What is Steinbeck's primary message about the search for the Promised Land?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Steinbeck might be suggesting that the search for the Promised Land is a part of what it means to be human.  Certainly, there are religious overtones to this search.  There are definite religious symbols in the family's move out to California.  Describing what it looked out in setting out to California reminds the reader of this religious and spiritual notion of the Promised Land:  "..the main migrant road...the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion...from the floods that bring no richness." The Promised Land is shown to be filled with struggle.  Conditions such as "refugees," "no richness" and "shrinking land" are all common realities.  The Promised Land brings with it struggle and hardship.  Jim Casy's words reflect this vision when he says, "Maybe I can preach again. Folks out lonely on the road, folks with no lan', no home to go to. They got to have some kind of home."  For Steinbeck, there is a certain sense of pain that is intrinsic to the search for the Promised Land.  It is born out of pain and hurt and causes individuals to have to experience more of it in order to find what it is "they are looking for."

In Steinbeck's primary message about the search for the Promised Land, challenges are evident.  However, in this journey for the Promised Land, there is hope.  The hope that Steinbeck brings out is the hope that forms the basis of the Joad family. They are faced with struggle on all levels.  Financial, social, and familial levels of struggle are all evident.  Yet, they persevere in the belief of something larger.  They are filled with hope for greater possibilities to enrich their being in the world. As seen in the Joad family, the desire for the Promised Land binds people together, making them one. Steinbeck constructs the search for the Promised Land as one in which individual identity is lost into something larger:  

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.  

The "one dream" is the search for the Promised Land, a reality that different people from different narratives can share as one.  Once again, Steinbeck uses the words of Jim Cast to reflect such a reality when he says, "Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."  For Steinbeck, the search for the Promised Land in The Grapes of Wrath connects individuals.  From individual difference, solidarity can emerge in recognizing that the hope for a better life and the struggles that come with it are universal experiences, a narrative that "every'body's a part of."

Read the study guide:
The Grapes of Wrath

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