Like an onion

Like an onion, The Grapes of Wrath is a multi-layered work, as it is written in at least four layers which the reader can recognize according to his/ her intellectual and cultural background. This means that Steinbeck links the “trinity” of the writer, the reader, and the text in order to ensure maximum affective impact on the audience. In other words, Steinbeck intends to make the readers see and feel his work as if it is a living picture. “I am not writing a satisfying story,” he claimed to his editor, Pascal Covici in 1939:
I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags; I don’t want him satisfied…. I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written…. Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself. (qtd. in Demott xviii)
This means that the layers of The Grapes of Wrath range from socio-economic determinism to transcendent spirituality. Louis Owens expounds this idea as follows:
On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised Land. On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants. On a third level it is the story of a nation, Amer¬ica. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind’s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits. (“American Joads” 75-76)
As the narrative develops in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck makes frequent use of Biblical imagery, themes and symbols, and it is this, more than any other single factor, which “gives to the story an epic character and adds a sharpness to the archetypal American myth about the West as a land of opportunity and of plenty” (Perkin 82). According to Perkin, Steinbeck’s use of biblical imagery is direct in some places and inverted in some other places in the novel. Perkin states that “Direct biblical imagery” means “the invocation of a Biblical text or incident to have roughly the same significance in the novel as it has in the Bible” (82). Therefore, one finds high resemblance between the Book of Exodus, which includes the Ten Commandments and the sundry laws without which the children of Israel would be moving in a state of anarchy, and chapter 17 in the Grapes which contains a detailed description of the rules worked out by the migrants on their way to California. The rules worked out by the migrants are introduced by the sentence, “Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being” (Steinbeck 194).
On the other hand, “inverted biblical imagery” means “the use of part of a scriptural incident or narrative in an ironic manner or to make an opposite point in the novel” (83). The most obvious example of inverted imagery is seen in the fact that the children of Israel wanted to escape from Egypt and begin their journey to the promised land, whereas “the only thing the Joads and their neighbors wanted was to be left alone and not driven out by the remote decisions of bankers and the obvious furrows made by the caterpillar tractors across all previous homestead boundaries” (Perkin 83).
However, it seems that the “direct biblical imagery” is more prevalent in the novel than the “inverted”. This is evident in the direct analogy between the workers’ westward migration to California and the Exodus of the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land. There are also many direct parallels to the Bible, for instance, Jim Casy has the same initials of Jesus Christ, and he travels to California/ the symbolic Promised Land with twelve people (the members of the Joad family who are the same number of Christ’s apostles). Literally as well as figuratively, Jim Casy:
takes upon himself the “sins” of his people and goes to jail in Tom’s place in the altercation over the deputy at Hooverville. In his absence he has his role assumed by Jim Rawley, manager of Weedpatch, whose life is also dedicated to the Okie publicans and sinners, to serving the lowly. Like Casy, he doesn’t believe in the orthodox sin; sin is causing misery like hunger, cold, and unhappiness. (Crockett 196)
As Christ sacrifices himself for the sins of humanity, Jim Casy sacrifices himself for Tom Joad and gives up his life willingly for the laborers good. Thus, Casy becomes “a spokesman for the movement from “I” to “we” and assumes a degree of leadership in it before he is cut down by the landowners’ goons” (Timmerman 113). Moreover, there are parallels to Noah, Moses and Virgin Mary but the most notable parallel is to the Exodus journey which is reflected and paralleled by the journey to California.
One of the prominent parallels to the Bible is the title of the novel. Although the phrase – The Grapes of Wrath – is not found in the exact words in the Bible, it has a religious ring. The novel takes its title from Julia Howard Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that was written in 1861 during the American Civil War: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”. In particular, the novel’s title has a connection with the allusion in the second verse which bears a stirring call for victory over the forces which were repressing another downtrodden group (Crockett 194). The second verse also encapsulates the rage of the oppressed, prophesies the overthrow of suppression and envisions a strong freedom.
