Emersonian thought in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

March 19, 2019 by Essay Writer

Steinbeck’s characterization of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath stems from Emersonian thought, as expressed in Emerson’s essay “The Over-Soul”. Jim Casy forms beliefs based on the ideas presented in this piece, as evident through his action of quitting preaching, and his understanding that educating others by lecturing them is pointless. This enlightened leader learns to interact with his soul and acknowledge the presence of a spirit greater than man himself. The presence of Emeron’s ideas is forever present in the novel, as Casy is able to hand down these concepts to Tom Joad before his death, symbolizing the universality of “The Over-Soul.”

“The Over-Soul” inspired Steinbeck to create intellectual Jim Casy, the most enlightened character introduced in the novel. When Casy is first presented to the readers, his journey towards discovering his own soul has already started. When, on his walk home from prison, Tom Joad recognizes Casy as the preacher who baptized him, Casy immediately corrects him, saying, “I was a preacher… Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears — but they seem kinds sensible.” (20). This statement is the epitome of Casy’s transformation as a character. He disconnects with God and reconnects with his own soul, and later with man himself. As the novel continues, Casy realizes that preaching brings no value to the common man. Rather, the real truth, taught by the universal spirit, can only be learned through moral action. This is a key concept in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”. Here, Emerson states, “the action of the soul is oftener in that which is felt and left unsaid”. The importance of inner acceptance is highlighted here. Both authors emphasize the notion that true growth and learning come from the inside. Casy begins to understand that preaching is the exact opposite of this truth. By listening to his own soul, rather than to the lessons others try to teach, he will learn to do what is right.

The Grapes of Wrath also shows traces of “The Over-Soul” through Casy’s explanation of man being part of something greater than himself: “[M]aybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” (24). Once he comes to this realization, Casy begins to lead with example. He forms a labor union to show others that one man is not as important as the entire society. He urges many to join it in order to prevent further exploitation of the Okies, to prevent further harm to the proclaimed Holy Spirit that contains each and every member of society.

Although man may work to feed himself and family, he is ultimately harming the rest of humanity by doing so. In other words, by working for less, he is promoting the quick exchange of workers on a field, the simple act of hiring those who agree to work for nearly no pay. While accepting this job offer, man is leaving millions of others of his own kind to suffer and die, without jobs and without food. Casy justifies that this approach is immoral; man must stand up for his fellow man. In being part of the “Holy Sperit” (24), man is in fact obligated to do so. The notion that man is merely a small fragment of a collection that is the world as a whole is expressed in “The Over-Soul” when Emerson states “…we are nothing, but the light is all.” (6). In his view, man is a mere fragment of God’s work. By expressing this idea, Emerson emphasizes that one man means nearly nothing in the great scheme of the world’s vast society. In relation to the overall plight of the Okies, one man’s death is insignificant to the rest of the sufferers in the large Okie population. He should not take the underpaying job in hopes that it will help him survive. Rather, he must stand up with the rest of mankind to fight for fair treatment for all.

Casy teaches all these lessons to those he encounters throughout his life. However, like every man, the former preacher is not immortal. However, his ideals are. To ensure the immortality and universality of these concepts, they must be handed down to another leader. In this case, the leader is Tom Joad. Originally, he is hesitant to embrace these new values, as he strives to provide himself and his family with food and shelter. However, after witnessing the death of his mentor and the poor treatment of so many Okies protesting outside the campsite, Tom decides to fill Casy’s shoes.

Demonstrating his worthiness of this position, Tom leaves his family, saying his final goodbye to his mother at the cave, and ventures off to live independently. By doing so, he breaks off Ma’s dream of keeping the family together. With this gesture, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath clearly mirrors the concepts portrayed in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”. Throughout the novel, the author shows the growth of Jim Casy alongside the progression of the Okie community. “The Over Soul” indeed influenced Steinbeck’s creation of Jim Casy’s character, yet another Emerson essay is relevant here as well. In “Self Reliance”, Emerson discusses the wrongful actions of man, a theme clearly applicable to the Okies, and the well functioning of a self-reliant community. The Okies’ inhumanity, the acceptance of jobs for low prices, and envy, the wanting of goods that they simply can’t afford, is reflected in this essay. Both Emerson essays ultimately tie together in claiming that lecturing others of the importance of self-reliance is useless; rather, a good teacher, one like Jim Casy grows to become, must interact with his own soul and learn from experience in order to properly convey his message.

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