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John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, recounts the arduous journey of the Joad family as they strive for survival amidst the social and economic challenges occurring as a result of the Dust Bowl.
Through the utilization of symbolism and imagery, Steinbeck is able to illustrate the shift in perception and behavior regarding the land as it transitions from appreciation to contempt. In chapter eleven, the distinctions between the Joad family and the machine man are symbolized through the depictions of the breathing horse and lifeless tractor. When a horse has finished its work, it returns to the barn where it remains in motion; where there is “breathing and warmth” and “the heat and smell of life” (157). Contrarily, when the tractor’s motor ceases, “the heat goes out of it,” leaving only a cold metal skeleton resembling “a corpse” (157).
Steinbeck portrays the living breathing horse as the embodiment of the Joad family, who dedicate their lives to maintaining their farm and cultivating respect and appreciation for the land. Because of their commitment, the family possesses the knowledge that the land is not merely nitrates or phosphorus, instead acknowledging that it “is more than its analysis” (158). Contrarily, the machine man, a stranger with no connection to the land, “is contemptuous of the land” (158). His engagement with the land stems from a purely selfish desire to exert control over the earth with his metal machine while simultaneously reaping its profits. To further emphasize this new shift in perception, Steinbeck uses imagery to vivify the appearance of the abandoned Joad house. “Weeds sprang up” and “grew up through the porch boards,” their presence slowly expanding to intrude a once well-preserved home (159).
Just as the weeds slowly sprang up within the abandoned home, so also did the sand of the Dust Bowl infiltrate the lives of those inhabiting the Southwest. Strong winds loosen the house’s shingles before prying them off completely, allowing the “midday sun [to burn] through the hole” (159). The deterioration of the deserted home, spurred into fruition by Mother Nature, is symbolic of the waning spirits of those struggling to simply survive during a time of hardship also caused by Mother Nature. Eventually, “a dust settled on the floors,” “door banged,” and “ragged curtains fluttered” reiterating the absence of the life that no exists within (159).
Just as the house is slowly, yet noticeably, overwhelmed by the elements of nature, so too was the Southwest left in destruction by the suffocating presence of the Dust Bowl. Without their home to provide stability and comfort, the Joads struggle to remain united against the challenges they continue to face. Without the oversight and care of the Joads, the house continues to come undone until its condition is irreparable. Both the house and the family were dependent upon each other for certain necessities, and now, without each other, they will be forced to either persevere despite the conditions or ultimately succumb to the crushing weight of fate.
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