'The Grapes of Wrath' -- The Importance of the Title

Grapes of Wrath
Grapes of Wrath. Penguin

"The Grapes of Wrath," a Pulitzer-prize winning book written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939, tells the story of  the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven out of Depression-era Oklahoma -- also referred to as "Oakies -- by drought and economic factors, who migrate to Californa in search of a better life. Steinbeck had trouble coming up with the title for the novel, a classic in American literature, and his wife actually suggested using the phrase.

From Bible to Battle Hymn

The title, itself, is a reference to lyrics from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, and first published in "The Atlantic Monthly" in 1862:

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on."

The words have some important resonance in American culture. For example, Martin Luther King Jr, in his address at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, civil rights march in 1965, quoted these very words from the hymn. The lyrics, in turn, reference a biblical passage in Revelations 14:19-20, where the evil inhabitants of Earth perish:  

"And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the wine press, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs."

In the Book

The phrase "grapes of wrath" does not appear almost until the end of the 465-page novel: "In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." According to eNotes; "The oppressed such as the Okies are 'ripening' in their understanding of their oppression.

The fruit of their anger is ready to be harvested." In other words, you can push the downtrodden so far, but eventually, there will be a price to pay.

In all of these references -- from the tribulations of Joads, to the battle hymn, the biblical passage and King's speech -- the key point is that in response to any oppression, there will be a reckoning, likely ordained by God, and that rightness and justice will prevail.

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