The Theme of Man vs. Environment in The Grapes of Wrath

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The Theme of Man vs. Environment in The Grapes of Wrath         


 The Grapes of Wrath is a novel by John Steinbeck that exposes the desperate conditions under which the migratory farm families of America during the 1930's live under.   The novel tells of one families migration west to California through the great economic depression of the 1930's.  The Joad family had to abandon their home and their livelihoods.  They had to uproot and set adrift because tractors were rapidly industrializing their farms.  The bank took possession of their land because the owners could not pay off their loan.  The novel shows how the Joad family deals with moving to California. How they survive the cruelty of the land owners that take advantage of them, their poverty and willingness to work. 

            The Grapes of Wrath combines Steinbeck adoration of the land, his simple hatred of corruption resulting from materialism (money) and his abiding faith in the common people to overcome the hostile environment.  The novel opens with a retaining picture of nature on rampage.  The novel shows the men and women that are unbroken by nature.  The theme is one of man verses a hostile environment.  His body destroyed but his spirit is not broken.  The method used to develop the theme of the novel is through the use of symbolism. There are several uses of symbols in the novel from the turtle at the beginning to the rain at the end.   As each symbol is presented through the novel they show examples of the good and the bad things that exist within the novel. 

            The opening chapter paints a vivid picture of the situation facing the drought-stricken farmers of Oklahoma. Dust is described a covering everything, smothering the life out of anything that wants to grow.  The dust is symbolic of the erosion of the lives of the people.  The dust is synonymous with "deadness". The land is ruined ^way of life (farming) gone, people ^uprooted and forced to leave.  Secondly, the dust stands for ^profiteering banks in the background that squeeze the life out the land by forcing the people off the land. The soil, the people (farmers) have been drained of life and are exploited:

            The last rain fell on the red and gray country of Oklahoma in early May.  The weeds became a dark green to protect themselves from the sun's unyielding rays.

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...The wind grew stronger, uprooting the weakened corn, and the air became so filled with dust that the stars were not visible at night. (Chp 1)

            As the chapter continues a turtle, which appears and reappears several times early in the novel, can be seen to stand for survival, a driving life force in all of mankind that cannot be beaten by nature or man.  The turtle represents a hope that the trip to the west is survivable by the farmer migrants (Joad family).  The turtle further represents the migrants struggles against nature/man by overcoming every obstacle he encounters: the red ant in his path, the truck driver who tries to run over him, being captured in Tom Joad's jacket: And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it.  The driver of the truck works for a large company, who try to stop the migrants from going west, when the driver attempts to hit the turtle it is another example of the big powerful guy trying to flatten or kill the little guy. Everything the turtle encounters trys its best to stop the turtle from making its westerly journey.  Steadily the turtle advances on, ironically to the southwest, the direction of the mirgration of people.  The turtle is described as being lasting, ancient, old and wise: horny head, yellowed toenails, indestructible high dome of a shell, humorous old eyes.  (Chp 1)

The driver of the truck, red ant and Tom Joad's jacket are all symbolic of nature and man the try to stop the turtle from continuing his journey westward to the promise land.  The turtle helps to develop the theme by showing its struggle against life/ comparing it with the Joad struggle against man.

            The grapes seem to symbolize both bitterness and copiousness.  Grandpa the oldest member of the Joad family talks of the grapes as symbols of plenty; all his descriptions of what he is going to do with the grapes in California suggest contentment, freedom, the goal for which the Joad family strive for:   I'm gonna let the juice run down ma face, bath in the dammed grapes  (Chp 4)

The grapes that are talked about by Grandpa help to elaborate the theme by showing that no matter how nice everything seems in California the truth is that their beauty is only skin deep, in their souls they are rotten.  The rotten core verses the beautiful appearance.

            The willow tree that is located on the Joad's farm represents the Joad family.  The willow is described as being unmovable and never bending to the wind or dust.  The Joad family does not want to move, they prefer to stay on the land they grew up on, much the same as the willow does.  The willow contributes to the theme by showing the unwillingness of the people to be removed from their land by the banks. The latter represents the force making them leave their homes. Both of these symbols help contribute to the theme by showing a struggle between each other.  The tree struggles against nature in much the same way that the Joad family struggles against the Bank and large companies.  

            The rains that comes at the end of the novel symbolize several things. Rain in which is excessive, in a certain way fulfills a cycle of the dust which is also excessive.  In a way nature has restored a balance and has initiated a new growth cycle.  This ties in with other examples of the rebirth idea in the ending, much in the way the Joad family will grow again.  The rain contributes to the theme by showing the cycle of nature that give a conclusion to the novel by showing that life is a pattern of birth and death.  The rain is another example of nature against man, the rain comes and floods the living quarters of the Joads.  The Joads try to stop the flood of their home by yet again are forced back when nature drops a tree causing a flood of water to ruin their home forcing them to move.  In opposite way rain can helpful to give life to plants that need it to live.  Depending on which extreme the rain is in, it can be harmful or helpful. This is true for man, man can become both extremes bad or good depending on his choosing.

            Throughout the novel there are several symbols used to develop the theme man verses a hostile environment.   Each symbol used in the novel show examples of both extremes.  Some represent man, that struggles against the environment, others paint a clear picture of the feelings of the migrants.  As each symbol is presented chronologically through the novel, they come together at the end to paint a clear picture of the conditions, treatment and feelings the people (migrants) as they make there journey through the novel to the West.

 Teachers Notes:

The large quote in your paper is great.  However, when you quote, make sure that you cite the exact page number, not just the chapter in which the quote is found.

Also when quoting, only use a colon when the sentence introducing the quote is a complete sentence and the quote is a complete sentence.  A period is also acceptable for such a quote. 

Always use quotation marks for quotes less than four lines.

The punctuation of a quote should come after the parentheses of the citation, “blah” (13). Instead of “blah.” (13)

Be careful with subject/verb agreement.  If you have a singular subject then your verb must also be singular, “the rains that come” or “the rain that comes.”

You have a very well written paper, your paragraphs are to the point, and you show a good amount of critical analysis.  Just to make your thesis statement more specific you might want to list the symbols that you discuss in your paper as a part of your thesis in your introductory paragraph.

Works Cited:

Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939.


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