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The Grapes of Wrath: Analyzing The Symbolism of Nourishment

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Nourishment as a Symbol in The Grapes Of Wrath

In The Grapes of Wrath, families traveling to California suffer starvation and exhaustion because of malnourishment. The Dust Bowl is a physical embodiment of their starvation. Possibly more important than the physical nourishment is the mental and emotional aspects of nourishment, specifically pertaining to the Joad family. Because of their ongoing starvation, their troubles with crossing America and dealing with the law and the spiritual turning of Tom, Steinbeck explores many different kinds of nourishment in the Grapes of Wrath.

Physically, the traveling people are starving, because they cannot farm the land that belonged to them. The land itself is starving, due to the good soil being blown away, leaving deadened dirt and sand. These factors exacerbate each other: the bad soil leads to starvation employment, which means the farmers cannot re-invigorate the soil, which continues the cycle. In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad personifies this struggle. He expects to return to his home and continue farming, but instead is thrown into a world where he cannot work. It is symbolic of birth, in a way. Tom goes from being cared for and nurtured in jail, and gets used to a life with regular feeding. After jail, he finds himself in a world that can barely sustain itself, let alone the workers that have forced the earth into its own starvation. Steinbeck reveals the corruption of the banks and landowners through these circumstances. These men do not care for the people working the land, or the land itself, rather, their priority is a healthier bottom line and fatter profits. They add to the starvation of those suffering by greedily claiming for themselves the only nourishment the earth and workers may have.

When the Joads attempt to cross the United States, they meet many physical hardships as well as difficulties in dealing with authority, specifically lawmen, landowners, and employers. The economic circumstances are pushing lawmen to their limits, especially with the rapid influx of travelers. Therefore, they are becoming increasingly corrupt by cutting deals and attempting to control the travelers more than their positions dictate. In terms of nourishment, these lawmen are a sort of leech that feeds off of whatever energy the poor travelers may have. The landowners cause perhaps even more problems, but not in same the way that the lawmen do. The landowners have purchased all of their land with loans, and by defaulting on their loans, they created the initial problem for the workers. The landowners’ unchecked spending and blatant disregard for the common man make them pivotal to the workers’ plight. The workers’ struggle surfaces in all aspects of their journey: the salesman, the homeless camp, and general disregard for human life that they face from the people they meet along the way. The employers are ones that often take advantage of the troubles at hand by sending out job offers in mass, knowing that the starving crowds will flock to them, trying to get any job to feed their families. The supply of workers is huge that the employers can cut down on salaries still get the job done. In essence, they leech off of the workers’ efforts. All of these entities take away the nourishment from the workers in favor of fattening themselves up, both mentally and physically.

As the novel progresses, the poor become more and more burdened, like a mother giving her child the last bite of food, or Elijah the Prophet asking for a cake from a starving woman. The poor are able to keep going forward, though, just like in the Biblical allusion where the woman does not run out of wheat. Rose of Sharon’s feeding of the man continues the theme of birth into a new world and brings the idea of nourishment full circle. Steinbeck brings the birth theme to pass by Rose of Sharon’s baby, which is a stillborn. The baby represents what could happen when families abandon each other and when there is no justice in the world, that is, death and suffering. The nourishment theme comes through again, though, when Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the starving man in the barn.

Nourishment, or the lack of it, is a vital theme in The Grapes of Wrath. The wealthy, corrupt minority take and strip the nourishment from the poor workers, forcing them further into poverty and perpetuating the cycle of struggle that existed in this era.

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