The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—The Religion of I Don’t Know

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In the story of the Joads, unlike the story of Job, the whirlwind comes at the beginning.

The Grapes of Wrath (the film based on the John Steinbeck novel) tells the story of a poor Oklahoma family whose way of life is literally blown away by the winds of the Dust Bowl. The combination natural/manmade disaster of the plains in the 1930s resulted from unsustainable farming practices that left the soil no longer able to withstand wind erosion during drought. Dust storms left farms no longer productive in the Oklahoma panhandle and elsewhere, forcing sharecropper “Okies” to flee the land they knew in search of better prospects somewhere else in Depression America. The name Joad is a barely veiled allusion that the suddenness and totality of the losses befalling this family find their comparison in the losses inflicted upon the character from the Bible.

Except that this film also echoes another ancient work, because Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is Job on an Odyssey. Holding together a nearly destitute family that includes elderly, children, and his pregnant sister, he drives them all across country by jalopy in a quest not toward home or even a new home, but toward the hope (a hope that decreases as they proceed toward it and learn more along the way) of wage-paying manual labor in California. But this story does indeed involve Job on the Odyssey-like quest, not Odysseus, because in this quest there is no sense of adventure or valor, just the desperation of declining options. Answering a remark about his bravery in setting out with failing truck across the southwestern desert, Tom says: “Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

The spiritual guide for this journey is Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher who “lost the spirit,” by which he means he lost the feeling of conviction that what he was preaching has any worth. We first encounter Casy contentedly singing a song with the refrain, “He’s my savior.” It’s just that Casy no longer considers himself knowledgeable about that savior, nor about the Creator’s desire for him or others in this world. Late in the film, he says, “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” I loved this character. I loved him because the soft-spoken Carradine plays him gracefully, but also because “I gotta ask” is where I find myself. In matters related to my Christian faith, I gotta ask, and in the face of those possessed of a feeling of conviction, the questions can come off as impertinent.

Carradine and Fonda as Casy and Joad
The Joads ultimately go the way of Jim Casy in regard to their hope about their own destiny. This is the victory the story gives them—freedom from the investment of desire and expectation in a particular outcome, meaning freedom from fear about that outcome, and freedom from despair if the hoped-for outcome doesn’t come. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) proves to be the strength of the family after Tom has gone. She sees him off when he must flee because he has become a fugitive after killing a man in self-defense. On their way without Tom to another job opportunity, reacting to other family members’ excitement over the promise of 20 days of work picking cotton, she says: “Maybe 20 days’ work and maybe no days work. We aint got it ’til we get it.” But there is no despair in this, only acceptance. She goes on:

“Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta—well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream—little eddies and waterfalls—but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.” 

She is contrasting a man and a woman, but she is describing just as much the arrival at a faith like Casy’s, a faith of “I don’t know.”

This, too, is reminiscent of the biblical book of Job. I’ve been writing about Job in previous posts. The book of Job is most significantly a book about a change in religion—a change in human understanding and expectations regarding God. The friends of Job in this book view God through the lens of earthly reward and retribution. God rewards those who are faithful to him, and God brings loss and hardship to those who displease him—that is their view. But the problem is: Job has been faithful to God, and Job is suffering. The religion of Job’s friends ultimately fails.

God appearing in a whirlwind at the end of the book of Job reveals a different religion to them. He asks 66 questions about the nature of the world and the means of its creation, to not one of which is Job or anyone present able to give an answer.

In the whirlwind, there is God. The religion of “I don’t know” has mystery at its heart, but not absence. Casy still sang of his savior. The religion of “I don’t know” finds its solace in the faith that God does know.