An Analysis of 20th Century Social Justice in The Grapes of Wrath, a Novel by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath with a specific social purpose in mind. The novel took place during the Dust Bowl, a crisis composed of dust storms dissolving crops and preventing money to be made on the land. Steinbeck centers the book around the character of Tom Joad, a young man in a large family who is just returning from four years in prison. However, Tom is not the most important person in the story, and is definitely not the strongest. Instead, Ma Joad shines through as the true trunk of the family tree, with every other Joad family member branching off from her guidance and security. Without Ma Joad, much of the events in this novel could not have been accomplished by Tom and the other Joads.

Steinbeck took the opportunity of the Dust Bowl crisis to convey the power and steadfastness a woman can hold, and how the other men in the family rely on her for it. Ma Joad “seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position” (Steinbeck 74) as the “citadel of the family” (Steinbeck 74). Ma is the one who spearheads the charge against most of the obstacles posed for her and the family. When it’s time to leave and the wagon is overloaded, Mrs. Joad burns many of her earthly possessions without a moment’s hesitation; she is always willing to make sacrifices for her family.

Most of Steinbeck’s social purpose is conveyed through the use of ethos, using Ma’s characters as a base for ethical appeal throughout the novel. He begins building this support one of the first times Ma Joad is mentioned; Tom is taking to Jim Casey, and tells the former preacher a story about how Tom had seen his mother “beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken one time ’cause he gave her an argument” (Steinbeck 48). This tale mainly develops two ideas about Ma Joad; that she can be a violent person and is not afraid to fight to get her way, and that she does not take too kindly to being crossed. From this Ma is further established and shown to be a force to be reckoned with, albeit it one with strong morals that she uses as a pillar for herself and the family.

Mrs. Joad displays her fearfulness and ability to take action on numerous accounts, including kicking a rude policeman out of their tent, and almost throwing a skillet at his head to get her point across. She took similar action against a Jehovite, who tries to pray over Tom’s dying grandmother without anyone’s permission. Ma’s “imperturbability could be counted on” (74), especially when Pa Joad grew weaker and more indecisive the further the Joads travel into California. He is not mentally equipped to deal with the pressure of moving out to the West to try and start a new life, so it is left to Ma Joad to be the glue. Now this may be a stereotype in itself, but Ma Joad is no ordinary Elmer’s glue; rather, she is the superglue that will never let her family be torn apart.

It also falls to Ma to make decisions for her family, even though she may not be in the same position or able to understand what they are going through. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that all of the men and children in the family follow her directions faithfully and without batting an eye in the direction of rebelliousness. Mrs. Joad is the one who tells Tom that he needs to run away in order to be safe, and in one of the most pivotal moments Ma has her daughter nourish a poor dying man with the breastmilk generated by the pregnancy and birth of her stillborn child. Speaking of which, Ma is forced to delivery that baby herself with only one accomplish in the matter. Ma knows that “if she swayed the family shook” (Steinbeck 74) and that if she ever “wavered or despaired” (Steinbeck 74) her loved ones will fall apart and “the family will to function would be gone” (Steinbeck 74).

If John Steinbeck were to rewrite this book in modern day, there is a good chance that Ma Joad would be the main protagonist as opposed to her favorite son, Tom. Ma is the one who keeps the car moving, the one who keeps the morale of her family up, and the one who makes sure all those important to her stick together and are never let out of each other’s sight. In a time period where the open defiance of classic gender roles was unheard of, Steinbeck’s style of writing was fairly revolutionary and insightful for a man who had just exited the Great Depression.

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