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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL THE CHARACTERS

  • THE JOAD FAMILY

    Although each person in the Joad family is a separate individual, the family often acts as though it were one person. It makes decisions as a group, travels as a single unit, and reacts uniformly to events. Yet the family's personality is derived from the distinct qualities of each member. Uncle John is sad and lonely; Granma is religious; Al loves a good time. And Ma, the sturdy one, is the centerpiece of the Joads, around whom the whole family gathers. If you examine all the Joads- Grampa, Pa, Tom, Noah, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, and Winfield- each can be tagged with a different label. Even Connie, who is a Joad only by marriage, contributes to the complex personality of the family.

    As you might expect, experience changes the family's personality. Who wouldn't change after being evicted from home, traveling half-way across the continent, and scrounging for bread? Before the Joads leave home, Granma and Grampa rule the roost, at least in name. When the family breaks its ties to the land and joins the migrant exodus, the old generation gives way to the new. Pa becomes the leader, but his authority is fleeting. Ma gradually takes over. Her powerful personality and steady hand hold the family together for a time, in spite of forces that threaten to tear it apart. When, for example, Tom plans to remain with the Wilsons' disabled car until it's fixed, Ma vows to smash him with a jack handle if he insists that the family go on without him. The rest of the family is amazed at Ma's forcefulness, but from then on she is the leader of the Joads.

    She oversees an increasingly fragmented group of people. Grampa and Granma die; Noah and Connie go their own ways; Al takes up with his fiancee's family; and Tom finally leaves in order to carry Casy's message to the workers.

    It's literally true that Ma fails to hold the family together. Does that mean that she is a failure? You could take that position, but you also have to take into account that Ma eventually adopts a much larger family- the family of Man- to replace the one she's lost.


    Presumably the Joads' experience parallels that of countless migrant families. Should we assume, therefore, that Steinbeck intends to show us how a whole class of good and honest migrant farmers wilted under social and economic pressure? That may be so if you think that the Joads' breakup represents their failure as a family. On the other hand, since many of the Joads remain undefeated in the end, Steinbeck may want us to admire the migrants' ability to endure, even against insurmountable odds.

    At the end of the book the Joads have lost their family identity. But they've replaced it with something equally worthy: they've found kinship with other migrant families. The Joads merge with the Wainwrights, and earlier in the book, with the Wilsons, because each family needed the other. When "I," as Steinbeck writes, becomes "we," the fragmented family becomes whole again. The members don't share last names, but they give sustenance and support to each other in the form of food, blankets, a kind word, medicine, advice, even love. At the book's end, Rose of Sharon shares the milk from her breast with a dying man she has never seen before. That the man is a human being in need is reason enough to treat him like family.

    When isolated families fuse with one another, a larger family, a family of Man, develops. Numerous characters and events in The Grapes of Wrath help transform the Joads into members of a universal family. Think of what Casy says about the soul- that nobody has an individual soul, but everybody's just got a piece of a great big soul. By opening their tent to the Joads, the Wilsons are saying, "Welcome, brother!" At the Weedpatch Camp, the Wallaces, father and son, invite Tom Joad to work alongside them, even though they'll earn less money as a result. Casy lives and dies for others, and at the end Tom will walk in Casy's footsteps. Finally, when Rose of Sharon offers her milk to a stranger, she wears an enigmatic smile, suggesting that she, too, has discovered the joy that comes from adopting all men as brothers.


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