Philosophy in The Grapes of Wrath: Transcendentalism & The Oversoul

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

John Steinbeck deals with several philosophical ideas in 'The Grapes of Wrath', including transcendentalism and the oversoul. This lesson discusses these philosophies, references to them in the book and their relevance to two major characters.


Transcendentalism is the idea that humanity is meant to have a close relationship with the universe and the life that surrounds them, and that they miss out on this relationship if they are mired in mundane, everyday experiences that stop them from achieving their potential. That is, humans should try to 'transcend' their everyday lives that hold them down, because they have the capacity to live in a more meaningful and harmonious way with the universe.

Machines vs. Transcendentalism

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's indirect plug for transcendentalism comes in his critique of the machines that are now dominating farming. In a nutshell, Steinbeck makes the case that people's relationship to the land should be spiritual and should have some meaning - it should not simply be directed toward getting the most profit from land. In Chapter 11, when Steinbeck is comparing the lifeless tractor with the living farmer who used to blow the land, he writes:

'And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.'

In Steinbeck's view, having machines work the land and treating the land only as a way to make money got in the way of man's connection to nature. Transcendentalists would argue that mankind requires a sense of connection to the land and to nature in general in order to live in harmony with the universe.

The Oversoul

The concept of the oversoul is related to transcendentalism, particularly in the sense that it speaks to the importance of connection and unity. Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, the oversoul is generally referred to in terms of the human spirit or a soul that connects everyone. The only two characters who provide any explanation or description of this concept are Casy, a former minister, and Tom Joad, who is persuaded toward the concept by Casy.

Casy and the Oversoul

We first hear about the oversoul from Casy, who travels with the Joad family to California. He explains to Tom early in the book that he has given up Christianity because it no longer makes sense to him. Instead of individual relationships with Jesus, Casy has a sense that a person's connection to something bigger than himself is actually a connection to the rest of humanity. He explains it like this in the fourth chapter:

'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.'

Casy explains that he has never met God or Jesus, but that he knows he loves people ('An' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust,' he says), and perhaps there is no reason to include the idea of Christianity in this sense of love and connection. So to Casy, the idea of an oversoul that binds all of humanity together in love feels like a more adequate explanation for his own experiences.

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