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Almost all writers, for many centuries, have acquired their very own unique style of writing literature; this style is the approach an author takes to address the subject matter and the theme of a narrative; as a result, it adds power to a piece of literature. One possible way to add this power is to use figures of speech; it not only gets the message across but it also entertains the readers. Other types of narrative technique include the following: structure of the narrative, diction, tone, symbolism, and imagery. There are many great examples of fiction that use these techniques to convey its message, and at the same time they are quite enjoyable and compelling to read. Some of these techniques are used by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, which focuses on a poor family of sharecroppers, who are driven away from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Steinbeck adds power to the theme of the novel by his effective use of metaphors, bold imagery, and journal-like historical entries.
One of the main ideas that is brought up in this novel is related to human suffering. The farmers and the sharecroppers that have decided to move to California for better work opportunities are subject to many hardships throughout their journey and as well as when they finally reach their destination. The novel focuses on these migrants in general and as well as the Joad family, who are also heading west to California. Steinbeck foreshadows the hardships that the migrants will face early on in the novel by his creative use of a metaphor and he devotes an entire chapter for this purpose.
In chapter three, Steinbeck describes a turtle trying to cross a highway and he provides a rather large amount of detail. The turtle crawls along gradually “turning aside for nothing;” it stubbornly climbs the embankment of the highway which shows the amount of difficulty and the tremendous effort put in by the turtle as described by Steinbeck. While crossing the highway, the turtle crushes an ant; likewise, it almost gets crushed by are car itself. The following passage enlightens the turtle’s desolation as well as Steinbeck’s style:
And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. (17)
It’s extremely evident that Steinbeck used a great amount of detail in this description. A truck going down the highway hits the turtle which sends it spinning off the highway “like a coin” and it lands on its back. Undeterred, the turtle tries to get back on its feet and resumes its slow journey again. As the turtle moves, clump of oats fall out of its shell and the turtle inadvertently buries it because its large shell drags soil over the oats. This turtle is similar to the migrant in many ways.
The description of the turtle in this chapter is a metaphor and it foreshadows the plight of the migrants. Very similar to the migrant from Oklahoma, the turtle faces the hostile world but it is persistent and learns to overcome all of its hardships and finally completes its journey. Later on in the novel we learn that the migrants face many challenges as well ranging from economic hardships to family despair and they will also learn to overcome these challenges as well. Steinbeck uses a few more animal references as metaphors and it really gets the reads’ attention to this aspect of the novel.
Another animal reference is the cat that Tom Joad sees. He recognizes it as an old family cat that used to hang around his abandoned family house. Just like the migrant workers, the cat has also been turned out of its home. The cat now lives in the wild and must survive on mice and other creatures, in the same way that migrants must survive. The cat has been transformed from a domestic pet to a wild animal and this really show how much attention Steinbeck wants us to pay on how the Oklahoma residence transform into migrants.
Steinbeck also wants the reader to pay attention to the way in which the Joad’s dog dies. Although, the Joads didn’t really have a habitual relationship with this dog, and they didn’t really have a unique name of this dog; nonetheless, he was the family dog:
A big swift car whisked near, tires squealed. The dog dodged helplessly, and with a shriek, cut off in the middle, went under the wheels. The big car slowed for a moment and faces looked back, and then it gathered greater speed and disappeared. And the dog, a blot of blood and tangled, burst intestines, kicked slowly in the road.
This dog is run over by a speeding car; as a result, his body is distorted to a point that his guts lie tangled on the road. From reading this passage we get the feeling that some horrific circumstances lie ahead for the Joads since some characters die in a horrific manner as well. This indicates that the times are hard, and many people are quite angry and desperate; thus, people will not even hesitate to take the life of a poor creature.
We watch humans take life of animals without a second thought and we also witness many similarities between the ways humans and animals behave during these distressful times. Steinbeck’s clever uses of metaphors are quite evident.
Steinbeck uses quite a lot of imagery throughout the novel and it really adds power to many ideas that he is trying to get across. One thing that becomes apparent in this novel is that it is based on true historical events. Due to this reason, Steinbeck does his best to make the novel come to life by his use of imagery which in turn gets the message across much more powerfully. One example of this is the image of the “bank.”
There is a point in the novel where landowners start to kick many helpless tenant farmers off of the land, the landowner tell them that the bank is hungry and the bank is a “monster” that cannot be sated. This is conveyed quite remarkably by Steinbeck as the narrator describes: “We can’t depend on it. The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait” (34). This is one of the most outstanding image in the novel as it quite correctly describes the bank. The bank is a monster; it has no sympathy for the poor sharecroppers. This image also adds power to this novel because had Steinbeck just wrote that the banks is working against the people, then it might not have been a powerful message to the reader but due to this image the reader really feels what the sharecropper are going through.
The tractors that are supposed to clear up the land are also part of this dilemma. These tractor become the “snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines” (37). When these tractors arrive to clear the land, the tenant farmers start to wonder who really is in charge and they look for someone who can file their complaints. Of course the tractor drivers simply say, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up” (49). We come to the conclusion that there is no specific person to blame or even a single person held responsible for these actions. We simply know that the banks in the East want more profit out of the drought affected land and they will do anything for this purpose. Since we never actually see or meet any bankers and landowners, we only know that they exist somewhere in the country, and that they are throwing poor sharecropper families out of their homes. Hence the remarkable quote, “The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (36).
