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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL THE CHARACTERS
  • PA JOAD

    If The Grapes of Wrath were a typical American novel about Oklahoma sharecroppers, you might reasonably expect the father to be strong and virile. But the novel isn't typical and Pa Joad doesn't fit the mold.

    By tradition, age, and sex, Pa is the head of the Joad family. (Don't count Grampa Joad because he's gone silly in the head.) When the family holds meetings to make decisions, Pa presides. Pa convinces the family to bury Grampa in a roadside grave, and Pa rallies the men at the boxcar camp to help build a floodwall. Nevertheless, Pa often takes a back seat to Ma as head of the family. Steinbeck tells us that Pa "could not know hurt or fear unless she [Ma] acknowledged hurt or fear." A man who depends on another to confirm his own feelings has got to be rather wobbly.

    Before the Joads become migrants Pa probably couldn't admit, either to himself or others, that Ma was made of sturdier stuff than he. It would hurt too much. Once on the road, however, the old ways don't count anymore. Ma's revolt- when she vows to clobber with a jack handle anyone who dares to defy her word- puts Pa finally in second place. Never again can he even pretend to be the leader, at least not within the family.


    If Ma is solid oak, Pa is soft wood- pliable and easily split. On the night that Noah, the first-born son, came into the world, for example, Pa cracked. Alone in the house with Ma, the poor woman shrieking in agony, Pa panicked. He tried to pull the baby from the womb, twisting and stretching the head in the process. Noah grew up strange, always slightly out of touch with the world. Whenever Pa saw Noah, he felt ashamed.

    It made sense for Steinbeck to give Ma Joad a faltering husband. Throughout the novel Ma has enough to contend with; she doesn't need a scrappy mate, too. In fact, Ma's perseverance stands out in contrast to Pa's infirmities. When Pa sags, Ma bolsters him. Pa tells her that going out daily to look for work and coming back empty-handed "puts a weight on ya." Ma deliberately tries to anger him to test his grit. She claims that men who don't do their jobs don't have the right to make decisions. If Pa were a broken man, he wouldn't respond to her taunts. But he comes back at her in a rage, and Ma is so pleased. It shouldn't surprise us. Why shouldn't Pa stay whole with Ma around to hold him together?


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