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Uncle John in The Grapes of Wrath: Physical Description & Character Analysis

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn how Steinbeck weaves together physical descriptions of Uncle John with his actions so we can understand who he is, not just what he looks like. We also learn about the root of Uncle John's shame and why he behaves the way he does in 'The Grapes of Wrath.'

Visualizing Uncle John

We understand a novel's character by the way the author creates them, and it can be helpful to visualize a character's actions before having a description of them. For instance, in Chapter 4 of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck first presents Uncle John through Tom's memory of him excitedly jumping around after being baptized: ''Maybe you never seen Uncle John the time they baptized him over to Polk's place. Why, he got to plungin' an' jumpin'. Jumped over a feeny bush as big as a piana. Over he'd jump, an' back he'd jump, howlin' like a dog-wolf in moon time.''

This scene gives us a bit of insight into who Uncle John is as well as his physical capabilities. To jump over a feeny bush the size of a piano is pretty impressive. Being driven to do so out of excitement over baptism signals that Uncle John is moved to act based on his emotions.

Over the next few chapters Uncle John appears, mostly in the periphery, but in Chapter 10, Steinbeck gives us an actual physical description of Uncle John:

But Uncle John sat uneasily, his lonely haunted eyes were not at ease, and his thin strong body was not relaxed. Nearly all the time the barrier of loneliness cut Uncle John off from people and from appetites. He ate little, drank nothing, and was celibate. But underneath, his appetites swelled into pressures until the broke through. Then he would eat some food until he was sick; or he would drink jake whiskey until he was a shaken paralytic with red wet eyes; or he would raven lust for some whore Sallisaw… But when one of his appetites was sated, he was sad and ashamed and lonely again. He hid from people, and by gifts tried to make up to all people for himself.

There is a lot going on in this passage. Let's unpack it by starting with the physical description of Uncle John. We learn he is thin but strong, has a haunted and lonely look in his eyes, and is an anxious person. Because Steinbeck is a master of details, and because he places importance on interweaving a character's actions with their description, we have a solid understanding of who Uncle John is at this point in the novel.

As we learned earlier, Uncle John's emotions have a way of taking over, the same way his appetites take over in the passage above. We also know that when Uncle John has his mind set on something, like eating pork at the end of Chapter 4, he imbibes until his body literally can't take it. Then, as we see from the passage above, he is overwhelmed with shame.

Uncle John and Rose of Sharon's Baby

In the final chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn during a massive rainstorm. Pa Joad tells Uncle John to bury the child, which he is resistant to do at first but quickly changes his mind. He wades through the rising flood waters and climbs a bank to the highway, walks for a bit, and then finds a stream close to the road. Instead of burying the child, who is inside an apple box,

he sends it downstream. He tells it to ''Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an tell 'em that way.''

We can infer that Uncle John means for the stillborn body, which should have been born healthy had Rose of Sharon not suffered from malnutrition, to bear witness to the suffering of the poor. While we might be surprised to see another character dramatically send the stillborn baby downstream in this way, it's fitting for Uncle John as he is often carried away by his emotions.

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