Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath: Description & Analysis

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, we will learn about Pa Joad's character in 'The Grapes of Wrath' by considering him through the lens of other characters and through his interactions with his family.

Who is Pa Joad

Pa Joad

There are several ways one might read The Grapes of Wrath character Pa Joad, which is one of the beautiful things about literature. One is free to analyze and interpret literature and literary characters, or read them through a various theoretical lenses, as one chooses, so long as there's supporting evidence in the text, in this case, The Grapes of Wrath. In this lesson, we are going to learn about Pa Joad though the context of family and actions.

Pa Joad: First Introductions

The following quote from Chapter Four reveals a conversation between the younger Tom Joad and Casy, both offering us a first glimpse the elder Tom Joad/Pa:

''It's a funny thing,'' the preacher said. ''I was thinkin' about ol' Tom Joad when you come along. Thinkin' I'd call on him. I used to think he was a godless man.'' ''How is Tom?' '' ''I don't know how he is. I ain't been home in four years.'' ''Didn't he write to you?'' Joad was embarrassed. ''Well, Pa wasn't no hand to write for pretty, or to write for writin'. He'd sign his name as pretty as anybody, an' lick his pencil. But Pa never did write no letters. He always says what he couldn' tell a fella with his mouth wasn't worth leanin on no pencil about.''

As we learn, Casy, who was once a preacher, tells Tom how he used to visit Pa and thought him a godless man. This informs us that, according to a practicing preacher's view of people and the world, Pa did not seem to be a God-fearing man. However, because we know that Casy has left preaching behind him, and the fact that he says he 'used' to think Pa was a godless man, this tells us it's likely that Pa is simply not a traditionally religious man. In addition to understanding that Pa is not a religious individual, we surmise that Tom is embarrassed that his father never wrote to him. Although Tom excuses his father by saying he doesn't like to write, Tom's embarrassment tells us that the lack of communication from his father, though not surprising, was painful.

Pa Joad and Family

Pa's presence in The Grapes of Wrath is constant; we know he stays with the family throughout their travels, and we know that he is there with them at the end of the novel. However, as a character, his role in the novel is more subdued than Ma's and Tom's, and others for that matter. However, Steinbeck does create moments where Pa's character becomes more animated, which often reveals his awkwardness. For example, while Ma is often seen expressing her dedication to people, as well as showing it through her actions, Pa's way of showing his dedication to his family is subtle. Consider the moment when Tom finally returns home and approaches Pa in Chapter Eight:

''It's Tommy--'' And then, still informing himself, ''It's Tommy come home.'' His mouth opened again, and a look of fear came into his eyes. ''Tommy,'' he said, ''you ain't busted out? You ain't got to hide?'' He listened tensely. ''Naw,'' said Tom. ''I'm paroled.''….Old Tom laid his hammer gently on the floor and put his nails in his pocket. He swung his leg over the side and dropped lithely to the ground, but once beside his son he seemed embarrassed and strange.

In this passage, we see immediately that Pa, despite his failure to communicate with Tom while he's in prison, is overwhelmed with surprise and also worried for his son. Though Tom immediately explains that he's returned on parole, Pa doesn't know how to interact with his son. There is no embrace, just a moment of embarrassment. It's helpful to think of Steinbeck creating Pa's awkwardness and lack of physical embrace as a way of further solidifying, on some level, why Pa didn't write Tom. Pa is a character who struggles with articulating feelings for others, including family.

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