When John Steinbeck accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, he described the writer's obligation as "dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement." For some critics, that purpose has obscured Steinbeck's literary value. He has been characterized variously as an advocate of socialist-style solutions to the depredations of capitalism, a champion of individualism, a dabbler in sociobiology, and a naturalist.
While evidence for different political and philosophical stances may be culled from Steinbeck's writings, a reader who stops at this point misses some of the most interesting aspects of his work, including his use of paradox. "Men is supposed to think things out," insists Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. "It ought to have some meaning" (p. 55). But in this epic novel, as well as inOf Mice and Men and The Pearl, Steinbeck seems to question whether the mysteries of human existence can ever be fully explained. In these works that span the grim decade from 1937 to 1947, Steinbeck urges the dispossessed to challenge a system that denies them both sustenance and dignity, and to seek the spiritual belonging that enables individuals to achieve their full humanity. So we have the paradox of the author apparently denouncing injustice while also exalting acceptance of the sorrows visited on humanity, whether those sorrows are wrought by nature or by humans themselves.
All three books examine the morality and necessity of actions the characters choose as they pursue their dreams. The poor fisherman Kino in The Pearldreams of education for his son and salvation for his people. We first meet him in the dimness before dawn, listening to the sounds of his wife, Juana, at her chores, which merge in his mind with the ancestral Song of the Family. "In this gulf of uncertain light [where] there were more illusions than realities" (p. 19), the pearl that Kino finds lights the way to a more just world and the end of centuries of mistreatment by white colonizers. But the promise of wealth manifests the archetypal evil hidden in the community's unconscious, like the pearl that had lain hidden in its oyster at the bottom of the sea. As the dream turns dark, Kino descends into violence, bringing death to four men and ultimately to his own son. What other choices might he have made? This parable raises questions about our relationship to nature, the human need for spiritual connection, and the cost of resisting injustice.
Steinbeck's most controversial work, The Grapes of Wrath, raises similar questions. During the Dust Bowl Era, three generations of the Joad family set out on the road, seeking a decent life in fertile California and joining thousands of others bound by an experience that transforms them from "I" to "we" (p. 152). Cooperation springs up among them spontaneously, in sharp contrast with the ruthlessness of big business and the sad choices made by its victims, for whom "a fella got to eat" (p. 344) is a continual refrain. Casy, the preacher turned strike leader, wonders about the "one big soul ever'body's a part of" (p. 24).
On their journey to the promised land, the characters in The Grapes of Wrath confront enigmatic natural forces and dehumanizing social institutions. Casy is martyred as he takes a stand for farmers who have lost their land to drought and