John Steinbeck’s novel traces the struggles of the extended Joad family from Oklahoma on their way to California in the 1930s. The Joads lost their land to the Dust Bowl, and, like many other tenant farmers, could no longer grow crops. Steinbeck uses the personal struggles of the characters in this novel to depict the broader conditions, social injustices, and isolation that affected the Southwest region of the United States in that era.
The Joad family consists of many biological members, plus a few close friends. One of Steinbeck’s major themes in The Grapes of Wrath is the strength of the family relationship. In addition to those members related by blood, he considers all the travelers on the journey to California, including those they meet on the way, as part of the extended family. They all have different motives for migration to the West. Some travel reluctantly, others travel willingly. Some wish to start new lives, while others feel they have no choice.
In the first of a few examples, at the outset of the story, protagonist Tom Joad is an ex-convict who has been released on parole and plans to head to his family’s farm. Upon arrival, he finds the farm deserted and he learns from a neighbor that the Joads relocated to Tom’s Uncle John’s place and plan to migrate to California. This is not Tom’s desire. He favors a self-centered approach and wants to fight a forced migration without considering the desires of the rest of the family. He is isolated and lonely.
Ma Joad is the matriarch of the family. She is a strong woman who, unlike Tom, is selfless and shows compassion to others. She is willing to migrate to California if it is best for everyone.
Pa Joad often relies on Ma Joad’s strength. Selfish like Tom, he eventually learns to cooperate for the benefit of the family.
Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) is Tom’s young sister who is pregnant. She is obsessed with motherhood and she and her husband, Connie Rivers, are anxious to head to California to start a new life. She is materialistic and believes she will realize her dreams at the end of her journey. However, it is not to be. Her husband leaves her and the child is born dead. Even the willing migrants find suffering as they head to the West.
Noah, the oldest son in the Joad clan, had been born brain-damaged. He has no qualms about leaving the Joad family and is the first to make it known. He wants no part of the relocation and opposes the trip.
As the family begins to work together, they buy and old truck and try to work things out. Noah says, “If we pitch in, we kin get ready tomorrow.”
Ma Joad’s desire for family unity might become reality:
“And then all of a sudden, the family began to function. Pa got up and a lighted another lantern. Noah from a box in the kitchen, brought out the bow-bladed butchering knife and whetted it on a worn little Carborundum stone. And he laid the scraper on the chopping block, and the knife beside it. Pa brought two sturdy sticks, each three feet long, and pointed the ends with the ax, and he tied strong ropes, double half-hitched, to the middle of the sticks.”
Despite the fact that Steinbeck portrays the togetherness of family in order to overcome problems and the unity of all people in a common cause, the tribulations of the Joad family demonstrate that the author’s vision of world society operating in unity is not reality. Even facing forced migrations due to soil damage or bank foreclosures, the motivations of human beings are not universal.