Granma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson eulogizes old Granma Joad, the matriarch in John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' We'll discover her fervent religiosity. Then we'll learn about her reaction to her husband's death and how the Joads coped with the loss of both grandparents.

The Extended Family

Retirement villages, nursing homes, and end-of life care facilities are a relatively recent invention. If you were born in the late 20th century, it's likely you grew up without close contact to your grandparents. These days, we usually visit our grandparents only on holidays.

Well, it wasn't always like that. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck paints a picture of the traditional extended family, a household in which the nuclear family (parents and children) also includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The story revolves around Tom and the rest of his family, including Granma and Granpa, Ma and Pa, Uncle John, and Tom's siblings (Rose of Sharon, Al, Noah, Ruthie, and Winfield). There aren't any aunts or cousins, as of yet. And let's not forget about the livestock: pigs, chickens, and dogs. Because the house was so full, Granpa and Granma slept out in the barn.

When Tom finally makes it home after serving his prison sentence, he figured his Granma would have passed away in his absence. But to his pleasant surprise:

'Behind him hobbled Granma, who had survived only because she was as mean as her husband. She had held her own with a shrill ferocious religiosity that was as lecherous and as savage as anything Grampa could offer. . . As she walked she hiked her Mother Hubbard up to her knees, and she bleated her shrill terrible war cry: 'Pu-raise Gawd fur vittory.' '

Apart from Ma Joad - the strong, caring mother - Granma Joad is the matriarch, or female head of the household. Granma is the picture of old-timey American tradition. She's thick-skinned. With no teeth and no dentures, Steinbeck writes her dialogue to make it sound like it comes out of a hollow mouth. You can almost hear her wheezy breath.

Faith

Granma Joad's strongest trait is her religious conviction. She's the type of woman who would get out her best Sunday clothes to go to church. She insists the family say grace at every meal. She demonstrates her unflappable devotion to Christianity at every turn.

When the family debates about whether or not to invite the preacher, Jim Casy, on their cross-country road trip, Granma raises a confident vote of approval. Despite the already-overburdened jalopy, Granma says, 'A preacher is a nice thing to be with us. He give a nice grace this morning.'

Granma and Granpa

Granma and Granp Joad mirrors of each other. We don't know exactly how long they've been married, but you can bet they've known each other for decades. They have the same spunk, they rely on each other, and they're lifelong companions.

So, you can imagine that when Grandpa suffers a stroke, Granma feels his pain. While the other Joads rush for medical care, Granma cries out for prayer. She directs her anxiety at Casy. But, still struggling with his own doubts, the preacher initially refuses.

'Why ain't you prayin'? You're a preacher, ain't you?'
Casy's strong fingers blundered over to Grampa's wrist and clasped around it. 'I tol' you, Granma. I ain't a preacher no more.'
'Pray anyway,' she ordered. 'You know all the stuff by heart.'
'I can't,' said Casy. 'I don't know what to pray for or who to pray to.'
. . .
'Pray, goddamn you!' Granma cried.

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