In the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, how does the Joad family as a whole change in the course of its experiences as migrants? What concept of family do they have in the beginning of their...

In the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, how does the Joad family as a whole change in the course of its experiences as migrants? What concept of family do they have in the beginning of their journey until the end of the book? Especially Ma and Rose of Sharon

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omconnelly eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, his intentions were to draw attention to the plight of the migrant American worker. He witnessed first hand the deplorable conditions that many of these hardworking but impoverished farmers experienced once they crossed the country to find work in California. Not only were they not accepted and vilified by the native Californians, but they were also treated as a subservient labor force. Their maltreatment, compounded by the great influx that occurred during this time afforded them little opportunity to improve or change the working conditions. 

This is essential to understanding the transformation of the Joad family. The text begins on a positive note because their son Tom is finally returning from his stint in prison and the family will be reunited. But Tom quickly learns that his family has fallen on hard times: their farm is being taken by a larger corporate farm.

Throughout the text, the conflicts of man versus technology and man versus corporate America is reiterated by the structure. Steinbeck alternates the chapters between the Joad family's story and a more generic but widely accepted tale of how the migrant families were first displaced but burgeoning technologies and then taken advantage of by corporate America looking to profit from their misfortunes. 

Once it is decided that the family would benefit from moving west, they do so as a unit. They sell and sacrifice all their remaining possessions (and some self-respect) to take Route 66 to California with a promise of a better life. Ma Joad is the matriarch of the clan and firmly believes that as long as they stay together as a unit, then all will be right in the end. As a result, the entire family including Uncle John, Rose of Sharon and her husband, Granma and Grampa Joad, move with the nuclear Joad family.

This belief is tested almost immediately on their journey when the family elders become sick and die along the journey. The first to pass is Grampa Joad. The family is so poor and in need of the money they have left, they have no choice but to bury Grampa Joad on the side Route 66 in an unmarked grave. Graham Joad dies just before the family crosses into California, but Ma Joad conceals her death so the family may continue on their journey. As the journey continues, it is evident that the family cannot remain as a unit and survive. For practical reasons, there are too many mouths to feed. In addition the characters themselves are each dealing with their own internal conflicts and personal demons. Two prime examples are Tom's Uncle John and Tom's elder brother Noah. Tom's Uncle suffers from regret and alcoholism. When he cannot deal with his own demons about his past, he drinks and disappears. Though Noah is the eldest son, he suffers from a condition that occurred during his birth. His father delivered him and nearly crushed his skull. This creates a divide between Noah and his family. This comes to a critical point when the family reaches the Colorado River. Noah admits that his family tolerates him more than loves and respects him (as they do Tom), and decides that he's "-gonna go now, Tom—down the river. I'll catch fish an' stuff..." Tom allows his brother to leave the family fold because he knows that it is for the best. 

As the story evolves, the family suffers stressors from the painstaking labor they must perform in order to make very little money. Aside from the physical labor, Ma Joad must bear the mental burden of taking care of her family, keeping them safe, and keeping them together. Her dreams are dashed when Tom is involved in yet another crime that he committed in self-defense, but that results in Tom leaving his mother and family in order to protect them. Ma Joad must sacrifice another son for the greater good of her family. 

In regards to Rose of Sharon, she is probably the character who undergoes the greatest change. She begins the story as a self-centered and idealist young bride. She is newly pregnant, and she firmly believes that the cross country journey will result in a fantastic life for her and her new husband. She does not believe that they will be farmers when they arrive because (as she reminds her brothers constantly) her husband plans to take courses through the mail. She believes that this will afford them more opportunities than her family can offer her. Unfortunately, Rose of Sharon experiences a great downfall when her husband abandons her once they arrive in California. She doesn't really contribute much to her family's situation and laments her own losses rather than her family's sacrifices and losses. She is further tortured by an omen she receives from a stranger that her baby will suffer because of her choices. She isn't sure what it means exactly, but she never forgets the warning. 

Rose of Sharon's character is seemingly static, but towards the end of the Joad's journey it is evident that she is one of the most dynamic characters in the text. Upon realizing how dire her family's circumstances are, she decides that she will help pick cotton. This is a critical mistake. She is nine month pregnant, living in squalor, and becomes ill. She delivers her child in a monsoon that floods the fields that surround the family's boxcar, and the child is stillborn. This is pivotal moment for the entire Joad family. They all blame their situation (and technology, corporate America, their treatment by the native Californians), for the baby's death. Uncle John takes the baby's body and sends it down the flooded street and says, "Go down and tell 'em all." This allusion to Moses in the River is important because it illustrates how the baby's death is a symbol of all their collective suffering. 

Upon losing her child, Rose of Sharon does not lash out or become weak but loses her selfishness and becomes one of the strongest characters in the text. In the last scene of the text, Ma Joad seeks an alternate shelter to protect Rose of Sharon from the flood waters and prevent her from dying from her illness. While in a barn, the two women discover a son and a dying father. The father sacrificed his own health and food to save his son's. Realizing the only thing to do to save the man's life is to breastfeed him, Rose of Sharon agrees and feeds the man. This is a controversial scene, but it is not sexual in anyway. Rather, it illustrates how Rose of Sharon has evolved into a selfless individual. She no longer is bound by family or dreams, but instead she is able to see the larger picture of which the Joad family is a part of. 

Both women in the text come to the realization that their family cannot remain the way it was if they will survive. They both deal with loss and abandonment, but in the end are stronger characters because of their willingness to accept change. 

Read the study guide:
The Grapes of Wrath

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