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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck
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Explain examples of where leadership of the Joad family shifts to different people. Why do these shifts occur? How does the family unit itself change? How is that change a metaphor for American society in the twentieth century?

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At the beginning of the Joad family's journey, shifts in leadership already have to occur as a matter of necessity. Grampa has no interest in leaving Oklahoma whatsoever, and when the family gives him soothing syrup to get him on the road, he dies the first evening. This represents the...

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At the beginning of the Joad family's journey, shifts in leadership already have to occur as a matter of necessity. Grampa has no interest in leaving Oklahoma whatsoever, and when the family gives him soothing syrup to get him on the road, he dies the first evening. This represents the end of the traditional patriarchal family structure and necessitates passing leadership to the next generation, as Granma loses her will to live.

At times the protagonist Tom leads the family. He is shown to be able to motivate them well. However, the Joad family is ultimately shifting to a matriarchy. Pa Joad is a done man who has lost his livelihood and sense of worth as a family leader with it. Ma Joad, on the other hand, is able to shoulder the burdens of all of her family. She will eventually pass this role, it seems, to Rose of Sharon, for whom she has been a pillar of strength.

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With the generational shift resulting from the grandparents' death, both the parents and some of the children assume leadership roles. The gendered dynamic relates to spiritual and practical shifts in social patterns.

Tom has tremendous strength in certain situations, and often motivates the others. Looking ahead toward their goals, not only reaching California but how they will live once they arrive, helps him keep moving. However, he may lose focus and not keep up with the family's total interests.

We see the family as a matriarchy, in which the men and all the younger members rely on Ma's pragmatism and backbone. Her own view is that women are more adaptable because of their closer connection to life.

Women can change better'n a man . . . Women got life in her arms. Man got it all in his head . . .

Along the journey, as the death of family members takes a toll, Ma accepts the burden falling on her. Even in California, as Rose of Sharon suffers with her pregnancy and baby's stillbirth, Ma provides stability and helps her grow outside herself. Although Rose is not obviously a leader for most of the book, it is clear by the end—evidenced through the Madonna symbolism of breastfeeding—that she is becoming the family's spiritual center, which for Steinbeck is gendered female.

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When the Joad family first comes together to discuss their move to California, the Joads still respect Grampa Joad's seniority; he is the patriarch of the family. However, Grampa's health deteriorates very quickly once he leaves his homeland and passes away shortly after. Traditionally, Pa Joad should have taken over the leadership role as the next oldest male, but since they are in an unusual situation, Tom Joad takes on the role of leader since he is more knowledgeable about the world than his father. Yet Tom cannot bring his family the security they long for either and he becomes particularly concerned with the plight of the labor migrants around him. When Tom has to flee after his fight with the police, it is Ma Joad rather than Pa Joad who takes charge of her family. She knows that her family needs her to be strong, as this quote from chapter 8 demonstrates: "She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone." The traditional role of the male provider is called into question at this time in history, since the men are out of work and cannot provide for their families. Steinbeck shows the extraordinary strength of women and how they form the backbone of these families in need. 

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To understand the metaphor for American society, it is important to note that John Steinbeck placed his fictional characters into situations that were directly evocative of the time in which the novel was published in 1939. The story is a realist novel, and, according to National Geographic, "captures the sentiment of a pivotal period in American History."

The Great Depression (1929–1939) intersected with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, during which dust storms tore across the prairies. In the novel, the Joad family's crops were destroyed by the Dust Bowl during an economic downturn, forcing them to default on their bank loans.

Pa used to run the farm; as the head of the household, he leads his family to California where conditions are similarly harsh. Eventually, Tom, along with Noah Joad and Connie Rivers, leave the family—the latter of which leaves his pregnant wife, Rose of Sharon Joad. As the family struggles in California after Pa dies, the mother leads the family; after Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn baby, Ma is determined to push her family through their grief.

Gender roles during this period were shifting slightly and would eventually change dramatically when women entered the workforce during the Second World War. However, the majority of American women did not have jobs in the 1930s; at the time, 25% percent of men were unemployed, and 25% of women were employed. Steinbeck therefore comments on the nature of motherhood in American society, represented by Ma's emotional support, as she is a loving and supportive woman.

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In the beginning of the novel, the grandparents of the Joad family are present, yet their leadership is being transferred onto the next generation. Grandpa eventually refuses to go with the family to California and he intends to stay on the homestead, hanging on to the past. He is forced to go, yet he soon dies within days of their departure. Grandma is now in the background, and it is Ma and Pa who assume leadership. Pa admits to feeling that he has been a failure as the head of the family, and there is some evidence to back this up. His past decisions, combined with events out of his control, lead to the loss of the family homestead. Uncle John also has faded into the background, seemingly just along for the ride. When Tom leaves the family, it is Ma who has stepped into the role of leadership, followed meekly by Pa. By the end of the novel, she has become sole leader, and everyone looks to her for the decision-making. This is symbolic of the end of a patriarchal society, in which the father is the sole breadwinner and leader. More and more leadership falls on the woman (wife and mother), often when the father is no longer present. It is the maternal instinct that focuses on, no matter what, keeping the family together.

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