The Grapes of Wrath: No One Man, But One Common Soul


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The Grapes of Wrath: No One Man, But One Common Soul

 

 

        Many writers in American literature try to instill the philosophy

of their choosing into their reader.  This is often a philosophy derived at

from their own personal experiences.  John Steinbeck is no exception to

this.  When traveling through his native Californian in the mid-1930s,

Steinbeck witnessed people living in appalling conditions of extreme

poverty due to the Great Depression and the agricultural disaster known as

the Dust Bowl.  He noticed that these people received no aid whatsoever

from neither the state of California nor the federal government.  The rage

he experienced from seeing such treatment fueled his novel The Grapes of

Wrath.  Steinbeck sought to change the suffering plight of these farmers

who had migrated from the midwest to California.  Also, and more

importantly, he wanted to suggest a philosophy into the reader, and insure

that this suffering would never occur again (Critical 1).  Steinbeck shows

in The Grapes of Wrath that there is no one man, but one common soul in

which we all belong to.

 

        The subject of Steinbeck's fiction is not the most thoughtful,

imaginative, and constructive aspects of humanity, but rather the process

of life itself (Wilson 785).  Steinbeck has been compared to a twentieth

century Charles Dickens of California; a social critic with more sentiment

than science or system.  His writing is warm, human, inconsistent,

occasionally angry, but more often delighted with the joys associated with

human life on its lowest levels (Holman 20).  This biological image of man

creates techniques and aspects of form capable of conveying this image of

man with esthetic power and conviction; the power to overcome adversity

through collectiveness, or in this case, as one combined soul(Curley 224).

 

        Steinbeck's basic purpose of the novel is essentially religious,

but not in any orthodox sense of the word.  He is religious in that he

contemplates man's relation to the cosmos and attempts to transcend

scientific explanations based on sense experience.  He is also religious in

that he explicitly attests the holiness of nature (Curley 220).  A common

fear during the nineteenth century was one of this naturalism leading to

the end of reverence, worship, and sentiment.  Steinbeck, however, is the

first significant author to build his own set of beliefs, which some would

refer to as a “religion,” upon a naturalistic basis.  Because of his “

religious” style on a naturalistic basis, he is able to relate man with a

natural soul that they own, and combine them into a grouping of a larger,

more important soul (220).

 

        America and American literature was founded on the spirit of

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necessity of the individual.  But Steinbeck disagrees with this idea of

individualism.  He feels that the individual by himself is not going to

succeed through the efforts of his own soul.  It is through the combined

effort of everyone's souls  that a common goal is able to be reached

(Critical 5).  The Grapes of Wrath uses the naturalistic movement of

literature to prove this as well.  Forces like economic, social,

environmental, and genetic forces fight against the Joads (the main family

of the novel) and other Okies (the farmers and their families who migrated

west from Oklahoma in search of work).  But in the end, the Okies

themselves are triumphant because they learn that they belong together, and

their souls cohere to this group.  Steinbeck points out that the only way

these naturalistic forces can be beaten is through a combined group effort.

 

        Steinbeck also promotes humanism in the novel as a way of

expressing the idea of an oversoul.  The end of the novel defeats the

accusation that the Okies are animals with no human characteristics at all.

The characters of Uncle John and Pa help to build a dam to prevent the

rising waters from entering the boxcar that they are living in.  Steinbeck

shows this image as a common goal among the combined souls of the two men

to survive and the humanity of man, in midst of great inhumanity and

indifference (Critical 5).

 

        Unanism, another one of Steinbeck's beliefs, is also evident

throughout the novel.  Steinbeck's unanism was derived from his friend, the

biologist, Edward Ricketts.  Rickett's interest was in groups of marine

creatures functioning as one organism (Smith 411).  Unanism is a group

theory wherein the collective emotions of two people, of two small rural

communities, of cities, of countries, and of the whole world transcend and

are superior to individual ones (441).  Or, in other words, in relation to

the soul, the entire soul is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is

shown in the novel where the final triumph of the Okies as a collective

soul is greater than their individual battles as single souls.

 

        Transcendentalism is a belief in the Emersonian oversoul.  This is

where no one owns an individual soul, because each soul contributes to a

universal soul.  Transcendentalists feel that harming others merely hurts

oneself.  Emerson, the forefather of transcendentalism, believes that self-

-reliance and individualism are the key to happiness (Grapes 5).

 

        Steinbeck, who reflects transcendentalist views in his novel,

rejects Emerson's belief of individualism, however.  Steinbeck believes

that collective happiness is the way to total happiness (Critical 3).  In

the novel, Casey's thoughts reflect Steinbeck's thoughts, and

transcendentalism evolves in Casey's mind throughout the novel (Grapes 2).

Casey makes the revelation to Tom that, “Maybe all men got one big soul

ever'body's a part of” (Steinbeck 345).  Steinbeck also supports his

transcendentalist views in the novel through the fact that helping one

another and sharing with one another is the key to survival for the Joads

and the rest of the Okies, which contributes to the importance of the one

combined soul (Grapes 2).

 

        Steinbeck's theory of the collective soul goes against the

foundation of the American system.  This theory in American society is that

the thoughts and rights of the individual, and hopefully, other individuals

will fall into the same thoughts and rights (Critical 3).  Democracy, on

the other hand, is for the rights of the majority, and is not influenced by

the path of the individual.  Steinbeck uses this theory in his analogy of

the soul, and in the transition of the Joads.  The Joads, at first, are

only concerned about the well-being of the family.  But after witnessing

the suffering of the other farmers, they change their views.  The Joads

realize that only through a collective effort can the Okies overcome the

appalling circumstances in which they are forced to live (3).

