The Danger In Self-Sacrifice Essay, Research Paper
The Danger in Self-Sacrifice
In his second novel, To a God Unknown, John Steinbeck explores his protagonist’s relationship with and worship of the land. While the use of the land as a character in itself is nothing unusual in Steinbeck’s work, this novel is somewhat different in that it explores a more mythological perspective on man’s relationship to his land. Joseph Wayne’s hunger for the land was a common sentiment among those who settled the west. A yearning for land is, in fact, the dream upon which most of the Western United States was founded. Where Joseph differs drastically from his pioneering brethren, however, is in his belief and participation in pagan forms of vegetative worship, beginning with the deification of an oak tree and ending in Joseph’s self-sacrifice in an attempt to bring rain. At the heart of Steinbeck’s portrayal of Joseph as a man ultimately disappointed by his unknown gods is a thinly veiled caution against reliance upon unseen forces and unproven rituals.
When Joseph Wayne arrives in the valley of Nuestra Senora, he falls to the earth and makes love to the land. He even sees the land as his wife. This is the start of his tragic relationship with the land and its demands. When he builds his house on his new homestead, he chooses a site sheltered by an ancient, gnarled oak tree. From the start, he feels an inexplicable affinity for the tree, sensing some familiarity in it, and defending it against the remarks of the lumber men, who caution him its branches will fall upon his roof while he sleeps. As he begins construction on his home, a letter arrives bearing the news of his father’s death, in which his father’s final words are, “I don’t know whether Joseph can pick good land . I’ll have to go out there and see.”(p.16) Immediately Joseph focuses on the oak tree, and is convinced it has become his father, saying to Juanito, “My father is in that tree! My father is that tree!” (p. 17) He speaks to the tree, welcoming his father’s presence to his ranch and seeking his approval. This is the start of Joseph’s journey into pagan ways of thinking and relating to the land.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell, speaking of a plant growing, states: “That’s the sense of the energy of the center. That’s the meaning of the image of the Grail, of the inexhaustable fountain, of the source.” Indeed this is what the oak tree is to Joseph Wayne, at the start. It is the source of the land’s power and the first of the unknown deities to whom he will make offerings. While Lisca says, “This begins as a mere whim, that his dead father’s spirit has somehow come to be with him, the son who received the patriarchal blessing,” I think we can argue, based on Joseph’s immediate and fervent belief in the tree’s power over the land, that this is much, much more than a whim. His insistence that the tree “is my father”(p.17) shows the first of several leaps of absolute faith Joseph makes during the story and marks the point at which he can no longer accept a non-teleological way of thinking.
As the story continues, Joseph progresses from treating the oak tree with the reverence due an ancestor to offering it sacrifices as one would a god, in hopes of securing a rainy winter for his land. His brother Thomas confronts him, saying, “I almost know what you’re doing, Joe .Is it about the dry years, Joseph? Are you already working against them?”(p.27) Joseph’s response reminds us how little he understands about his own actions. He is acting instinctively, perhaps even tapping into Jung’s “collective unconscious” to find answers. He has moved from Lisca’s “simple forms of ancestor worship” to a combination of rain-bringing and tree-spirit worship. Frazer describes these sacred trees “upon which the skins of sacrificial victims were hung.” He is even cautioned by the local Catholic priest, who warns him, “Be careful of the groves, my son. Jesus is a better savior than a hamadryad.”(p.86)
Indeed, Joseph is not far off the mark in his reverence of the oak as not only a father figure but also a god of rain. Belief in the oak as the god of rain dates as far back as the ancient Greeks, who “associated the tree with their highest god, Zeus or Jupiter, the divinity of the sky, the rain, and the thunder.” Men in Greece, as well as across Europe, sacrificed to oak trees for rain and for good crops, believing that “trees or tree-spirits are believed to give rain and sunshine.” Joseph’s actions stemm perhaps from the “collective unconscious” theorized by Jung, for he is the first to admit he has no understanding of his actions, but rather is acting out of a silent need. In fact, although he views the tree as a giver and protector of life, it seems he too is somewhat afraid of its power: “For a long time he stood, moving his fingers nervously on the black bark. ‘This thing is growing strong,’ he thought. ‘I began it because it comforted me when my father was dead, and now it has grown so strong that it overtops nearly everything. And still it comforts me.”(p. 94) Joseph is not the only one frightened by the oak tree and its power. His brother Burton ultimately kills the tree out of fear and the desire to protect his brother. By this time, however, such an action serves only to turn Burton into an enemy and to bring the drought upon the land. Says Frazer, “The Mundaris in Assam think that if a tree in the sacred grove is felled the sylvan gods evince their displeasure by withholding rain.”
