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A family functions like a grapevine; its coarse green vines intertwine from the dusty dirt that conceals the intricate network of roots to the first cluster of sweet grapes that grow in the hot California sun. Similar to the growth pattern of a grapevine, the assemblage of a family gathers in clusters. Though some grapes may separate or drop off or lose their ripeness, each individual grape is a product of the plant that cannot be taken away. Family is synonymous. As many miles or as much as one pursues to separate himself from his heritage, he cannot; for the blood of a human connects with those around him. People in this world are united. The clusters of grapes grow close together, and the grapevine itself extends and connects with other various grapevines. In The Grapes of Wrath written by John Steinbeck, the theme of family plays a central and fundamental role in the novel.
At the beginning of the narrative, the Joad family has a traditional patriarchal family structure in which the males lead as the dominant heads of the home; however, this time-honored system will not last on the pilgrimage to California. This adjustment shows that a male-dominated structure is not necessarily crucial in a family setting. The Joads’ truck, which plays a significant role as the representation of the family’s patriarchal structure, seems not to waiver in its authority. It is very important to the family. When the entire family sits together in the truck, Uncle John, “[b]eing one of the the heads of the family…had to govern; and now he had to sit on the honor seat beside the driver” (Steinbeck 96). Pa Joad and Uncle John serve as the natural rulers. The Joad family functions similarly to a government with each member knowing his or her duty. The family operates as if they are able to communicate without words. In their peak times, the Joads run like an indefatigable, well-oiled machine. Contradicting the claimed roles as the heads of the family, one of the most influential people in the novel is Ma Joad: she serves as the family’s fortitude. Steinbeck writes that Ma Joad “seemed to know that if she swayed, the family shook, and if she ever really deeply waivered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone” (74). She desperately attempts to keep the family together under the harsh, unstable circumstances with all her willpower. When times get discordant, they have a more difficult time working together. The fact that Ma keeps the family together replaces the idea that only men can provide emotional welfare. Pa loses his identity when he leaves his pliant, stable job as a farmer and lets Ma take over. Literary critic Taylor Sharpe writes, “Ma [Joad]… is unopposed by the weak men around her, and she soon becomes the driving force of the family. This shift from patriarchy to matriarchy functions…bring[s] some beneficial and some harmful aspects into the Joads’ everyday life.” Ma keeps the family together in order to survive the foredooming events.
Survival. Having a family prevails as a necessity in order to survive. John Steinbeck makes it clear that the family would not survive without each other. Despite community sentiments, a family is not simply classified as shared DNA, heritage, and blood; in fact, family is what an individual creates. Family is composed of those who show up in one’s life and stay there regardless of the circumstances. Family is steadfast and unfaltering. While during the journey countless of the Joad’s loved ones are lost, they still reside as part of the family. Eventually the Joads become united with the migrant families around them as times become worse and worse. Steinbeck writes, “In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (193). This shared dream unites all the migrant families together. They become one unit, and they travel together, celebrate together, mourn together, and learn together. Another literary critic writes that “[a]t the heart of every immigrants experience is a dream—a vision of hope that is embodied in his or her destination” (Gladstein 685). The doors swing open as the family realizes they are a part of something much, much bigger. Selfish intentions slip away. Ma Joad verbalizes the truth that they are no longer the Joad family but much greater than that when she says, “Use’ta be the family was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody” (Steinbeck 445). Even the most selfish character of the novel, Rose of Sharon, gives up her self-centered intentions in order to give a dying man one last chance. To survive, one must succumb to the idea that family is more than DNA.
Establishing the importance of family in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck makes it clear that the idea of human unity reigns as an extremely significant perception. Without harmony and coadunation, how can the human race survive? Regardless of one’s culture or appearance, all humans are humans; mankind is genetically composed of the same elements. The idea of human unity is present from literature to society today. Staring at the intimating face of adversity, the migrant people in the novel require unification with regard to the will of surviving the awful events that occur. Even in the tragic happenings of the United States of America, the bond between people is necessary to rebuild a new life. The terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001 shows an example of how the country came together to help those in need. They delivered away from their personal selfish intentions. The walls in humanity are built higher and stronger each year: society is divided between old and young, rich and poor, man and woman. However, this is detrimental, and man must realize human unity is vital for survival. As Ma Joad says, “we was the fambly” (393). Family is the center of human unity; the center of human unity is family.
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