45 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Symbols & Motifs

Food and Hunger

When Tom is reunited with his family and steps inside Uncle John’s house, one of the first things he sees is his mother cooking. As Steinbeck says, “She was lifting the curling slices of pork from the frying pan” (77). Next to that, “a great pan of high brown biscuits stood waiting” (77). Food thus serves as a marker for both place and the human group. The meals Ma cooks bring the family together literally and metaphorically. They form the foundation of a shared familial bond and a shared sense of purpose. This motif recurs throughout the novel, as when Tom, Casey, and Muley are united by the cooking and eating of a rabbit. Later, Tom forms a bond with a family at the government camp when he shares breakfast with them.

At the same time, the absence of food plays an important role in the text. Its paucity plagues the migrant experience. One emblematic and unnamed character is reduced to eating “Biled nettles n’ fried dough” (247), with the dough-flour swept from the floor of a boxcar. Such poor diets lead to malnutrition. They also lead to “children dying of pellagra” (365), a disease caused by a lack of eggs, vegetables, and meat.