Noah Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

A character that is underappreciated, perhaps resulting from his limited appearances, Noah Joad is a strong and independent character, qualities which belie the description given to him in John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath''.

Physical Description

Meeting someone for the first time tends to leave an indelible impression. It all comes down to perception. Imperfections in appearance or missteps in behavior or speech are unlikely to be forgotten. These impressions also tend to develop into judgments, which lead to classification. This happens to the character of Noah Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The way that Noah is described leaves a deceptive impression on the reader.

The eldest child of Ma and Pa Joad, Noah is described as ''tall and strange.'' Noah appears to have an odd shape, even though everything is in proportion. There is also a suggestion that Noah might be slow, because he does not say much, and tends to keep to himself, but ''he was not stupid.'' He has the intellectual capacity to perform well on the farm, but something is missing.

This might be attributed to his family. Pa treats Noah differently because of the rough treatment Noah received when he was born. Since it was just Ma and Pa, during delivery Pa had to use ''his strong fingers for forceps.'' This created some disfigurement with Noah's body, but the midwife ''pushed the head back and molded the body.'' Physically, Noah is fine, but there is a ''listlessness in him.'' He does not have any passion or drive. Nothing excites him, perhaps because his life on the farm is perfunctory.


Noah may appear odd, but he is proficient at farming. When the Joad family prepares to leave Oklahoma for California, they slaughter their pigs. Noah demonstrates that he is competent as a farmer and a butcher. He grabs ''the bow-bladed butchering knife and whetted it on a worn little carborundum stone.'' He joins his brother Tom, and they take care of the pigs. Since the family will soon leave, they need to prepare the meat as quickly as possible. Noah explains how to quickly preserve the pork.

In order to prepare the meat, Noah suggests that they ''git her right down in salt…she'd cool quicker.'' Noah's suggestion allows the family to quicken the process and accommodate their impending departure. Noah then cleans all the meat and ''cuts it into small salting blocks.'' He demonstrates a skill and aptitude for this type of work. He doesn't dally about and shows as much intensity as any of the other family members.

If there is a listlessness about Noah, it does not appear in his work on the farm. He knows how to tend to the animals and the land. He ably finds solutions to potential problems, which demonstrates his purpose on the farm. He works without complaint. For someone who appears to be strange, or perhaps even slow, his work on the farm eliminates any doubt that he is competent and passionate. Once he leaves the farm, this purpose seems to fade.

The River

Before they enter California, the Joad family stops near a river in the northern part of Arizona. The men take this opportunity to bathe and relax in the water. Here, Noah experiences an awakening. He tells his brother Tom that he will not accompany the family any further. He ''ain't a-gonna leave this here water.'' Tom attempts to talk Noah out of this idea, but Noah insists that he will ''catch fish an' stuff, but I can't leave.'' Noah has no desire to leave. He is free to wander and catch fish. He also suggests something else that influences his decision.

Noah has a sense that other people look at him differently, including his parents. He mentions this to Tom as part of his reason for not leaving the river. He mentions ''how the folks are nice to me. But they don't really care for me.'' Once again, Tom tries to persuade him otherwise, but Noah knows that they ''know how I am. I know they're sorry.'' This indicates a bit of self-awareness on the part of Noah. He understands that although there is nothing wrong with him, there is still a sense of guilt, and perhaps pity, on the part of his parents.

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