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 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