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The Grapes of Wrath: A Commentary on the Role of Jim Casy
The Role of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath contains many allegorical and symbolic figures. Among these figures is Jim Casy, perhaps the most symbolic character in the novel. He is Steinbeck’s tool to clearly demonstrate the shift from thinking about the self to thinking about the community. He sacrifices himself for the benefit of others, and harbors radical new ideas. In this way, he reminds the reader of a very prominent figure in history. Jim Casy is John Steinbeck’s symbolic figure of Jesus Christ.
Jim Casy is first presented in the novel as a lean, bony figure and as “muscular as a celery stalk” (19). He is not described as a handsome man; quite the contrary, he seems almost meant to appear ugly or distasteful. “His eyeballs were heavy and protruding; the lids stretched to cover them, and the lids were raw and red. His cheeks were brown and shiny and hairless and his mouth full…The nose, beaked and hard, stretched the skin so tightly that the bridge showed white…It was an abnormally high forehead, lined with delicate blue veins at the temples” (19). The reader does not know it this early on in the novel, but this thin, hardened man is in fact a major character, essential to Steinbeck’s themes of community and hope.
At this point in the novel, Jim Casy is a loner, a man on his own, with no wife or family to speak of. He is an ex-preacher, and feels humbled by his depart from the service of the lord. He quit preaching because he could not reconcile with the sin inside himself. He would preach to save the women’s souls, and afterward he would go out and “lay in the grass” with them. This would seem to paint him in a very unflattering light. However, Jim Casy does not come off as a distasteful character, once the reader gets past the harsh description. He has long periods during which he is in deep thought, and he harbors ideas about spirituality and virtue that set him apart from his former faith. As he tells Tom Joad, a young man fresh out of prison, in the beginning of the novel, “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. And some of the things the folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say” (23).
A little further into the novel, Jim Casy is accepted into the Joad family. Here, Jim Casy has already transformed from a man alone to a man working with the family to survive and to make it to California. His new ideas about spirituality are also expressed when the Joad family asks him to say grace. He says, “I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing” (81). This passage seems to be the beginning point where Steinbeck is steering the reader towards the idea of the communal soul, and everybody only having a little piece of it. This idea ties right back in to the theme of community, and everyone needing to work together to achieve a better world.
When the Joad family reaches California and Tom has an altercation with a cop, it is Jim Casy who steps up to the plate and sacrifices himself to take the blame for attacking a cop, in order to keep Tom Joad out of trouble and with his family so he can help support them. As Casy tells Al, Tom’s brother, “Somebody got to take the blame. I got no kids. They’ll jus’ put me in jail, an’ I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but set around” (265-6). This is Casy’s first obvious sacrifice for the benefit of the community of migrants—in this case, for the benefit of the Joad family.
Over a hundred pages later in the novel, Steinbeck uses Jim Casy again to demonstrate migrants trying to better their lives and the injustice of their suppression when Casy appears as a striker outside of a peach farm. He, along with some other men, is protesting to try to raise wages. He is killed trying to convince the men who come to break up the strike that what they are doing to the migrants is wrong. “Listen,” he said. “You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids” (386). When Casy is killed in this scene, it establishes him as a martyr for the cause of the migrants. This sacrifice, along with the fact that Casy “went out into the woods to think,” had new and original ideas about spirituality and virtue, and had the initials of JC, establishes him as a metaphoric symbol of Jesus Christ.
Even later in the novel, Jim Casy appears, even in death, in Tom’s thoughts, voiced aloud to his mother when they are saying goodbye to each other. He tells her he has been thinking about Casy, and about how “he went out into the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul…But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone” (418). Once again this reinforces the idea of the communal soul and the importance of community and sticking together in times of hardship. Tom, influenced by Jim Casy’s ideas, actions, and death, goes on to become a fighter for the cause of the migrants as well. One could almost say that Casy has helped his community by inspiring them to try harder to help themselves rise above the poverty and discrimination they face at the hands of the residents of California.
Jim Casy is not only a symbol of Jesus Christ, but also of the fight for equal rights, better wages, and better housing and treatment of the migrants. Throughout the novel he transforms from a man alone and concerned with himself to a man who dies in the fight to help his community of migrants. He is Steinbeck’s symbol of resistance in the novel, and of the hope for a better life. He fulfills Steinbeck’s overall purpose by demonstrating the shift from “I” to “we,” and by leaving the reader with hope for the future of the migrants.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books: New York, 1992.