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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck introduces a family rooted in the leadership of men. The journey of hardship they endure, however, disintegrates this patriarchal control, leaving the women, Ma specifically, to take charge. As Pa falls behind, guilt-ridden for his lack of ability to provide for his family, Ma is left to make the decisions. It is she who takes the lives of her family into her own hands, and through a passionate bond, all humanity, as well. Steinbeck illustrates how Ma Joad is the strong force within the family who realizes the true value and meaning of life.
At the novel’s commencement, it is the men of the family who control the decision-making for the Joad clan. Even Ma, an adult, looks to her son to comfort her apprehension in chapter ten.
“Tom, I hope things is all right in California…seems too nice, kinda. I seen the han’bills fellas pass out, an’ how much they is, an’ high wages an’ all; an’ I seen in the paper how they want folks to come an’ pick grapes an’ oranges an’ peaches. That’d be nice work, Tom, pickin’ peaches…I’m scared of stuff so nice. I ain’t got faith. I’m scared somepin ain’t so nice about it.” (90-91)
As the chapter progresses, it becomes blatantly obvious that the women are not seen as essential and influential in family politics.
“Pa squatted there, looking at the truck, his chin in his cupped fist. And Uncle John moved toward him and squatted down beside him. Their eyes were brooding. Grampa came out of the house and saw the two squatting together, and he jerked over and sat on the running board of the truck facing them. That was the nucleus. Tom and Connie and Noah strolled in and squatted, and the line was a half-circle with Grampa in the opening. And then Ma came out of the house, and Granma with her, and Rose of Sharon behind, walking daintily. They took their places behind the squatting men.” (100)
The “squatting” men form the patriarchal structure of the family. Their position signifies one of authority and intentness, keenly resolving the troubles set before them. Ma, Granma, and Rose of Sharon, however present, are not included in the semicircle of decision-making. This exclusion is one of both deliberateness and tradition. Always the family had been run and controlled by the men.
This patriarchal family structure begins to shift as Pa silently renounces his authority. The family endures turmoil and adversity, and a feeling of guilt arises from within Pa. No longer can he care for his family; his love is not enough to feed his children nor keep Granpa alive. Thus, Pa shuts down, gradually rescinding the prominent role of head of the household to his wife. Ma, although she never speaks it, sees her husband being overwhelmed, and she asserts her authority in the family. When the Wilson’s car breaks down, Tom and Casy decide to stay behind to fix it, but Ma will not allow the family to be broken up.
“‘What you mean, you ain’t gonna go? You got to go. You got to look after the family.’ Pa was amazed at the revolt… Ma stepped to the touring car and reached in on the floor of the back seat. She brought out a jack handle and balanced it in her hand easily. ‘I ain’t a-gonna go,’ she said… Ma’s mouth set hard. She said softly, ‘Only way you gonna get me to go is to whup me…An’ I’ll shame you, Pa…I swear to Holy Jesus’ sake I will.’” (168-169)
This is the first incident where Ma overpowers Pa. With the jack handle in hand, Ma threatens Pa to keep the family together, but in addition, she threatens the family structure. Later, in chapter eighteen, a California deputy attempts to intimidate the Joad women, derogatorily calling them Okies and warning them that they had better leave. (213-214) Ma, rather than keeping her cool, allows her rage to take hold again and vehemently reprimands the policeman. The absence of the men suggests a turning point; no longer does Ma need a man to speak or make decisions for her. She is in control of herself, but most important, of the family which she now leads.
The family continues their trudging odyssey with Ma at the bow. It is not until the final chapter, however, that her staunch love for her family grants her the realization of what true humanity is. Inertly knowing what must be done, Ma takes the lives of her family into her own hands and forcefully leads the family from the boxcar, “‘We’re a-getting’ outa here,’ she said savagely, ‘getting’ to higher groun’. An’ you’re comin’ or you ain’t comin’, but I’m takin’ Rosasharn an’ the little fellas outa here.’” (444) This saving action leads to yet another. After taking cover in a barn, the family comes upon a starving man and his boy.
“Suddenly the boy cried, ‘He’s dying’, I tell you! He’s starvin’ to death, I tell you.’… [Ma] looked at Pa and Uncle John standing helplessly gazing at the sick man. She looked at Rose of Sharon huddled in the comfort. Ma’s eyes passed Rose of Sharon’s eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The girl’s breath came short and gasping. She said ‘Yes.’” (454)
It was Ma’s idea to breastfeed the poor, feeble man, her idea to grant the greatest gift, the gift of life. No longer was it just the lives of her family at stake. The migrants were all linked together, joined through common struggle, and that bond was fortified through humanity.
A patriarchal family at its start, The Grapes of Wrath, transforms the Joad family into a matriarch. Along their progressive course, Ma not only replaces Pa, but beings to understand the value of human life. Forbidding the fragmentation of her family in the already crumbling world around them, Ma affirms her clout throughout the novel. It is her understanding of humanity and compassion for all those alike, though, that solidifies her place within humankind.
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