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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL THE CHARACTERS
  • JIM CASY

    Do you find it surprising that Jim Casy, one of the three most important characters in The Grapes of Wrath- along with Tom and Ma Joad- does not appear in about one-third of the book? He disappears from the time of his arrest until Tom meets him again outside Hooper Ranch. Yet we rarely forget him; the Joad family reminds us of him repeatedly. Both Ma and Tom often recall Casy's ideas and words.

    Casy carries weight because of what he says rather than what he does. He talks a lot. As a former preacher, he is used to talking, and although he's given up his trade, he can't keep still. What has changed, however, is what he talks about.

    We hear him tell Tom about his recent retreat from organized Christian religion. Hypocrisy and a weakness for women have forced him to reexamine his beliefs. After some hard thinking it came to him that sex was no sin, just something that people do. He also discovered that he didn't need Jesus and God to explain the love he felt for life and people. People, in fact, were what he loved most- much more than Jesus, who was just someone about whom stories were told. As for the individual soul, which each person is supposed to tend all his life, well, that didn't make sense to Casy any more. "Maybe all men got one big soul everbody's a part of," he says to Tom soon after the two men meet.

    Casy describes his avid love for people as a force so strong it makes him "fit to bust." Despite his enthusiasm, though, he's in a dilemma. He's got something to give and no one to give it to. Most of the people have abandoned their farms and are moving away. All except Muley Graves, whose solitary rebellion triggers a thought in Casy's mind. Muley innocently mumbles an idea about sharing a jack rabbit with Casy and Tom for dinner. "I ain't got no choice in the matter," he says. If another fellow is hungry, he can't just go away and eat alone. "Muley's got a-holt of somepin," responds Casy, "an' it's too big for him, an' it's too big for me." What Muley had "a-holt" of was a philosophy of life, a credo to live by. That night, instead of sleeping, Casy figures out how he can act on Muley's idea. When you consider Casy's actions in the remainder of the book, you can probably infer what thoughts churned in his mind that night.


    Casy can't act on his principles right away. First he must find the means to get to California. Fortunately, Ma Joad, always the generous soul, invites Casy to join her family. En route, he earns his keep. Even though he's no longer a man of God, he says grace, performs funeral rites for Grampa, and helps Tom repair the Wilsons' car.

    In Hooverville, Casy at last gets his chance to practice what he has started to preach. Tom trips the deputy sheriff who wants to arrest Floyd, an innocent man. Casy joins the fray and knocks the man out with a kick to the neck. When the sheriff returns to haul Tom to jail, Casy volunteers to go in Tom's place: "Somebody got to take the blame... an' I ain't doin' nothin' but set aroun'." You could argue that someone who espouses love, as Casy does, has no business kicking fallen men, but Casy's action may be justified in this case because the deputy was aiming his rifle at Floyd, fleeing into the willows.

    Months later we run into Casy again. Out of jail, he has begun to organize the workers, and in fact, he leads the strike at Hooper Ranch. He has translated his love for people into an effort to show them that their strength lies in collective action. Love can help them only so much. But if the love he feels can be turned into work in their behalf, then his love will serve some useful purpose. He tells the people that together they have power; fragmented, they don't stand a chance against their oppressors.

    Because union organizers are less popular than frost among the fruit farmers, Casy has undertaken a perilous occupation. The owners won't stand for unionization and will resort to strong-arm tactics to prevent it. In spite of the risk, Casy devotes his life- and ultimately gives it- to the union movement.

    On the night of Tom and Casy's reunion, thugs come to find Casy. As he is about to be clubbed to death, Casy turns to his attackers and says, "You fellas don' know what you're doin'." In effect, Casy sacrifices himself so that others may be better off. His action is Christ-like, and his final words call to mind Christ's last words, too. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that Casy's initials are J. C.


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