How does religion influence the protagonist in Oil!?
While religion plays a major role in Upton Sinclair's Oil!, the protagonist, Bunny Ross, is not at its mercy. Sinclair's stance is quite critical of religious fervor—particularly new-wave evangelism and spiritualism—and shows, through Bunny, how the influence of religion can derail man's search for meaning.
J. Arnold Ross Sr. ("Dad") uses religion as a method of controlling others and of getting his own way; because of this, Bunny is deeply skeptical of religion at best and understands it as a tool of manipulation at worst. Eli Watkins, one of the young men Dad swindled out of his family's would-have-been fortune, becomes a famous evangelist preacher but behaves in a manner decidedly in opposition to the teachings of the gospels.
The first instance of Bunny losing his religion comes when Dad uses Divine revelation to trick the Watkins family out of their farm. Though Bunny has been impressed by his father's success and intelligence, he comes to loathe what he perceives as a corrupt, meaningless life. It's fair to draw psychological parallels to mythological rites of passage in this event. Up until this point, Bunny has admired his father but seen him as a child sees a parent. After Bunny understands that his father is a master manipulator, concerned only with enlarging his fortune, he breaks from his childhood and sees Dad as a fallible man.
With the encouragement of one of the Watkins sons, Paul, Bunny becomes energized by the labor movements of the era. He finds purpose in Marxist ideology and rejects his father's way of life; when Dad dies, Bunny loses the bulk of his inheritance due to maneuvers by Dad's business partner and wife. Regardless, Bunny continues to devote himself to socialist causes.
By contrasting Bunny's mission to Dad and Eli's preoccupation with the material—in spite of their professed religion—Sinclair employs irony in the way many great writers before and since have: the character that behaves in the most Christian manner is not the one shouting his/her religion from the rooftops but the one living a quiet life devoted to humanity.
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