To address the backbone of the novel, Steinbeck has introduced another fine imagery. The main reasons the sharecroppers are heading to California is because of the work opportunities there and for a better life overall. For decades, California had been an icon of prosperity and this gives the reader the image of California that it is the best place for the sharecropper to head to. It turns out that this was not the case: the image of California was false.
Steinbeck has completely changed the image of California once the sharecroppers reached there. It was completely opposite of what we thought it would be. California is a place of misery and desperation for the migrants. We feel as though the migrant are in a worst place than before; they have very little money, food, and are living in filthy camps. From then on, a new image of California emerges: it is nothing but a place of misery for the migrants.
Steinbeck has saved one of the most intriguing imagery for the last chapter. Rose of Sharon, who was pregnant, goes into labour and soon gives birth to a stillborn child, “a blue shrivelled little mummy;” (464) so it becomes apparent to us that she can breast feed. Oddly enough, the last scene of the novel is of Rose of Sharon nourishing a starving man:
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
This is the most disturbing image in the novel and since it is the last, readers will remember this for eternity. To elaborate, Rose of Sharon feeds the man with the breast milk meant for her dead child because the man is too weak to digest solid food. Having witnessed the birth of her stillborn child, she nourishes a man back to life, who would have died had it not been for Rose of Sharon’s extraordinary efforts. This is just an extremely overpowering use of imagery by Steinbeck. This image really show how hopeful people are and gives a sense of relief that there is a chance that things will get better for the Joad family and all the migrants; because through united effort, the migrants can overcome their trials and tribulations.
This image also sheds light on Rose of Sharon’s character; she is a very loving and tender hearted person. The reason she feed this man may have been because Ma had asked her to do so but she could have easily said no but she did not say no; she did the unimaginable.
Another very different approach that Steinbeck took to add power to this novel was to write these journal-like historical entries. These are scattered throughout the novel and since this novel is based on historical events, these journal-like historical entries give general background information about the events that took place. These events will usually occur in the following chapters as well and they usually involve the Joad family.
In chapter seven Steinbeck describes the event where all the migrant families are buying cars for their journey to California. It turns out that the car salesmen are taking advantage of the migrants:
Watch the woman’s face. If the woman likes it we can screw the old man. Start ’em on that Cad’. Then you can work ’em down to that ’26 Buick. ‘F you start on the Buick, they’ll go for a Ford. Roll up your sleeves an’ get to work. This ain’t gonna last forever. Show ’em that Nash while I get the slow leak pumped up on that ’25 Dodge. I’ll give you a Hymie when I’m ready.
We see in this chapter that the used-car salesman are trying to sell the worst used cars because they start out by showing the Cadillac and work their way down to a Dodge. They also have devised many ways of cheating the families who are purchasing a car for the long journey to California. The car dealerships do things such as fill the car engines with sawdust to quiet down the noisy transmissions and they also replace good batteries with bad ones right before the customer gets the car.
Later in the next chapter the novel’s main characters go through the same process of buying a car for their journey. They are obviously cheated as well but Tom’s younger brother Al, who knows a bit about cars, helped him pick out a car. These chapters with background information are really important because it helps to understand the situation the migrants are in, which in turn, adds power to the theme because ultimately the reader will likely remember that forever after they finish reading the novel. As opposed to, if it was mentioned normally the reader wouldn’t really think that these events are important and it just wouldn’t have the same kind of intensity.
Another great example of this can be seen in chapter twenty-three. In this chapter the migrants are looking jobs but aside from that they partake in various leisure activities. Some of these activities include: telling jokes, stories, going to the cinema, and drinking to name a few. In the evenings, some migrants will play musical instruments; as the music goes on, some migrants dance to the music.
Later in the next chapter, chapter twenty-four, Steinbeck describes how the Joad family partake in these activities:
Near the dance floor he [Al] saw a pretty blond girl sitting in front of a tent. He sidled near and threw open his coat to show his shirt.
“Gonna dance tonight?” he asked.
The girl looked away and did not answer.
“Can’t a fella pass a word with you? How ’bout you an’ me dancin’?” And he said nonchalantly, “I can waltz.”
The girl raised her eyes shyly, and she said, “That ain’t nothin’-anybody can waltz.”
“Not like me,” said Al. The music surged, and he tapped one foot in time. “Come on,” he said.
A very fat woman poked her head out of the tent and scowled at him. “You git along,” she said fiercely. “This here girl’s spoke for. She’s a-gonna be married, an’ her man’s a-comin’ for her.”
Al, Tom’s younger brother, wants to dance with a girl but it turns out that this girl is going to be married soon. Although this is a humoristic scene, it still shows how the Joad family partake in leisure activities and this was mentioned in the previous chapter but this time it was from the Joad family’s prospective. The main purpose of these journal-like historical entries is give the reader the general background information and then show that information from the main character’s prospective, in this case the Joad family.
Steinbeck has a very unique writing style in this novel. This is a very poignant and heartbreaking novel and Steinbeck adds power to this by his consistent use of metaphors, bold imagery, and journal-like historical entries. This allows the reader to really feel what the characters are going though. He obviously has taken a lot of time to describe everything in a great amount of detail, which really get the reader’s attention and gets the reader to really focus in on the action. His historical entries are just magnificent because they make the novel very realistic. It’s no wonder Steinbeck won Nobel Prize for realistic and imaginative writings.
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