Motifs in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn about motifs in literature, motifs in ''The Grapes of Wrath'', and how Ma and Casy represent themes of unity and fighting for the greater good.

What's a Motif?

In literature, a motif is a kind of thread or through line that continuously comes up in a story, essay, or novel. Two of the main motifs in The Grapes of Wrath are the ideas of family/togetherness/community, and working for the common good of all. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath represents class struggle during the time of a severe economic downturn known as The Great Depression. However, Steinbeck isn't merely representing the desperation that accompanies poverty, hunger, and homelessness for the sake of representation, but rather to suggest that people, including the Joads and other tenant farmers, must depend upon one another and unite together for their survival.


Though some characters break away from the family, such as Connie and Noah, most of the family stays together through the trials and tribulations of their travels, hunger, and homelessness. Throughout their travels, Ma takes the lead as the matriarch of the family, determined to keep them together. Although Casy is the first character in the novel to say that families ought not to split up, which he states to Muley in Chapter 6, it is Ma Joad who most often indicates that family must stay together despite their homelessness. For instance, in Chapter 16 we see Ma argue against even splitting the family up for a few days when one of the cars breaks down and Tom proposes he stay behind with Casy to fix it while the rest continue driving:

''What we got lef' in the world? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks. We come out an' Granpa, he reached shovel-shelf right off. An' now, right off, you wanna bust up the folks--'' Tom cried, ''Ma, we was gonna catch up with ya…'' ''S'pose we got on through, how'd we know where to leave the word, an how'd you know where to ask?'' ….All we got is the family unbroken. Like a bunch of cows, when the lobos are ranging, stick all together. I ain't scared while we're all here, all that's alive, but I ain't gonna see us bust up. The Wilson's here is with us, an' the preacher is with us. I can't say nothing' if they want to go, but I'm a-goin' cat-wild with this here piece a bar-arn if my own folks bust up.''

As we can see from this passage, Ma believes that maintaining unity is all they have left, and it's also what gives her comfort, which is why she is unwilling to leave Tom with the car, even for a few days. She's not willing to risk the chance that Tom may not be able to find the family later. From here on out in the novel it is well established by Ma that the family must remain united.

In Chapter 26 we again see Ma determined to keep the family together when she insists on hiding Tom after he kills the man who murdered Casy. Tom insists that he should leave the family so as not to put them at risk, but Ma refuses: ''You ain't goin'. We'r a-takin' you.'' Understanding Ma's stubbornness and the comfort she draws from keeping the family together, Tom agrees to hide in the truck and departs the Hooper Ranch with the rest of the Joads.

Fight for the Common Good

Although he does not stay with the Joads for the entirety of the novel, Casy advocates for unity and working towards the common good of the working class. We see Steinbeck emphasize the motif of working toward a common good throughout The Grapes of Wrath, especially when it comes to the working class standing up for themselves against the land owners and banks who take advantage of them. Let's consider the following passage from Chapter 26 when Tom finds Casy outside of the Hooper Ranch in the camp of strikers:

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