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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL THE CHARACTERS
  • MA JOAD

    Ma Joad holds the fate of her family in her big, thick hands. Without her the family ceases to function: Pa doesn't make decisions; Uncle John wallows in self-reproach; Rose of Sharon falls prey to superstition and doubt; Al goes off chasing girls; and the two young children, Ruthie and Winfield, grow up without discipline. Had Ma not stood her ground and threatened him with a jack handle, even Tom would have abandoned his kinfolk sooner than he did.

    By the end of the novel we know Ma better than any other Joad, for we see her in more different situations than anyone else. Yet she is not considered the main character- although you probably could make a case for it. We see Ma first when she greets Tom, just back from prison. The family, curious about prison life, views Tom as some sort of hero. But not Ma. She's interested in Tom's frame of mind. "They didn' do nothin' in that jail to rot you out with crazy mad?" she asks. Ma's interest in the inner person sets her apart from the others in the family. She searches for meaning in people and events. When Casy tells the Joads about his religious conversion in the hills, Ma studies him, her eyes "questioning, probing and understanding."

    Ma derives meaning in life from her family. She needs to protect them, guide them, help them feel safe. It's clear why Steinbeck calls her the citadel of the family. Most of all, she provides the family with nourishment- physical as well as moral. In scene after scene we see Ma buying groceries, preparing meals, doling out victuals. Even when food is scarce, she manages to scrape meals together, and sometimes she feeds strangers, too. With Ma around, no one ever goes hungry.

    She has a harder time providing moral support. She would like everyone in her family to live decently, but life on the road and in the camps won't allow it. The best she can do is set an example and hope that others will be buoyed by her courage and optimism. In some ways she seems almost too good to be true. How sturdy she seems when she burns all her letters on the night before the family takes to the road. To keep the family moving, she cradles Granma's body in her arms all through the night of the desert crossing, after which Casy observes, "...there's a woman so great with love- she scares me. Makes me afraid an' mean." She comforts Rose of Sharon repeatedly and serves as peacekeeper when Al and Connie exchange harsh words. Only to Tom does she express doubts about the future, that maybe California "ain't so nice."


    Ma's main ambition is to keep the family intact. Each time a person dies or leaves, Ma suffers a personal defeat. Even though the Joads leave home with 13 people and are left at the end with only six, you never get the feeling that Ma has failed. She's done her best, which in itself is a type of triumph. Also, her determination to go on strengthens with each harsh turn of events. In flight from the burning squatters' camp, she hails the promise of the people: "Us people will go on livin'.... They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people- we go on."

    As her immediate family dissolves, Ma adopts a larger group, the people, as her family. Don't Casy's words about Ma's boundless love seem prophetic now? "Use' ta be the family was fust," Ma tells Mrs. Wainwright in the boxcar. "It ain't so now. It's anybody." Realistically, Ma can't include everybody in her concept of family. She must be talking about people in need- the poor, homeless, downtrodden rejects of society.

    Ma is not a leader of the people, as Casy tries to be and Tom may one day become. Rather, she embodies the qualities of the people. Since Steinbeck often uses characters as symbols, you might think of Ma as symbolic of the people's strength and endurance. But you can recognize human qualities in Ma as well. She's sentimental, loving, protective, and feisty.

    As the novel ends, the flood waters rise and the food runs out. Conditions for the migrants could not be worse. By all rights, they should finally be crushed. But they're not. The migrant families will endure regardless of any hardship they meet, for when defeat is near they can depend on dauntless figures like Ma Joad to carry them through.


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