This paper discusses how the idea of the epic can be found in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The novel itself is an enormous work of approximately 500 pages. And in the words of Howard Levant, it is "an attempted prose epic, a summation of national experience of genre" (Levant 91). Because Steinbeck is depicting more than just a "slice of life" but rather an entire range of life at a given time in America, the book may justly be called "epic" in terms of art and scope. Indeed, The Grapes of Wrath contains epic ideas and themes (the struggle to be good and/or to survive evil times), epic similes (examples of the struggle that go on at length), epic characters (larger than life types who seem bigger than ordinary men), and an epic journey (the travel from Oklahoma to the "Promised" Land of California). By including all of these aspects, Steinbeck sets up his novel as work that is indeed an epic.
The epic simile is an important one for any epic and one chapter in particular serves as a good example of how it is used to illustrate the novel's epic proportions. Epic works typically contain symbols like road signs that help to guide the reader through the length of the work. Steinbeck devotes all of Chapter 3 to a turtle and its effort to cross from one side of the road to the other. It is plainly a symbol of the effort of the Joads to cross from one side of the country to the other. That effort in and of itself is epic and relates to the epic journey of the novel. Epics are often centered on journeys, and The Grapes of Wrath maps a physical journey but also a spiritual journey as well.
The epic journey is another typical aspect of the epic, and in The Grapes of Wrath there is not one but two epic journeys underway. First, there is the physical journey, which, of course, is the journey from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. But that journey is accompanied by an ever-present danger -- the danger of starvation. As Steinbeck himself noted when researching the lives of the migrant laborers, his characters are based on real people who "move, frantically, with starvation close behind them" (Demott xxxv). The second journey is the spiritual journey, which can be seen throughout in the various characters who look within themselves in order to learn deeper lessons about themselves, about their community, and about the need for human kindness. This spiritual journey begins with Jim Casy's remarks about the soul and ends when Rose of Sharon feeds the starving old man with the milk from her own breast. The giving of human milk, itself a symbol of human kindness, is a sign that the characters' spiritual salvation is at hand. The ultimate journey is completed. The young are helping the old. A sense of community, which has long been lost, is restored by Rose of Sharon's gift of self.
The need for a spiritual journey is identified through the character of Jim Casy. Casy represents the heart of the epic when he tells Tom Joad about his own spiritual failings. Casy's failings mirror the economic failings of the nation. America in the 1920s thought it was rich and prosperous in a way that it really was not. 1929 it realized that much of its fortune was based on dreams. When the market collapsed, many people were left without the ability to pay the bills. When the Dust Bowl hit, farmers had to abandon their land in order to find work elsewhere. It was a time of great upheaval in America. In Jim Casy's soul, it is also a time of great upheaval. But because he is an honest man, he is able to take a good look at himself, just as Steinbeck takes a good look at what is happening in America at this time. Casy can see his own faults and in seeing them he is able to consider a possible cure.
The epic theme or nature of the novel focuses on finding this "cure." Casy hits upon the cure early on when he talks to Tom and tells him that maybe all men share one big soul (Steinbeck 23). If this is true, it means that in order to survive, in order for the soul to live, everyone must look after each other rather than just after himself. This is what Eric Carlson argues in his essay on the novel: "kindness breeds kindess" in the "naturalistic and humanistic" world that Steinbeck has created (Carlson 172). Carlson objects to the argument that The Grapes of Wrath is a Christian allegory. He notes that while allusions are made to Biblical characters, they are not primary to the novel. Instead, the novel focuses on naturalistic and humanistic ideals and sets them up as the "cure" for what ails society as a whole and each of the characters in particular.
Casy for example is less a symbol of Christ and more a symbol of naturalism when he says, "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing" (Steinbeck 23). What Steinbeck shows in this naturalistic world of the 1930s is that the "stuff people do" has consequences and that if the "stuff" is not good then people will suffer.
By taking such grand and universal themes as right and wrong and sin and virtue and viewing them on the individual level, Steinbeck sets his epic on two levels: first, he reveals the epic setting -- the heart of America being forced to relocate; second, he reveals the particular struggle at the heart of this move -- the Joad family's survival. As Levant states, Steinbeck's "central artistic problem is to present the universal and epical in terms of the individual and particular" (Levant 94). Steinbeck shows how "survival" is part of all of life. This lesson is found in the chapter of the turtle, which overcomes obstacles in its effort to "reach the other side." The turtle becomes a kind of epic simile, in which the reader finds the trials of the Joads symbolized in the trials of the turtle.
The novel also contains epic characters, characters who are so big that they are difficult to define. For instance, the novel contains various epic villains, who are depicted in varying ways. They are typically naturalistic, since the novel itself is a naturalistic epic. Yet, they at times take on a kind of demonic presence, which also follows the epic formula of humans battling forces greater than themselves. In the novel, the epic villains are seen as starvation, poverty, hunger, unkindness, self-destruction, and "the Bank," which represents a faceless kind of human greed. "The Bank" is the enemy of the Joads and all the Okies. It is an "evil, nonhuman monster…an abstraction" that cannot be fought in ordinary, natural means because it is so powerful, big, and inhuman (Levant 96).
The human characters are larger than life as well. Rose of Sharon is a kind of naturalistic being, named after a beautiful flowering plant. She transforms into a kind of maternal spirit, who, if she cannot feed her own, will reach out and feed others who need her milk. She becomes a symbol of Christ, who came to feed the Jews, but having been rejected by them, reaches out to the Gentiles.
Jim Casy is another epic character, a preacher who is has real problems and real faults but who, through greatness of character is able to cut through to the real problem which lies within him. He is able to express this problem in words and set the tone of the novel for Tom.
Tom is likened to a Prodigal Son (Carlson 172) when he returns home. In this sense, Tom is a symbol of another Biblical character, which lifts him out of the ordinary ranks of mankind. Such symbols can be found all throughout the novel, showing that while in one sense these characters may seem realistic, in another they are epic because they are larger than life symbols.
Yet, The Grapes of Wrath has other elements to it as well. Demott argues that the novel is "part naturalistic epic, part dissenting tract, and part romantic gospel" (Demott xxii). These different parts account for the reason that readers can see the novel in so many different lights. It contains elements of social commentary, as when Steinbeck describes the poor conditions of the migrant workers and suggests that a new social order is needed. It contains elements of Christianity, as when the Joads move like the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land, which for the Joads is California. And, of course, it contains elements of realism, as when California turns out to be not as great as imagined. However, the true Promised…