The Joads of The Grapes of Wrath

Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a story of change: a changing nation and its changing people. Thousands of people find themselves driven from their homes, forced to seek a better life, and, all too often, fail to find it. Facing such hardships inevitably changes people. Of the thousands forced to change, Steinbeck focuses mainly on one family, the Joads. The Joads undergo a plight similar to that experienced by hundreds of others: forced by banking failure and drought from the land they have known all their lives, they take to the road with a desperate hope of finding work in California, but once there, find that the promises of plentiful work were only to draw them into the squalor of wage deflation, unemployment, and mistreatment. As the family is forced to change, so is each member.

The oldest member of the family who survives the journey is Tom “Pa” Joad. Beginning as the strong patriarch of the family, he loses his place as they move west, and completely breaks down in the end, unable to deal with the true, harsh life in California. We know little of Pa before the hardships came, only that he was a man of relative simplicity and practicality. Unlike his often impulsive brother, he is conservative and thrifty, with Tom, Jr. quipping that “If he kills a chicken, most of the squawking will come from Pa, not the chicken.”(p. 38). Consequently, he equates his worth with his ability to provide. In preparation for the departure, he takes great pains to make sure everything is organized and quick. Along the road he tries to maintain position, but is surprised to find himself subordinate to the others (e.g. unable to drive a car, he is dependent on Al and Tom). When the car breaks down and he wants to take Tom's advice and move along, he is be forcibly overridden by his wife. Throughout this time he remains hopeful of plentiful work in California, attempting to refute the claims of the nay-sayers they meet with the handbills he possesses. Once they arrive, however, he is unable to deal with the disappointing reality. Unable to find work, he begins to lose his self-value and yields increasingly to the authority of his wife. At the government camp he mentions that it “Seems like times is changed. Time was when a man said what we'd do. Seems like women is tellin' now.”(p. 453). He is reprimanded by his wife that while he has no work he has no authority, and he basically submits. Once work comes again in the peach orchards and cotton fields, he begins to gain back his self-respect. When the rains come, he makes a final stand to protect his family's livelihood by building the embankment. When it breaks he literally throws himself into the gap and when it fails so does he. He's left a broken man pleading “Did we slip up? Is they anything we could of did?”(p. 567). Thereafter he is driven to steal bread; he takes orders from Al, takes orders from Ma, and follows her, his authority gone.

As Pa weakens, ruined by the hardships, most of the others strengthen and rise to meet them; no one more than Ma. We know little of Ma before the hardships struck. Extrapolating from her words on how it used to be and Steinbeck's generalized narration, we assume she stood behind her husband, performed the work expected of her and reared the children. We do learn that she has always been quite vivacious—Tom recalls a time when he “seen her beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken cause he gave her an argument.” (p. 61). She has always worried about her children, always kept the gate closed and hooked after hearing a story of a neighbor's baby being eaten by a pig. She worries that Tom may have gone mad in anger accrued in prison (like “Purty Boy Floyd,” an outlaw whose mother she knew). With the first onset of trouble she is prepared to take her place: “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself...”(p. 95). Along the road she maintains and strengthens this position, taking up all slack that Pa lets out. Above all her concern is for keeping the family together; when the car breaks down and Tom says they should move along and get money sooner she intones, impassioned, “The money we'd make wouldn't do no good. All we got is the family unbroke... I ain't scared while we're all here, all that's alive, but I ain't gonna see us bust up.” (p. 219). When they have to cross the desert, she stays awake all night with the dead Grandma because she knows that the only hope for the rest of them is to make it through together. She fiercely tries to protect her family, to ease Rose of Sharon's mind, and only when all hope of staying together is lost does she allow the family to part ways: for Tom to run away and Al to remain with his fiancée. Still, she takes those who can't care for themselves—Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, Winfield, and by that point, Pa—and leads them to safety.

