I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holi-ness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.
In Chapter 8, after Tom and Jim Casy arrive at Uncle John’s farm, the family convinces the ex-preacher to say grace over their breakfast. Casy hesitates, but eventually offers these words. They constitute, in short, the philosophy that governs the novel: both Casy and, later, Tom will put this theory into practice by way of a revolutionary fight for the rights of their fellow man—their efforts to organize the migrant workers. In the end, Casy proves willing to lose his life in this struggle, and Tom, picking up where his mentor left off, resolves to unify his soul with the greater soul of humankind.
On a smaller scale, the Joad family also lives up to this philosophy, determinedly cooperating with fellow migrant workers and offering them their services or their food. Ma Joad in particular emphasizes the importance of keeping the family together. She believes deeply in the power of human bonds to provide not only practical benefits but spiritual sustenance.
The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.
These lines exemplify the exalted and highly stylized tone found in the brief expository chapters that punctuate the story of the Joads. Linguistically, the passage adopts an almost biblical tenor in its repetition and grandeur: “To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself.” The quotation also exhibits a moral simplicity evocative of biblical parable: man toils, and his labor builds him as a person.
In his emphasis on the spiritual necessity of work, Steinbeck makes a point that is crucial to his overarching message in the book: while the workers’ rights movement demands higher wages and fairer treatment, it does not demand an alleviation of hard work per se. Rather, the movement seeks to restore the dignity of hard work to the migrants. When the workers are respected, when expectations are high and achievement acknowledged, this is when human beings can begin to find in their labor the transcendence here described.
“We’re Joads. We don’t look up to nobody. Grampa’s grampa, he fit in the Revolution. We was farm people till the debt. And then—them people. They done somepin to us. Ever’ time they come seemed like they was a-whippin’ me—all of us. An’ in Needles, that police. He done somepin to me, made me feel mean. Made me feel ashamed. An’ now I ain’t ashamed. These folks is our folks—is our folks. An’ that manager, he come an’ set an’ drank coffee, an’ he says, ‘Mrs. Joad’ this, an’ ‘Mrs. Joad’ that—an’ ‘How you getting’ on, Mrs. Joad?’” She stopped and sighed. “Why, I feel like people again.”
After the Joads arrive in the Weedpatch government camp in Chapter 22, Ma discusses the effects of life on the road. It has, she reports, changed her. The open gestures of hostility the family has suffered at the hands of policemen and landowners have made her “mean,” petty, hardened. In Weedpatch, however, for the first time since leaving Oklahoma she is treated like a human being. The camp manager’s kindness rekindles her sense of connection in the world: “These is our folks,” she says. Ma’s speech underlines the importance of fellowship among the migrants, suggesting that, given their current difficulties, one cannot afford to bear one’s burdens alone.
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck emphasizes the importance of the self-respect and sense of dignity that Ma displays here. The unfair treatment the migrants receive does not simply create hardship for them; it diminishes them as human beings. As long as people maintain a sense of injustice, however—a sense of anger against those who seek to undercut their pride in themselves—they will never lose their dignity. This notion is reinforced particularly at the end of the book, in the images of the festering grapes of wrath (Chapter 25) and in the last of the short, expository chapters (Chapter 29), in which the worker women, watching their husbands and brothers and sons, know that these men will remain strong “as long as fear [can] turn to wrath.”
Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.
As Tom bids good-bye to Ma Joad in Chapter 28, he relates to her this bit of Jim Casy’s wisdom. His statement not only echoes Casy’s definition of holiness in Chapter 8 but also testifies to the transformation of Tom’s character. Enlightened by his friend’s teaching and his own experiences, Tom no longer focuses his energies only on the present moment. Instead, realizing his responsibility to his fellow human beings, he starts on a path toward bettering the future, helping generations of workers yet to come. In this way, Tom becomes more than just “a little piece of a great big soul”; he joins with a universal spirit, thereby becoming “whole.”
The quotation also speaks to Casy’s notion, questioned at times in the rest of the novel, that a human-to-human connection always takes precedence over an individual’s connection to the land. Casy has acknowledged the spiritual value of nature by going out into “the wilderness” to find his soul, but he has found that the wilderness offers no sustenance for his spirit unless he feels joined to other human spirits. Other characters in the novel seem to contest this view: Grampa refuses to leave the Oklahoma farm and must be drugged so that the family can load him into the truck; the Joads’ neighbor, Muley Graves, similarly refused to leave for California with his family, and ultimately succeeded in sending them on without him. Both men represent an understandable reluctance to be separated from their land: the land has shaped their identities and constitutes part of who they are. But the Joads, like Casy, believe ultimately in the superior ability of interpersonal connections to sustain their grandfather’s life and spirit. Although Grampa dies soon after the trip begins, he has not died a lonely death.
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 Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ 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. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.
The death of Jim Casy completes the transformation of Tom Joad into a man ready to take responsibility for the future and to act accordingly. Throughout the novel, Casy acts as Steinbeck’s moral mouthpiece, articulating several of the book’s more important themes, such as the sanctity of human life and the necessary unity of all mankind. In this passage, from Chapter 28, Tom quiets Ma’s fear that he, like Casy, will lose his life in the workers’ movement. Tom assures her that regardless of whether he lives or dies, his spirit will continue on in the triumphs and turmoil of the world. As the Joads are torn apart, Tom’s words offer the promise of a deep, lasting connection that no tragedy can break.