Imagine what The Grapes of Wrath would be like if Steinbeck had made Tom
Joad a tractor repairman or dry-goods merchant instead of an ex-convict.
If Tom were meek and mild, someone like Rose of Sharon's husband Connie,
for instance, what would be lost? Think of what Tom can do that Connie wouldn't
dare. We know that Tom, who killed a man in a drunken brawl, can burst into
violence at any moment, especially when provoked. Tom almost instinctively
knocks the abusive deputy sheriff off his feet during a scuffle at the Hooverville
camp, for example. Later, in a rage, he clubs to death the man who kills
Casy. As one of the principal characters in the story, Tom has to be someone
sturdy enough not just to take care of himself but to support and defend
There's no doubt that Tom has a quick temper. He speaks harshly to the
truck driver who gives him a lift; he scolds the one-eyed man for feeling
self-pity; he tells off the fat man who runs the filling station. Perhaps
Tom's belligerence can be explained by his four years in prison, although
he claims to have no regrets about them. However, there may be another explanation.
If you ignore what he says and ask why he berates these people, you find
that Tom doesn't despise each man, but only what each stands for. Each feels
defeated by life's hardships. Tom gives them all a brutally frank pep talk,
as though he wants to get them moving again. Tom can't just throw up his
hands and walk away from problems. And he doesn't want to see others do
Tom is on parole. If he gets in trouble or is caught leaving Oklahoma,
he could be sent right back to McAlester. You might expect that a man in
constant danger of being imprisoned would be less aggressive, but sitting
back is not in Tom's nature. If it were, we'd never have seen him going
off at the end of the book to devote his life to help organize strikes.
Just as Tom accepted his prison sentence, he accepts the harsh blows that
Nature and the banks have dealt to his family. What he cannot tolerate,
however, is unfair or abusive treatment. He hates being forced to hide from
the deputies on his very own land, for example. Several times in the novel
Tom and others get pushed around by the authorities. What makes Tom strike
out at abuses? Is it his strong sense of fairness? Or is Tom merely a victim
of a short temper? Perhaps both impulses rule Tom to some extent.
Although Tom is not easy to like, you'd probably want him on your side
in a tough situation. He is loyal, straightforward, and realistic, especially
at the start of the novel. In contrast to Casy, who is a visionary, Tom
has both feet planted on the dusty ground. He is concerned only about the
here and now- where the next meal will come from, where to stay that night,
how to keep the car running. He has no time for sentimentality. When his
brother Al wants to tell him about Ma's feelings toward him, Tom replies,
"S'pose we talk 'bout some other stuff."
Tom's inability to deal with feelings does not make him a callous person.
He has strong affection for Casy, for Ma, and for Pa, too. In fact, he admires
everyone who struggles to make an honest living without stepping on others.
He can't abide people who throw their weight around, such as the proprietor
of the Hooverville camp, the sheriffs and their deputies, and the guards
at Hooper Ranch. Without Ma's firm hand on him, Tom would probably have
attacked some of these authoritarians, and who can blame him?
As the Joads wander around California, Tom meets more good people who keep
up the increasingly difficult struggle to live a decent life. He admires
their strength, and he can't stand by idly when they are mistreated. To
save Floyd from unjust arrest, Tom knocks down the deputy. To keep peace
at the Saturday night dance, Tom stands watch. And to find out why workers
at the Hooper Ranch entrance were angry, he ignores the guards' order to
mind his own business. In the darkness he slides under the barbed wire fence
surrounding the compound, meets Casy, and learns the true story of the strike.
From then on, Tom follows in Casy's footsteps. His concerns extend beyond
himself and his family. They now include all downtrodden people. He feels
a calling to help in any way he can. Casy's violent death probably hastens
Tom's decision to work for the welfare of all poor people. While hiding
from the police, Tom has a chance to think. He thinks about the meaning
of Casy's words- that a man is no good alone, and that a "fella ain't
got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one...." Tom becomes
Casy's heir and disciple. If you think of Casy as a Christ-like figure,
a good man with a message of love for the world, then Tom is like St. Paul-
a tough, realistic organizer who will try to spread the word and make Casy's
idealism a reality. As he says to Ma just before he leaves the family forever,
"I'll be aroun' in the dark, I'll be ever'where- wherever you look.
Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever
they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there." Tom may end up dead,
like Casy, but is there any doubt he'll go down swinging?