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The character s speech and language in john steinbeck s the grapes of wrath
Vineri, 08 Martie 2013 12:28



Profesor Dumitru Maria Magdalena

Liceul Tehnologic “Constantin Brancuşi”- Piteşti



Steinbeck’s characters are simple people and so is their language.They don’t have much education but use the slang to expreess some lofty ideas worthy of educated people.This is how one can explain the inadequacy between speech and language in their case. So Steinbeck uses slang with two purposes: to show who his characters are (as one means of characterizating them), and to make his heroes and their stories credible. Moreover he renders their mispronunciatiosn, which makes the reading of the book quite difficult.



Generally speaking Steinbeck’s style is elegant and simple with the obvious purpose of making his story accessible and credible. He chose to use slang as a way of characterizing his protagonists and making them look and sound real. Although the purpose was accomplished, some critics accused him of a too thick use of slang which makes the novel hard to be read.

The language used by the characters displays two dimensions: Steinbeck’s intention to be plausible, and his intention to show who they are. By looking at their speech we can get information about their education and about their social background.

For instance Jim Casy knows how to structure his discourse. He was a preacher and he often gave speeches on Sundays. In his “prayer” for Grandpa he uses repetition for a dramatic purpose: the repetition of “just”: “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it”-it’s a way of stating the cycle of life and man’s transitory nature in a simply apparently stupid manner. He separates essential things from irrelevant things in life, underlying them by the repetition of the structure :”that don’t matter” and its reverse “that’s what matter”. What matters is life whereas death is irrelevant. Although he misses the grammatical concord between subject and predicate or omits the subject, which proves his lack of linguistic knowledge, we can definitely notice some rhetoric skills in his speech. He even makes use of quotations to introduce and sustain his idea that the only holy thing is life. This way he is more persuasive. Here Casy makes an implicit deduction saying he won’t waste his time praying for something dead, since life is the only holy thing, the only thing that matters: Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says, ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I wouldn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for ‘im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. Both the dead and the alive have jobs assigned, but for the dead it’s much easier because there’s only one way for them. It would be much useful to pray for those alive to make the best choice from the many ways they have. The short speech is full of philosophy and presents a new radical view on holiness with a practical tone. Unlike the rest of the characters he proves to have some education as he knows from his readings how to shape his discourse and how to put his ideas in words that create suggestive images.

His language seems to be better then that of the rest of the characters even though there are personal pronouns inappropriately used (“they’s luck or bad”)or spelling mistakes meant to show mispronunciation(“somepi”;”hisself”). Slang words are also present in his discourse:” son-of-a-bitch”, ”ass”. He only has a strong principle of life: one has to do what he feels good doing, and this is no sin provided that” nobody got a right to mess with a fella’s life. He got to do it all hisself. Help him, maybe, but not tell him what to do”. His philosophy appears to be sound and sensible coming from personal experience rather than from Bible or theory.

In a detailed parable Jim Casy tries to make Tom understand the mechanism of need. It pushes people to steal and fight just as it pushed people in prison to ask for better food, all in a single voice. This means getting all on the same tone like in a union.

Tom’s language is not better than Casy’s, he just doesn’t have such suggestive philosophical ideas as the preacher does. He is straighter, because, as we mentioned before, he is a man of action turning in the end of the novel into a man of thought, whereas Jim’s character undergoes the change from thought to action. Unlike Casy’s speech, Tom’s words are not necessarily uttered to persuade but to express his feelings and thoughts,whereas the former preacher is accustomed not only to explain but more than that to convince, a habit which comes from his Sunday preaches.

He uses the same slang and grammatical errors with lots of unfinished words in which the last letter is replaced by an apostrophe. Some of his tenses are wrongly built:”it don’t matter”;”knowed”. Steinbeck did his best in the difficult task of rendering his characters’ spoken language by written means.

Tom came to acknowledge Casy’s idea that man hasn’t got a soul of his own, but he is just a small piece of a big soul. So when his mother will look for him he will be everywhere. This is underlined by the dramatical repetition of the structure “I’ll be there”. He will be wherever there are people in need starving and fighting to survive.

All in all, most of the language Steinbeck used belongs to slang. Even the word “Okies” is a slang term for a person from Oklahoma. During the depression years, it became a derogatory term for people who were forced off their farms. Using slang Steinbeck intends to introduce the reader into the social circumstances of the Dust Bowl. He needs to make his characters credible in point of social class and education, and he does it by appealing to a mainly colloquial style. His characters’ speech is unadorned as regards figures of speech. They use only a few repetitions, enumerations, comparisons or inversions, but there are no sophisticated imageries. They display no transcendal matters, except for Casy, so they only refer to their surrounding realities and life experience.



1.      Fontenrose, Joseph, John Steinbeck. An Introduction and Interpretation, University of California, 1963

2.      Heiney, Donald, Downs, Lenthiel H., Essentials of Contemporary Literature of the Western World, vol.4: Recent American Literature after 1930. Contemporary Literature of the Western World, vol. 4, Barron’s Educational Series, NEW York, 1973

3.      Blake, Nelson Manfred, Novelists ‘America: Fiction as History,1910-1940, Syracuse University Press, New York, 1969


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