The character of Uncle John has always left me a bit puzzled. He hardly shows up in the novel, yet he is one the surviving members of the Joad clan. One would assume his character would take on more responsibility because he initially provides a home for his family when they were forced to leave the only one they knew. Unfortunately, Uncle John’s overwhelming guilt for having denied his wife a doctor at a time she unknowingly needed it stays with him throughout the novel, as he believes his sin to be the cause of the family’s misfortune.
His interjections are rare, and for the most part, banal. He is painted as a morose man, prone to moments of weakness that most often manifest themselves in the form of alcohol. He uses it as a tool to forget, to momentarily relinquish feelings of guilt. Steinbeck relates the relief that alcohol brings the bereaved in Chapter 23, and provides insight into Uncle John’s rationale: “The hard edges gone, and the warmth. There was no loneliness, for a man could people his brain with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them… Failures dulled and the future was no threat” (327). Booze was a comfort, and became for him a form of artificial salvation, a relief from the turmoil he perpetually causes himself.
The Joads’ experience in the Weedpatch illustrates one of the novel’s central philosophies: that humans find their greatest strength in numbers. However Steinbeck isolates Uncle John in his useless depression, as he regularly demonizes himself for his tendency towards sin. Obviously, in regards to the idea of “sin,” I am reminded of the crazy lady at Weedpatch who preached that sin is everywhere, and that it will kill Rose of Sharon’s baby if she involves herself in “sinful” activities like dancing, acting, etc. Her obsession with sin has literally driven her mad, and she becomes an example of what could become of Uncle John is he continues in the way that he does.
Perhaps why we don’t hear much from him is because we become so engrossed in the story that we share in the Joad’s pain, and we relate to their frustration. When their hope slips, ours does as well. Since Uncle John is a constant source of negativity, we tune him out, because like the Joad’s and other migrant workers, we just want things to work out in the end and we will take whatever positivity we can (Thanks Ma!): “Uncle John shook his head over his plate. ‘Don’t looks like we’re a-gonna get shet of this here. I bet it’s my sin.’ ‘Oh shut up!’ Pa cried. ‘We ain’t got the time for your sin’” (392.) At this point in the novel, John seems incapable of taking any sort of affirmative action towards the collective good, as John Casy, for example, so wholeheartedly does.
Thankfully, my perception of Uncle John took a turn for the better when he accepted the task of burying Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby. Although the birth of a stillborn is a tragic event, the moments preceding the birth contain images of hope. As the baby’s body floats down the flooded stream, we are reminded of the story of Moses, who was sent down the Nile river as an infant, and later in life led his people to the promised land of Israel. Here's a quick reminder in case you forgot. The stillborn acts as a messenger, speaking for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers whose voice goes unheard the entire novel. In this moment, John works towards the collective good, defending his family, his integrity, and all those deaf to the ear of the oppressor. He has clearly undergone a dramatic change, and in the end, leaves us feeling hopeful and ok. Seems like if he can do it, we can too. We just have to keep on truckin’.
And just because I like Mel Brooks: