The challenges of keeping a family together during the Great Depression is one of the most important themes in John Steinbeck’s novel. The Joad family often fails in this goal, but their determination and resilience are among their most notable characteristics. Furthermore, Steinbeck encourages the reader to expand their definition of family, as he shows the generosity and compassion that some of the Joads extend to and receive from others, thus drawing them into the circle of family. This larger “family of man” also comprises the workers who struggle to improve their conditions.
The most poignant failures the Joads experience is the loss of the grandparents. A combination of optimism and fatalism has compelled them to pull up stakes and travel from Oklahoma to California, but not all of them will survive their journey West. Granpa did not want to leave home, but the family would not leave him behind—even though it meant drugging him. Along the way, first Granpa and then Granma dies. In both cases, the impoverished Joads cannot afford a proper burial for them. The greater survival of the family must take priority over even important rituals.
The symbolic value of family and nurturing is literally shown through the actions of Rose of Sharon. She becomes a Madonna figure, who saves a needy stranger with her own breast milk. Although her own baby has died, she retains the power to give life to others, becoming a mother to a much larger family.
Tom Joad shows the various definitions of family. Although he must part with his own family, his time with Jim Casy, the preacher, has confirmed for him the importance of the larger scope of belonging. Casy had found that “he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul…. [and] his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.”