The Danger In SelfSacrifice Essay Research Paper

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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.”