Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath: Character Analysis & Characterization

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha has Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology, as well as a Bachelor's in Marketing. She has extensive experience creating & teaching curricula in college level education, history, English, business and marketing.

'The Grapes of Wrath' is the story of the Joad family and their struggles as they try to find work during the Great Depression. This lesson focuses on Ma Joad and her strength and example.


During the 1930s, it was more usual for a family to have been run completely by the father or males of the family. The women would run the home, while the men were the breadwinners and reason for direction. Especially, since women were not known to work as much as the men, and this is emphasized by the Great Depression which had made jobs even more scarce.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck takes this standard role of women and shines a light on the strength that mothers have in not only holding their families together but keeping them moving forward. Since the Joad family is unemployed and without a farm all there is left is family, so Ma Joad ends up slowly taking control, until by the end of the novel, she behaves like the head of the family.

Woman of Steel

At the beginning of the story, we hear how the Joad's were pushed off their farm due to the inability to pay the bank what they owed. This meant all the men folk were without work, which had to be a huge struggle since that was the role they were used to. This also meant that everyone was now under the roof with Ma Joad and the other females: Grandma Joad, Rose of Sharon, and Ruthie. Ma Joad shows that she is strength personified as she manages to keep the family of 11 plus Connie together.

Although there would normally be direction from the men, Ma Joad evolves from being the backbone of the home, to being the foundation for the family in all things. She grows to have more control than her husband or her sons. The trip to California shapes her into an even stronger woman, where she is willing to stand up to police in hopes of protecting her family. She also displays great calm and composure when she realizes that Grandma Joad had died while they were on the road. Ma Joad noticed, but she said nothing. Instead, she went on pretending that Grandma was just sleeping and needed her rest so that the kids did not have to handle another person passing along the way.

The strength becomes necessary when Pa Joad starts to struggle in his role of leading the family. Ma does not become petulant in her new role. Instead, she becomes the leader the rest of the family needs. By the end of the novel, she is issuing and barking orders for the family to get out of the flood and get to safety. Although Pa Joad argues briefly, he capitulates quickly and follows her lead.

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