Joseph immediately feels the change in the land when his tree is killed, and begins to seek a deeper way of ensuring rain. He beings to ponder, in Lisca’s words, “What is the proper worship of him who ‘dwelleth not in temples made with hands?’” His beliefs shift, and with them, his responsibilities. No longer is the tree the caretaker of the land; that burden has now shifted to Joseph’s shoulders. It is as though his “life is conceived as embodied in a particular object, with the existence of which his own existence is inseparably bound up, and the destruction of which involves his own.” The land has become a part of him, and he a part of it, and thus he comes to believe only he can save it.
As the novel progresses toward its final chapters, Joseph gives away his son and leaves his ranch, returning to the grove of pines and the rock which shelters the only still-living spring. His final moments, in which he sacrifices himself upon the rock, can be seen as the summation of his retreat into a planting culture, in which “when a figure is sacrificed that figure itself is the god.” This is a time-honored ritual practiced by many cultures, in which “Somebody had to die in order for life to emerge .The way to increase life is to increase death.” In many versions of the myth, the old king must die to make way for the new. Thus Joseph’s self-sacrifice is not an act of atonement for the tree’s death, nor a reaction to the tragedies which have befallen him and his family, but rather an attempt to bring life back to the dying land. He has become the Fisher King, who must die in order to bring rain to his land. We gain a sense of this generational passing when Joseph blesses Juanito’s child, and even more so when he regrets not having given the correct blessing.(p. 176)
Joseph is not only the king of the land, however, but also its priest. Father Angelo sees this in him (p. 171) and both fears and respects it. As the land’s priest, Joseph is subject to “the individual’s religious submission to whatever power he conceives to order his universe.” In the last several chapters of the novel we get the distinct impression that he is no longer acting under his own will but rather reacting to the desires of the land, much as a priest under a religious trance might do. There is very little conscious thought in his last two actions, the sacrifice of the calf and of himself. When he kills the calf, his hope is that it might contain a power similar to the one he believes the old man at the beach had. He quickly sees this is not the solution, and almost accidentally reaches the conclusion that only his own blood will do. Instead of the ancient practice where, “in time of drought, when they wanted rain, they used to sacrifice a black heifer, a black he-goat, and a black cock to the thunder god in the depths of the woods,” Joseph strikes upon a modern and much more personal interpretation of the old ritual.
Joseph’s sacrifice does work, as the rain falls in torrents from the sky and the villagers below celebrate by dancing in the mud. Lisca says, “Joseph himself moves from simple propitiation to a sense of responsibility for the fertility of his land and finally, as he sacrifices himself on the altar rock, to an identification with the earth itself, through which he becomes a manifestation of the life force.” This moment comes as a revelation to Joseph, in which he whispers, “I should have known . I am the rain.”(p. 179) It seems that in his final moments all his actions were purposeful, and that indeed man can change the force of destiny by his actions.
The novel’s cautionary message, though, is found in the ironic final words: “‘That man must be very happy now,’ Father Angelo said to himself.” Yes, Joseph is happy – but he is also dead, having given up everything to achieve an end to the drought, without thought to the after. What good is rain without a ranch to grow on, a family to feed, a life to live? This is Steinbeck cautioning us against thinking our little lives can have an impact, reminding us of the dangers implicit in teleological thinking. Were it a fable, the moral might read; be careful what you wish for, for the end does not always justify the means.