For Steinbeck, “titles were often a matter of large significance and no small difficulty. He wanted titles that somehow suggested at once the narrative accounting, the tone of the accounting, and its symbolic significance” (Timmerman 105). Therefore, he chooses this title for his novel because it has a special meaning in this book at several symbolic levels. To illustrate, in the Bible, the word “grapes” is mostly associated with the wrath of the God. The most familiar biblical analog occurs in the Book of Revelation. From Revelations comes the pronouncement that the wicked people who follow Babylon “shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (King James Bible, Rev. 14.10) and suffer torment. The avenging angel with a sickle shall harvest both the grapes and the vine and cast them in the winepress of the God’s wrath, and from the press when they are trodden, blood shall flow. This is narrated in the Bible as follows, “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs” (King James Bible, Rev. 14.19-14.20). Besides, from Deuteronomy Moses, speaking of the enemies of Jehovah and his people, says, “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (King James Bible, Deut. 32.32-32.33)
Therefore, Steinbeck picks this title in particular in order to equate the grapes of God’s wrath to “the fermenting wrath of the Okies which promises doom to the California deputies, farmers’ associations, Bank of the West – all groups who place their possessions above human welfare” (Crockett 194). Besides, it is worth mentioning that there are some places in the Bible where the grapes of wrath are juxtaposed and contrasted to the grapes of plenty. For instance, in the Book of Numbers, the spies come to the Brook of Eshcol in Canaan and return with a huge branch of grapes as a sign of the land of milk and honey. This parallels the prophecy of Deuteronomy that the Israelites would eat their fill of grapes. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck perceives the contrast because the “dream of grapes of plenty recurs in The Grapes of Wrath” (Timmerman 106). For example, Grampa Joad dreams of the grapes of plenty and says:
Jus’ let me get out to California where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch a grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ’em on my face an’ let ’em run offen my chin. (Steinbeck 83)
As well, Grampa declares, “They’s grapes out there, just a-hangin’ over inta the road. Know what I’m a-gonna do? I’m gonna pick me a wash tub full a grapes, an’ I’m gonna set in ’em, an’ scrooge aroun’, an’ let the juice run down my pants” (Steinbeck 93). In another situation, Grampa proclaims, “I’m gettin’ hungry. Come time we get to Cali¬fornia I’ll have a big bunch a grapes in my han’ all the time, a-nibblin’ off it all the time, by God!” (Steinbeck 103). Although the grapes represent the possible dream of California to be the Promised Land, “the Promised Land is a is a fallen land, riddled by greed, and as the prophecy of the sweet grapes is replaced by the reality of thin stew, the grapes of wrath take root in their place” (Timmerman 106).
Next to the Biblical significance of the title, Exodus imagery is considered the most significant direct parallel to the Bible. The story of the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land is in “the forty chapter of the Book of Exodus and the thirty-six chapters of the Book of Numbers” (Perkin 85). The story begins when a man named Moses is called, through an experience at the burning bush, to return to Egypt to lead his enslaved nation to freedom and ultimately to a new Promised Land. After several confrontations with the Pharaoh and after ten plagues, Moses eventually leads the Children of Israel out of Egypt. On their way to Canaan, the migrants organize their community, and the Ten Commandments are given to Moses, there are wanderings, disappointments and battles. Although the Israelites arrive at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses and his people are not allowed to enter the land. As a result, the leadership passes to Joshua who undertakes the task of settlement (Perkin 85).
In the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel “longed to leave Egypt and they survived a grueling journey in the belief that Canaan, much of which was fruitful territory, was to be theirs” (Perkin 85). In contrast, the Joads do not want to leave their homeland and way of life, a kind of slavery though it is. When the capitalists forced the Joads out of their land, they undertake the migration buoyed up by baseless imagination and false hopes. While the story of the Israelites achieves success at the end of the journey, “the story of the Joads is one of ever increasing hardship, of the erosion of confidence, and of the hopelessness of their quest” (85).
According to Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath is divided into three consecutive chapters with no large grouping; but even a cursory reading reveals that the novel is made up of three major parts: the drought, the journey, and California” (“The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction” 302).