Sairy Wilson’s final conversation with “Reverend” Jim Casy resonated with me, hence my grabbing a quote from Sairy as the post’s title. What’s interesting to me is how much Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways as physical and material a book as possible (so rich with details about the natural world, about people’s bodies and possessions, etc.), is about the immaterial, and ultimately about faith and hope in things we do not see, or (in some cases) even believe in (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, and an intentional paradox). I’ll set aside Sairy and Jim for a moment and extend these thoughts out to other characters—I’ve gotten all the way over the mountains with the Joads now, and have reached the point where they’re looking down on the beautiful valley that, in this instant, is the California they’ve dreamed of, all along Route 66.
Ma’s faith is in “the family unbroke”, a remarkable phrase given that, in so many ways, all of these people are broken—the old ones too far gone to reach the Promised Land, the parents breaking down physically and emotionally as they go, the younger members of the family all afraid or lost or fragile. Right after she expresses her willingness to rely on that concept—the family unbroke—the family begins to shatter as a unit. We lose one more Joad to death, and another to the lure of freedom. It’s increasingly clear that Tom’s commitment to stand up for himself come hell or high water will land him in trouble…likely either a California grave or a long ride back to an Oklahoma jail. Will what’s left of the Joads, in a hundred pages or two, be enough for Ma to live by? At what point does the gravity lose hold, the disc fan outwards into particles flung on tangents by centrifugal force?
Tom’s faith is, as far as I can tell, in himself—whatever he lived through in prison, it’s convinced him that there’s nothing he can’t handle. He takes guff from nobody, not even men with authority and influence enough to put him back in jail. He speaks with authority himself, now; Pa remarks to Ma about how Tom’s so “growed-up”, talking almost like a preacher now, and she agrees without hesitation. He tells people like the one-eyed man at the wrecking yard what’s wrong with their lives and how to fix it—he sets Al straight and gets the family across the desert, insisting at one point that, if need be, they’d walk it. Tom’s rule seems to be that if another man could do it, then by God Tom Joad is going to do it and there isn’t a soul on earth to tell him no. I can’t tell yet what Steinbeck’s doing with this self-confidence….setting Tom up for a fall? Revealing the inner dignity of the working man, no matter his background or circumstance? Showing the false front so that later chapters can open up the wounded and vulnerable man underneath? What is clear, anyway, is that Tom’s faith is in as hard-to-see a thing as Ma’s “family unbroke” or Jim Casy’s God. He believes in a drifter, a parolee who broke parole the first chance he had, a man who murdered yet never seems to have learned caution from it. He believes in the inherent worth of a man who will consistently be assessed as worthless by the people he meets, because of how he talks, how he looks, how he smells. Time will alone tell if Tom’s put his faith in the right person. Much as I admire him, I can’t rate his chances very high, given the environment he’s about to step into.
Jim Casy, then, to return to where I began. That conversation with Sairy is so deeply moving—her quiet acceptance of her fate, her hopes for her husband, so piercing. Ultimately Jim prays a prayer she cannot hear (does he pray?) to a God neither of them can see (is God there?) and then turns and walks “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light”. What to do with J.C. is a challenge—as I alluded to in an earlier post (and as plenty of people have with this book, I expect….I really haven’t looked up critical essays about it), Casy’s initials obviously could be used to imply that he acts as a Christ-figure for Steinbeck’s novel. There’s definitely material to work with—Casy as a man who takes on the suffering of others, Casy the one they all find they can depend on in a crisis, Casy who ultimately gives Sairy Wilson peace and then vanishes into the light (an ascension? a transfiguration?). But I’m not sure I want to take him there. More than anything else, Casy strikes me as Steinbeck’s alter ego. He speaks rarely, but when he does, it’s usually a pronouncement of some kind—he asserts truths about who people are and why they move and what it all means. For this reason, I find him alternately fascinating (he is the most philosophical character in a book full of wise but simple folk) and a bit irritating (his speeches sometimes feel forced on the narrative, especially since Casy rarely speaks on any other occasion….it’s easy to forget he’s still with the family some chapters). Regardless, though, I have to deal with him, and this faith he does and does not seem to have. He announces that he’s left God’s service, but no one else will let him. His prayers for the dying and the dead are clearly significant moments to those around him, but he considers them of no real account. What does Casy believe in? Not himself—if nothing else is clear to me, that is. He’s not like Tom in that way; he’s painfully conscious of having failed others in the past, and is wary of accepting responsibility for them now. As the only person in the book right now who doesn’t have a family, it’s hard to see him agreeing with Ma that the unbroken family is the thing to trust in—he doesn’t exert any influence on the decisions where the family was about to split up (temporarily or permanently). But is Casy, then, an argument for faith in God? Who or what does he trust?
The book is getting intensely sad, and I’m uneasy about the arrival in California. The struggles of keeping two old jalopies running down Route 66 will soon seem pretty minor in comparison with the squalor and the desperation of the picking fields. The stories the Joads hear on the road are terrifying, especially the man whose children and wife starved to death (if we needed any evidence to understand what an impact the New Deal would have, and how desperately grateful the nation would have been to FDR for the idea of the “safety net”, this novel certainly makes a good case). But as Tom says, the Joads have no other choice, no place to return to. What do you do when you only have one choice? You take it. But what a terrible position to be in. And even then, as people are suffering and dying because of the manipulations of the big growers and the landowners, you can hear the voices shouting down the slightest dissent—a man suggests for even a few moments that the workers are being taken advantage of, and suddenly he’s accused of being a “troublemaker”, a “labor faker”. It’s announced loudly that these types stir up trouble and make people angry, and for the good of everybody they’ll all be rounded up and killed sooner or later. It’s awful and true that most human societies run this way—it becomes strangely less unjust to cheat and starve the common people than it is to be the person pointing this out to the common people. The more I read the novel (which is of course fiction, but which also of course strives to be true to that time in history, given when and for whom Steinbeck writes it), the more I realize how close we were in the 1930s to two different Americas—one America an oligarchy run by authoritarians protecting the moneyed interests and dragging the country into fascism to protect capital, and another America in a state of revolution, where workers throw their lot in with international communism for the furious and desperate reason that they cannot see another way to get bread for their children. That we threaded the needle in that environment (to the extent that we did—obviously in some times and places both sentiments and scenarios prevailed to some extent) is a testament to something about America. I haven’t yet figured out what. We’re in California now, and maybe I’ll see clearer from this vantage point. For now, it’s onward to the fields, and good luck to the Joads.