 

        In Plato's Republic, Plato uses a diagram of the perfect city to

analyze the human soul and what is good and bad for it (Critical 4).

Steinbeck also uses a Platonic-like setting to show how the individuals of

a group contribute to the soul of the whole.  He also does this by using

each character to symbolize what is good or bad for the soul.  Each of the

twelve characters which make up the family the novel have a distinct

purpose in the group.  When one leaves, the group suffers for it, making

the chance for success not as strong.  This relates to the idea of each of

the members' soul contributing to the success or failure of one soul as a

whole, and has no regard to any individual outcome in terms of success and

failure (4).

 

        The theme of the novel, relating to the theory of a universal soul,

is represented through the entire social condition of which Steinbeck's

characters are a part of, and it is primarily in terms of the total

situation that they have existence (Lisca 91).  Thus, their role is

collective, and representational of the theme of the novel in regards to

the Okies and the migrant workers just as in the novel the evicting

landlords are in reality representative of the actual Shawnee Land and

Cattle Company, and the growers are representative of the California

Farmer's Association (91).  These representative elements add to the theme

in that each soul is a group, and together they add up to one collective

group in a common plight (91).

 

        As far as the central narrative about the education of the Joads is

concerned, the novel is not a social novel (Curley 223).  It is, however,

in danger of being known as a period piece, and needs to be defined as art

rather than sociology.  It stresses group achievement, and depicts the

necessity of education and reformation, rather than just showing the

results on people of a national disaster (224).  If the Joads had not been

caught up in the events of the particular time period and place that

troubles the public, the novel would be more easily recognizable as a tale

of the travail and triumph of the human spirit as a group of people (224).

 

        The characters of the novel, mainly the twelve that make up the

family, each represent a specific characteristic that is unique to the

family, and when added up, create a larger oversoul.  The character Casey

represents spiritual belief and reasoning.  Rose of Sharon represents

humanity and kindness, and Ruth and Winnie represent childhood and family

pride, and selfishness, respectively.  Noah represents a childlike

innocence and a feeling of belonging to society.  Connie represents

youthful aspirations of the future, and Pa stubbornness and a refusal to

give up the fight against life.  Uncle John represents guilt, and Grandpa

represents heritage.  Ma represents hope, and strength (second to Tom).

Tom represents idealism, and strength, while Grandma represents family

unity, and Al represents the wildside and youthful rebellion (Critical 4).

As the characters leave the story, the family is deprived of their unique

characteristics they contribute to the family soul.  At the novel's end,

the key pieces to the soul are still there: Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, Uncle

John, Winnie, Ruthie, and Al.  These characters provide the group and the

collective soul with enough different characteristics or pieces of the soul

to still proceed (4).

 

        Although some characters depart and leave the family, like Tom and

Casey, they still fight for the well-being of the collective soul.  Casey

leaves to fight the low wages and abominable conditions in which the people

are forced to live in.  And when Casey dies, Tom takes the cause up to

fight the injustices, but not just the injustices in California.  Tom

states:

 

        Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there.

Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casey knowed, why,

I'll be in the ways guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids

laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready.  An' when our folks

eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why, I'll be

there (Steinbeck 537).

 

        And when the Okies finally do rise from poverty and make it on

their own, the mentality of Tom's fight is still there also.  With the

collective soul in Tom's mind, when one person succeeds, all who belong

succeed too (Critical 5).

 

        The characters of Ma and Rose of Sharon add to the collective soul

as well.  The speeches of Ma show that when people have nothing else, they

are at the very least, kind to each other.  Ma says, “Use' to be family was

fust.  It ain't so now.  It's anybody.  Worse off we get, the more we got

to do” (Steinbeck 569).  This shows that Ma has shifted from a person who

was always dead set to keep the family together to a person who is looking

out for everyone in the collective soul, not just the family (Critical 4).

 

        A change is also evident in Rose of Sharon for the benefit of the

collective soul.  At the beginning of the novel, she is a self-centered

person who does not think very highly  of the family or of the people in

similar circumstances.  However, her attitude undergoes a change toward the

end of the novel.  With the loss of her husband, Connie, and her still-born

baby, she transforms into a dynamic character who puts the cause of the

group, survival, before the well-being of herself (Critical 4).  This is

shown in the end of the story  when she makes the greatest sacrifice and

gives a dying man sustenance through the milk from her breast.  This

illustrates the importance of the group soul as opposed to Rose of Sharon's

individual soul.

 

        The idea of the oversoul is also emphasized through some of the

writing techniques utilized by Steinbeck.  One in particular is the use of

alternating chapters.  The even numbered chapters of the book are dedicated

to the tale of the Joad's plight, and the odd numbered chapters portray

images and the movement of the entire migration west by the Okies.

Steinbeck does this deliberately to show the Joads do belong to a larger

group and many people are having the same difficulties and hardships as

they are (Critical 3).  These alternating chapters are used as a way of

filling in the larger picture.  Steinbeck uses a variety of literary

devices to minimize their interruption of the narrative action, such as

dramatization, juxtaposition, and the prose style itself (Lisca 92).  The

same folk dialect and figurative language reappear in the interchapters to

continue the natural flow of the story.  To put the Joads in a necessary

situation to fulfill a larger picture would destroy their credibility as

particular and real people (92).  Again, the theory of a collective soul is

strongly pointed at by the alternating chapters.

 

        The collective soul is not a new idea, but it does clash with the

ideas that America was founded on.  Steinbeck started to write the Grapes

of Wrath with the idea of changing the philosophy in place in California,

but it expanded to changing the idea of the system in place in America.

Steinbeck wished to make his mark in the field of American literature, and

that he did with this novel.  Through the novel, Steinbeck shows that there

is not just one singular soul, but something bigger, which all men belong

to.

 

 

 

 

 


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