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The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Tom Joad

Tom begins the novel in possession of a practical sort of self-interest. Four years in prison, he claims, have molded him into someone who devotes his time and energies to the present moment. The future, which seems illusory and out of reach, does not concern him. He adopts this philosophy toward living not because he is selfish but as a means of coping: he fears that by putting his life in a context larger than the present day, he will drive himself mad with anger and helplessness. Of course, Tom, who exhibits a rare strength, thoughtfulness, and moral certainty, is destined for more than mere day-to-day survival. Tom undergoes the most significant transformation in the novel as he sheds this carpe diem (seize the day) philosophy for a commitment to bettering the future.

During their journey west, Tom assumes the role of Jim Casy’s reluctant disciple. The former preacher emphasizes that a human being, when acting alone, can have little effect on the world, and that one can achieve wholeness only by devoting oneself to one’s fellow human beings. The hardship and hostility faced by the Joad family on their journey west serve to convert Tom to Casy’s teachings. By the time Tom and Casy reunite at the cotton plantation, Tom realizes that he cannot stand by as a silent witness to the world’s injustices; he cannot work for his own family’s well-being if it means taking bread from another family. At the plantation, Tom abandons the life of private thought that structures the lives of most of the novel’s male characters—including Pa Joad and Uncle John—and sets out on a course of public action.

Ma Joad

A determined and loving woman, Ma Joad emerges as the family’s center of strength over the course of the novel as Pa Joad gradually becomes less effective as a leader and provider. Regardless of how bleak circumstances become, Ma Joad meets every obstacle unflinchingly. Time and again, Ma displays a startling capacity to keep herself together—and to keep the family together—in the face of great turmoil. She may demonstrate this faculty best during the family’s crossing of the California desert. Here, Ma suffers privately with the knowledge that Granma is dead, riding silently alongside her corpse so that the family can complete its treacherous journey. At the end of the episode, Ma’s calm exterior cracks just slightly: she warns Tom not to touch her, saying that she can retain her calm only as long as he doesn’t reach out to her. This ability to act decisively, and to act for the family’s good, enables Ma to lead the Joads when Pa begins to falter and hesitate. Although she keeps her sorrows to herself, she is not an advocate of solitude. She consistently proves to be the novel’s strongest supporter of family and togetherness. Indeed, the two tendencies are not in conflict but convene in a philosophy of selfless sacrifice. Ma articulates this best, perhaps, when she wordlessly directs her daughter to breast-feed the starving man in Chapter 30. With her indomitable nature, Ma Joad suggests that even the most horrible circumstances can be weathered with grace and dignity.

Pa Joad

Pa Joad is a good, thoughtful man, and he plans the family’s trip to California with great care and consideration. The hardships faced by the Joads prove too great for him, however, and although he works hard to maintain his role as head of the family, he complains of muddled thoughts and finds himself in frequent quandaries. Until the very end, Pa exhibits a commitment to protecting his family. His determination to erect a dam is a moving testament to his love and singleness of purpose. When his efforts begin to fall short, however, Pa despairs. In California, his inability to find work forces him to retreat helplessly into his own thoughts. As a result, he becomes less and less effective in his role as family leader, and Ma points this out directly. Upon leaving the Weedpatch camp, she boldly criticizes him for losing sight of his responsibility to support the family. By the end of the novel, further diminished by the failed attempt to prevent the family’s shelter from flooding, he follows Ma as blindly and helplessly as a child. Pa’s gradual breakdown serves as a sharp reminder that hardship does not always “build character.” Though the challenges of the Joads’ journey serve to strengthen Ma, Tom, and even Rose of Sharon, they weaken and eventually paralyze Pa.

Jim Casy

Steinbeck employs Jim Casy to articulate some of the novel’s major themes. Most notably, the ex-preacher redefines the concept of holiness, suggesting that the most divine aspect of human experience is to be found on earth, among one’s fellow humans, rather than amid the clouds. As a radical philosopher, a motivator and unifier of men, and a martyr, Casy assumes a role akin to that of Jesus Christ—with whom he also shares his initials. Casy begins the novel uncertain of how to use his talents as a speaker and spiritual healer if not as the leader of a religious congregation. By the end of the novel, he has learned to apply them to his task of organizing the migrant workers. Indeed, Casy comes to believe so strongly in his mission to save the suffering laborers that he willingly gives his life for it. Casy’s teachings prompt the novel’s most dramatic character development, by catalyzing Tom Joad’s transformation into a social activist and man of the people.

Rose of Sharon

In creating the character of Rose of Sharon, Steinbeck relies heavily on stereotypes. We read that pregnancy has transformed the girl from a “hoyden”—a high-spirited and saucy girl—into a secretive and mysterious woman. Time and again, Steinbeck alludes to the girl’s silent self-containment and her impenetrable smile. This portrayal of pregnancy may initially seem to bespeak a romanticism out of keeping with Steinbeck’s characteristic realism. However, Steinbeck uses such seemingly trite details to prepare Rose of Sharon for the dramatic role she plays at the end of the novel. When she meets the starving man in the barn, she becomes saintly, otherworldly. Her capacity to sustain life, paired with her suffering and grief for her dead child, liken her to the Virgin Mother and suggest that there is hope to be found even in the bleakest of circumstances.

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GOW Chapter 20

by teamME815, August 10, 2012

Tom, after he gets turned away from the north town decides to go around the angry californians to a work camp safe for his family and away from cops

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25 out of 60 people found this helpful

Role of Ma Joad

by fallen_angel14, August 16, 2012

Ma Joad is basically the only reason the family is still together. She gives support to the family and carries most of the burden

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34 out of 42 people found this helpful

west coast beats all

by WildlifeRunner19, March 31, 2013

i do appreciate steinbeck's powerful insight on migrant work in california despite a small resentment at his shaming of my state

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3 out of 16 people found this helpful

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