Its ambiguity, a novel written in ode to an unknown god, is what originally drew me to the book. Seeing that Steinbeck's latter works tended to be pretty biographical, I got the book, curious to see whether it gave any insight into how Steinbeck viewed religion or his faith. It was surprising to realize that the book is not so much intended to be a coherent story that spawns reader admiration, but rather, as Steinbeck himself put it, a complex mesh of his ideas and musings about life, death, and destiny that doesn't quite get resolved or answered through the course of the story.
There is an inherent quest for a supreme being--a crutch to rely on when things fall through--and the divergent beliefs of the characters portrayed in the novel show this, from vapid and stolid Christianity to a webbing of pantheistic nature worship, tribal superstition and Catholicism. Unlike Steinbeck's later works, the story is heavily surrealistic and relies on the mystical; it attempts to fluidly coexist with reality but fails to do so, and thus, the dichotomy fails and leaves the whole story hanging in some sort of uncomfortable limbo. An interesting read nonetheless.
Without giving everything away, a cryptic anthropomorphism (in my opinion never explained or developed) was central to the plot, of man inhabiting the spirit of nature. In a somewhat puzzling but satisfying ending, the clock ticks backwards, and drawing from paganism (the symbolic rock) and ritual ceremony (blood), man proves that he is indeed nature itself. Or does he?
Here, I think, is up to the interpretation of the reader. One could view the final sacrifice as enough to undo all wrongs, but the finals words of the priest hint otherwise. While drawing admiration from the townsfolk for his wisdom, the text shows that he is still as confused and emotionally inexperienced as any child. I believe that Steinbeck hints at a more cynical and darker interpretation of man's destiny. As much as men wish, pray, and search, he ultimately has no control over the course of nature. The humans cry, but the sun laughs on. And when the gods of nature crumble into ashes and the leaves of wisdom fall, the unknown god that governs all still refuses to reveal itself....Continua