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.
More characters from The Grapes of Wrath