own life first. Like the disillusioned migrants whom the Joad men met in Chapter 16, then, Ma encounters the reality that some experiences must be lived in order to be understood. Rose cannot simply be told that change and death are a part of life, any more than the Joads and Wilsons can simply be told that California is not the dream they imagine it to be. Life must be lived in order for hard lessons to be learned.
5. Sometimes, even Steinbeck's "macrocosmic" chapters focus on specifics. Chapter 3 is perhaps the clearest example: Steinbeck's detailed description of a turtle attempting to cross a highway. Given the rest of the novel, what is this turtle's significance? Why does Steinbeck devote such attention to it?
The turtle to whom Steinbeck devotes so much space in Chapter 3 serves as a metaphor for the Joads and the other "Okies" as they undertake their long and dangerous journeys. When he releases it, Tom remarks that the turtle does not seem to know where it is headed, even as, at several points throughout the book-even in the final chapter-the Joads are not sure of their ultimate destination. Like the turtle, however, they know they must keep moving on. As Ma tells Tom, "We are the people . . . we go on." As the turtle steadfastly moves on by instinct, so, too, might the Joads and "Okies"' migration be seen less as an heroic act and more as a natural reaction; as Tom says in Chapter 18, "It don't take no nerve to do sompein when there ain't nothin' else you can do;" or as Ma tells Pa in the final chapter, "They was on'y one thing to do-ever-an' we done it." Given the book as a whole, in fact-with its repeated stress on the interconnected, and therefore holy, nature of all life-the turtle is a mirror from the animal kingdom of what the humans in the Dust Bowl are experiencing, and how they must respond.

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