The Grapes of Wrath: Metaphor Analysis

Dust is, unsurprisingly, an important image in a novel set amidst the “Dust Bowl.” But, in the first portion of the book, dust serves as more than a literal, physically descriptive detail. It symbolizes the vast, widespread, seemingly unstoppable forces changing the lives of farmers and their families forever. The dust cannot be avoided; it can only be dealt with. The dust at the beginning of the book is thus balanced by the rain at the books end. Whereas the Joads (and other farmers like them) tried to deal with the dust by leaving, they (along with others, but not all in the boxcar camp) try to battle the rain by building an embankment. The water breaks through, however, forcing the family to once more move on. The natural forces of dust and rain mirror the social forces at work in the novel. While these forces cannot be easily stopped, and are certainly not portrayed as benevolent or even neutral, they do provide the occasion for people to discover their true selves, their true worth. Ideally, in the novels schema, they lead people to realize their place in the larger human family. The dust and the rain, and the forces they represent, are catalysts for change.
The “monster” introduced explicitly in Chapter 5 and rearing its ugly head implicitly throughout the rest of the book, serves as shorthand for a negative statement of the novels positive thesis (see “the oversoul” under Theme Analysis). Through his characters and plot, Steinbeck will argue that, indeed, all people are “caught in something larger than themselves,” but it is not (or ought not to be) “the monster”-that is, the money-driven system destroying the “Okies” lives. Steinbeck presents banks and land-owning companies as monsters: “[T]he monster has to have profits all the time. It cant wait. Itll die.” The monster is a symbol of dehumanization. In Chapter 5, for example, readers see insect-like tractors overrun the land, operated by men who, in goggles and dust masks, have become “part of the monster.” The goggles and masks serve as metaphors for how the vast, impersonal monster has goggled the drivers hands and muzzled their minds; they cannot “see the land as it was . . . [or] smell the land as it smelled; [their] feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth.” Even the drivers meals reveal the extent to which they have been dehumanized: they eat, not organic food they have wrested from the earth themselves, but “sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, white bread . . . Spam, a piece of pie branded like an engine part.” In a biblical allusion, Steinbeck laments, “Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread” (see Gen. 2:15; 3:19). The drivers work the tractors, not the land; they carry out mechanical violations of the earth-Steinbeck describes the mechanized seeders as “twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion.” The violent imagery underscores the evil nature of “the monster.”
California functions as a symbol as well as a literal destination in the book. As early as Chapter 5, we hear of California as a tantalizing “promised land.” The bank spokesmen leave the tenant farmers with one small seed of hope. They ask them, “Why dont you go on west to California? Theres work there, and it never gets cold.” When the Joads and the other “Okies” arrive in California, however, they find the reality much different than the dream (see, for example, the beginning of Chapter 18; see also Chapter 25, which is a biting portrayal of the supposedly beautiful and bountiful California springs). They are unwanted and unwelcome; the work is not plentiful; the weather is not temperate. In a situation parallel to the biblical story found in Numbers 13, then, the new “promised land” of California is reported in Chapter 16 to be anything but paradise. In contrast to those biblical spies, however, the ragged man who talks to the Joads is “tellin the truth.” And so readers are left with the questions: Will the family take courage and move to possess the land . . . and is the land worth the possession? Does the land-California-by extension, America-live up to its high ideals and promises? And if not, can it be made to do so?