If there is a main character of the novel, it is Tom Joad, Jr. We first meet Tom when he has been paroled from prison after serving four years of a seven year sentence for manslaughter after a drunken fight. This has made Tom fairly pragmatic, adopting a philosophy of “just puttin' one foot in front a the other” (p. 223) that allows him to handle change better than the rest of the family. He is, however, short tempered with those who aren't willing to look at things this way, particularly the owner of service station who he chews out for ignoring Casy's answer about “what we commin' to” and the junkyard worker for self-pity over his lost eye. He tells these people a profound truth, that people need to help themselves. Within the Joad family, Tom serves as protecter and provider. He protects the Joads and others by taking down the cop at the Hooverville (though Casy takes the fall for it), preventing the fight at the government camp dance, and leaving when his avenging Casy puts the family in danger. He provides for them by coming with them despite his terms of parole, leading them to the government camp at Weedpatch, and finding short employment with Mr. Thomas. Though he does care deeply for his family, he is deeply affected by Rev. Casy's words and the changing realities, and after Casy's death, he knows that he needs to take up Casy's work in the man's absence. Though there are many eloquent words spoken by both Casy, and in the end, Tom himself, perhaps the best expression of what drives Tom is spoken by his Ma “Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.”(p. 569).

Rose of Sharon is an interesting character because she is extremely dependent (despite her initial self-confidence); nevertheless, it is her dependence that makes her useful, a drive for the family to keep going. In the beginning she is very “pleased with herself,” as Steinbeck writes, “all secrets now that she was pregnant, secrets and little silences that seemed to have meaning” (p. 165). She and Connie make their plans early: they will be prosperous, have their own car and an icebox “An' we'll live in town an' go to pitures whenever...” (p. 212). Because of this cheerful, hopeful outlook, however, she does not take hardship well. When Connie abandons her, she is devastated and begins to worry constantly. She is also deeply affected by the religious fanatic woman who warns that her baby is in grave danger by her supposed sins. Throughout this time, however, her weakness is a drive for the family to move on and keep finding food, because she and her baby need it. At a point, however, she seems to change and show strength. She gets up and demands that she too will help pick cotton. While doing this, she takes a chill. She becomes sick and goes into labor, delivering her child stillborn. With the child gone, her connection to Connie severed, she becomes independent. In the end, alone, she offers her breast milk to a starving man and thus, despite her baby's death, gives the gift of life.

Finally, there is Al Joad, who, despite the hard times, grows up. At first, Al is a rambunctious youth who we meet as he returns from “billygoatin' aroun' the country. Tom-cattin' hisself to death.” He's described to us as a “smart-aleck sixteen-year-older, an' his nuts is just eggin' him on. He don't think of nothin' but girls and engines.” (p. 106) But from these beginnings, he matures quickly. Upon discovering that his brother isn't the rapscallion idol he pictured, he unconsciously assumes the air of his older prison-hardened sibling. On the road, he holds large responsibility as driver and mechanic, “Al was one with his engine, every nerve listening for weaknesses, for the thumps or squeals, hums and chattering that indicate a change that may cause a breakdown.” (p. 157). Though the Hudson never breaks down on the road (a fact he delights in), his services are needed for the Wilson's car and this gives him opportunity not only to help, but to work with his brother. His obligations to the family are directly intertwined with the truck. When it is parked in the government camp, he returns briefly to his practice of “tom-cattin'.” As soon as they are back on the road, however, he again assumes responsibility. As he matures, he develops his own dream, “I'd get myself a job in a garage an' I'd eat in restaurants–—’’ he says (p. 464). At the cotton picking camp, he is engaged to Agnes Wainwright. When the truck dies in the water, his symbolic tie to the family is severed. As they move on to shelter, he stays with his fiancée. Of all the characters discussed, he is the most ambitious, and it seems likely that he will fare best in the coming times of change.

The same challenges affect each character differently. Steinbeck shows us only a tiny portion of the hardships people experienced, but he shows that as times change, so do people. Some people are made stronger, some are broken, and some adapt. Though we hope not to face their hardships, we too can learn from the experience of the Joads: learn something about survival, learn something about family, learn something about necessity, and perhaps, learn something about ourselves.