Family in The Grapes of Wrath: Theme, Importance & Analysis


Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

In this lesson, we'll analyze the theme of family in ''The Grapes of Wrath'' through the lens of the male characters. At the end of this lesson, you'll be able to evaluate Steinbeck's representation of the family in a rapidly-changing society.

Background on the Joad Family

Like a kid who gets separated from their mom in a grocery store, Tom Joad, the main protagonist of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, experiences a sharp moment of alarm when he returns home after serving a four-year prison sentence for murder and finds the old family place abandoned. The first quarter of the novel is devoted to Tom's progress toward reuniting with his family; he finds them just as they are leaving Oklahoma for California. That Steinbeck devotes so much time to this part of the plot highlights the importance of family as an emotionally comforting and socially stabilizing force. However, as the plot unfolds, Steinbeck does something unexpected with family: he lets their decisions impact the direction of the characters' development as individual people, shown through their ability to adapt to the conditions that are always changing.

Joad Family Structure

Our first glimpses of the Joads reveal that the family operates according to a set of unwritten but quite formal rules. The family is patriarchal, meaning that the men have more authority than the women. The Joad men include Grampa, Pa, Uncle John, Noah, Tom, Al, and Winfield. In the Joads' world, the role of men is to lead the family, establish its identity and plan and direct its activities. As we're going to see, the Joad men all have different personalities, and the road not only brings out each man's strengths and weaknesses, but also disrupts the traditional balance of power.

Grampa and Pa: Traditional Family Leadership

Being the oldest male, Grampa Joad is the family's titular leader, but when the novel opens, Pa has already taken Grampa's place as the family's functional leader. In the scenes that take place at Uncle John's house, Steinbeck presents Grampa as a comical figure whose position the family respects even as they realize his word cannot be law. The first night on the road, Grampa suffers a stroke and dies. His early death signals that he was part of an old way of life that dies as soon as the Joads pull onto Route 66.

With Grampa gone, Pa becomes the head of the family, but soon shows no enthusiasm for leadership under the new conditions. Early in the novel, Steinbeck portrays Pa as the strong, silent type. He falls almost completely silent as the family moves from location to location and circumstances call for skills different from those he developed in his prime, back in the days when a man's authority was tied to his ability to coax a living from an uncompromising taskmaster, the land. Neither Uncle John nor Noah is emotionally suited for leadership, so for all practical purposes, the mantle falls on Tom and Al in a turn of events that upsets the traditional balance of power in the Joad family.

Tom and Al: Changing Family Leadership

Unsentimental and pragmatic (or realistic), Tom survived prison with his mind intact. He reassures Ma that while in prison, he kept a low profile, minded his own business, and took each day at a time calmly. Tom does not waste time worrying about things beyond his control; he does not dwell on the past or worry overmuch about the future. He has very little patience for other people's self-pity. For the most part, Tom is a steady, comforting male presence on the road. But he also has a violent and rebellious streak that endangers and worries the family--especially Ma, who believes that keeping the family together is the Joads' only hope. Late in the novel, Ma's worst fears come true when Tom kills a man and has to go into hiding, leaving room for Al to emerge as the family's unlikely hero.

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