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In Chapter 18 of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the most important facts we learn about Granma is the fact that not only has she been seriously ill but that she in fact has died just before the family has managed to cross over into California’s Central Valley. Ma, the matriarch of the family, keeps Granma’s death a secret to the rest of the family because she is afraid that if the authorities who have stopped them discover a corpse in the truck, they will not let the family proceed with their trip. Only after the family crosses over into the land they have been seeking does Ma reveal the secret:
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa asked, “When?”
“Before they stopped us las’ night.”
“So that’s why you didn’ want ‘em to look.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’ get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we couldn’ he’p her. The fambly had ta get acrost. I tol’ her, tol’ her when she was a-dyin’. We couldn’ stop in the desert. There was the young ones—an’ Rosasharn’s baby. I tol’ her.” She put up her hands and covered her face for a moment. “She can get buried in a nice green place,” Ma said softly. “Trees aroun’ an’ a nice place. She got to lay her head down in California.”
The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.
This passage is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It suggests Granma’s willingness to sacrifice herself in the best interests of her family. Presumably she could have objected to Ma’s decision and actions, but there is no indication that she did so.
- It suggests that Ma thinks of the family as a unit that must survive as a unit, even if doing so means the loss of individuals along the way.
- It suggests Ma’s focus on the future rather than on the past.
- It suggests Ma’s strength of character – a strength that her family finds even a bit frightening.
- It suggests Ma’s honesty, since tells Granma directly that Granma cannot be helped and that she is dying.
- It suggests Ma’s trust in Granma’s own strength of character since Ma is willing to be so honest with her.
- It suggests that despite Ma’s strength, she is also emotionally vulnerable. Steinbeck thus provides further insight here into the complexity of Ma’s personality.
- It implies Ma’s sense of tenderness and her appreciation of beauty, especially in her remarks about burying Granma.
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