Book Review / To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

My rating: 2 of 5 Stars

Page Count: 240

Date Finished: August 17, 2017

To A God Unknown, published in 1933, is Steinbeck’s second full-length novel and took almost 5 years to complete. It’s interesting to think that Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden took him less time, while this one is so short in comparison and not nearly as acclaimed.

I hoped this would be one of the hidden gems of Steinbeck’s collection. I heard great things about it from other Steinbeck fans and after starting it these things held true early on. The prose immediately greeted me with smooth sentences and vibrant descriptions of nature, but the story and the characters fell flat for me. In my review of Pastures of Heaven, I said something about the characters usually being the spotlight of Steinbeck’s work, and the surroundings the backdrop that helps illustrate the lives they lead. In this one, it seemed that the spotlight was not on the characters but on the surroundings. Joseph, our protagonist, bases nearly all of his decisions around what mother earth suggests he should do. A mystical feel radiates throughout this book that I had a hard time getting on board with. It would have been fine if it was a love and appreciation for nature that complimented the personality of Joseph, but it makes him completely obnoxious. His move to California, marriage, family relationships, all center around doing what he thinks his late father would want — who Joseph believes is speaking to him through a tree at his farm. Even this would have been fine had Joseph been able to use this to better himself, but the decisions he makes are usually awful ones and cost him so much time after time. He seems to think only of himself, and doesn’t listen to anything his loved ones say. I’m fine with dislikable characters, but when the entire basis of the novel is centered around this person’s decisions and the point to the whole story is never clear or resolved then I lose interest.

To a God Unknown is one of the more difficult Steinbeck books I’ve read, not because of the plot but because it is very poetic. To understand Joseph’s decisions the reader has to attempt to understand the message Steinbeck is trying to convey. Instead of using relatable characters like in his later novels, Steinbeck may have still been trying to find his definitive voice, and in doing so decided to base this novel around a larger being. In this case the spirit of his father through the land that he lived on. Maybe all of these things happened in order to convey this message, but I was never able to piece together a definitive takeaway from this novel.

I don’t think this was a bad novel. Certainly, it was missing the depth and clarity of his later novels, but I think other people may like this much more than I did, especially if they’re Steinbeck fans. The story is actually very engaging, possibly the most engaging of his first few books. The writing makes it obvious that well before Steinbeck had commercial success, he had incredible talent. The descriptions of nature I really liked, but if you don’t like this in his other novels than you may want to steer clear of this one because they are very frequent. But for me, the overall reading experience was just an okay one. Maybe I just didn’t understand the symbolism or the overall message. But my aggravation towards Joseph and his illogical decision making just overshadowed everything else. So many of his problems felt either far-fetched, overdramatic, or preventable. I much preferred Pastures of Heaven to this one, but I have high hopes for Tortilla Flat, which was Steinbeck’s first critical and commercial success.



3 thoughts on “Book Review / To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

  1. It’s not easy to write about To a God Unknown — I know, I’ve been working on it lately — and you did a fine job here, Ian. My experience with the book overlaps yours in several areas; it is certainly a challenging, at times difficult, read. From what I’ve gathered so far, you and I share a tendency toward challenging literature; To a God Unknown poses a lot of questions that I hope we can turn into an opportunity to discuss together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ryan! This review was tough for me because I wasn’t completely confident on my takeaway from it. I’m not sure what he was trying to convey in regards to religion. I likely will have to do some additional research. Looking forward to seeing what you thought about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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