But this is not to say that Steinbeck neglected the fact that rural America is religious. This is quite a challenge for Steinbeck to portray reality on the basis of theoretical political ideas. But where there is conflict between the two, Steinbeck had chosen the real over the ideal. The staunch faith in God exhibited by the Joad family, even under trying circumstances is one of the highlights of this masterpiece. This is best illustrated by the following lines from The Grapes of Wrath,
“Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’ . . . . I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ . . . . I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe 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.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”
John Steinbeck’s social commentary comes out loud and clear in his critically acclaimed book Of Mice and Men. The book was written at a time when the country was in the grip of the Great Depression and poverty reaching unprecedented levels. The story traces the life of two poor migrant workers who are on the move – George and Lennie. These two move through the desolate countryside in search of labor opportunities and with a dream of having their own two acres of land and a house one day. The choice of these central characters is quite masterly, in that, the bigger and stronger Lennie is shown to be slow of thought and gullible. On the other hand, his partner and companion George is more worldly-wise and street smart, if not all that strong. This interesting juxtaposition of mental and physical features adds a touch of irony to the narrative and serves the author in illustrating his theme. The author makes it quite clear that the motive behind George’s protectiveness of Lennie is no more than one of economic opportunism, given that Lennie is quite industrious and quite good at performing repetitive tasks. Yet, in spite of the grinding poverty that had cast a spell on the entire country and had forced its citizens to adopt a policy of “every man for himself”, George does show some genuine affection for his companion Lennie. What Steinbeck was suggesting is that the rural poor of the 1930’s America still retained a basic value system even at a time of intense economic and social turmoil. This is quite true in reality as well. Some of the subaltern documentaries of the period do indicate that the poor people did not abandon their sense of community and an ethic that is worthy of humanity. In effect, Steinbeck is seen using the medium of the novel to comment on a poignant social reality.
Moreover, the author also portrays instances of cross-racial solidarity and harmony, which is an exception than the rule for the genre. For example, Lennie is shown to act in defense of a fellow worker although the latter is black. The following passage is how Steinbeck introduces Crooks in the story.
“Crooks, the Negro stable buck had his bunk in the harness room; a little shed that leaned of the wall of the barn…Crooks was a proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs. His body was bent over to the left by his crooked spine, and his eyes lay deep in his head, and because of their depth seemed to glitter with intensity. His lean face was lined with deep black wrinkles, and he had thin pain-tightened lips which were lighter than his face.”
What is important to note is the stamp of dignity and self-respect with which Crooks is shown to carry himself, despite several setbacks. This implies that though the black American community during the early part of last century was treated as second class citizens, they internally maintained a sense of dignity and grace. And the character of Crooks seems to epitomize the community’s condition as a whole.