Religion is perhaps one of the few aspects of human life which are truly eternal, having existed even before history began to be recorded in writing. Its very nature is such that it has an extremely unique place in society. It begets positive feelings and brings people from different generations, backgrounds, regions, pasts, together in a way nothing else can. John Steinbeck’s highly-acclaimed The Grapes of Wrath offers a fresh perspective on the nature of religion in its traditional sense and provides Steinbeck’s vision of religion’s ideal role in society and individual lives. In what is a vivid, impactful, and powerful narrative of the Joad family’s journey to California, Steinbeck opines that religion best serves humanity when it has a personal touch to it. He sharply critiques the black and white, right and wrong nature of religion that is traditionally followed while arguing that religion should be based on personal circumstances, not absolute rules.
Steinbeck introduces this theme of religion through the introduction of the character most associated with it: Jim Casy. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses him as a mouthpiece for conveying his religious ideology. A former preacher, Casy struggles to come to terms with his religious identity when he first meets Tom Joad, the protagonist. In one of Casy’s first dialogues, Steinbeck captures the essence of his argument against the traditional form of religion, as Casy says to Tom, “Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible” (20). Casy feels as he used to have sexual relationships with young girls, often lying with them in the grass. After spending considerable time thinking, he comes to the conclusion that there is no right and wrong; he says to Tom, “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. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say” (23). Therefore, Steinbeck argues that no absolute rule should govern the common man’s life without even taking into consideration the circumstances, the past, and the feelings of the individual. The author additionally uses Jim Casy to convey how religion—as it is taught—lacks any real connection. Even preachers like Casy, who are supposed to be the common man’s means to reach God, fail to comprehend this abstract belief. Casy tells Tom that when he asked himself if he loved Jesus, he contemplated for a long time and finally said, “No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people” (23). Thus, Steinbeck labels religion as disconnected from reality and the common man; its conventional form is described as ineffective for society.
While Jim Casy projects Steinbeck’s opinions on religion, the character of Uncle John is used as one of the main mediums to continue the author’s critique of religion and make the reader realize the negative effects that strict belief in orthodox religion can have on individual lives. Uncle John’s life has been derailed by feelings of guilt, as his wife died from appendicitis when he neglected her care. Since then, he tries to repent for his sin by continuously trying to help others. Steinbeck paints a desolate and listless picture of Uncle John’s life. He tries to live a life of sanctity, not eat any luxurious food and avoid drinking. However, he ultimately gives in to his temptations, as his “appetites swelled into pressures until they broke through” (96). He then eats, drinks, and satisfies his sexual desires until he reaches his physical limit; thereafter, he reverts to his pious life marred by shame and penitence, trying to help people and being kind by giving candies to children, and cutting wood for free. Steinbeck writes that John’s feelings had “left an unbreaking loneliness on him” (96). Therefore, Steinbeck uses this character as an example of the harm conventional religion can cause; John is constantly wracked by guilt because he feels he sinned, and his forced attempts to live a celibate life consign him to worsening physical and mental health. When Jim Casy heroically sacrifices himself to save Tom after an altercation with a police officer, Uncle John is overwhelmed with abasement, as seeing this selfless act makes him question his own morality. He goes and gets drunk to cope with the guilt, singing to Jesus: “I’ve give my heart to Jesus, so Jesus take me home. I’ve give my soul to Jesus, so Jesus is my home” (275). This dialogue further corroborates the hypothesis that Uncle John’s feelings of guilt were born of his belief in virtues, sins, and salvation. He sings, pleads, and surrenders himself to Jesus to gain forgiveness and salvation. Steinbeck uses this moment of Uncle John’s vulnerability to emphasize that he has been reduced to this shadow of a man purely because of the guilt he feels, and, more importantly, the guilt he thinks he should feel.
While Uncle John might be the most prominent example of a character negatively affected by religion in The Grapes of Wrath, he is by no means the only one. Steinbeck uses the character of Mrs. Sandry, a woman that the Joads come across at a government camp in California, to portray how religion can also consume a person and make them prey on others. Mrs. Sandry has turned into a religious zealot due to her obsession with virtues and sins. When Rose of Sharon is sitting alone, Mrs. Sandry sees an opportunity to warn the innocent young girl about committing any religious transgressions. She says to the pregnant Rose, “You be good. If you got sin on you—you better watch out for that there baby” (308). She complains about the sinners in the government camp who act in plays and take part in hug dancing, saying that “[t]hey ain’t but a few deep down Jesus-lovers lef[t]” (309). Thus, Steinbeck emphasizes how Mrs. Sandry solely focuses on finding and condemning people who commit sins while taking little part in social activities herself. The author makes the reader realize that this traditional form of religion can often be divisive, labeling those who partake in certain acts as sinners, with the added effect of society condemning and distancing itself from such people.
Alongside this critique, the author presents his vision of the ideal religion. Through Jim Casy and Tom Joad, Steinbeck describes how—with a shift in focus towards people— the same religion that divides us, can unite us as well. Using Casy and Tom’s religious awakenings, he emphasizes that real joy comes from human connections. Jim Casy, and later Tom, decide to act upon this newfound realization and dedicate their lives to the migrant cause, working for the collective good. Both these characters are also used to project the Oversoul theory, as both Casy and Tom talk about all humans being part of one big soul; Steinbeck uses this description to further highlight the power of human interconnectedness. He finishes his discourse on religion through Tom’s last conversation with his mother, which praises the power of human connection one final time, as Tom quotes Scripture: “[I]f two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken” (418). Using concrete physical examples of people conserving heat by being close and the strength of a three-fold cord, Steinbeck successfully makes the reader visualize the strength that human connection can have, if only it is used to its best advantage.
Steinbeck thus uses the sharp contrast between Jim Casy’s religion and the conventional form to comprehensively convince the reader of the former’s benefits. Above all, he leaves one with a better understanding of the immense power of human connection and unity. In a time where we are getting disconnected even from the people closest to us, the lessons we learn from this novel are invaluable. Every single person needs social interaction, and the digital age brings with its promise of an advanced life the promise of decreasing human connection. Loneliness and depression are becoming major problems that society is struggling to tackle. What is more troubling is that these two issues can create several other problems like terrorism and domestic violence, which can cause much more direct harm. Therefore, it is increasingly important for us to reconnect with each other; unity and cooperation are a must if we are to solve these problems and the countless others plaguing humanity in the 21st century. As Tom says to his mother when bidding goodbye, each of us is a “little piece of a great big soul” (418), and only when this little piece unites with the rest, does it become whole.