Ma Joad and Tom Joad figure as the two most important members of the family, one as the matriarch who strives to hold together the family unit, and the other as an individual who acquires a growing sense of his participation in his own family as well as the family of man.
As the Joads prepare to embark upon their exodus from Oklahoma, there is a tremendous sense of loss in the men as they must tear themselves from the earth which they have worked for generations. In Chapter Ten, for instance, when Jim Casy asks if he can accompany them on their trip, Ma looks to Tom to speak, but he does not.
She let him have the chance that was his because he was a man, and then she said, "Why, we'd be proud to have you."
This separation from the land is keenly felt by Grampa Joad who refuses to go, saying, "This here's my country. I b'long here"; so, Ma puts cough medicine in his drink so that he will fall asleep and they can carry him onto the truck. "Grampa was still the titular head, but he no longer ruled." In Chapter 16, it is Ma who insists that the family stay together when Tom offers to stay behind to repair the Wilson's touring car.
As their journey continues, the Joad come up against obstacle after obstacle. But Ma is the anchor of the drifting family that has lost Noah and Connie by the time they near California. When Pa observes that he is effective as the patriarch and he cannot stop thinking about the land that he has lost.
Women can change better'n a man,” Ma said soothingly.Women got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head ... Man, he lives in jerks-baby born an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk-gets a farm and looses his farm, an' that's a jerk.
It is her strength and determination that hold the Joads together. As Casy says of Ma, who sat all night with Granma's body:
"There's a woman so great with love--she scares me....She faces all the pressures acting upon the family with quiet determination."
She is the faith of the Joads, predicting that "Okies" like her family are the people who will survive,
"They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people--we go on."
Of the next generation, Tom Joad is the action of the family. Having already been disenfranchised by his years in prison, Tom does not feel the despair of Grampa and Pa; instead, he joins with Jim Casy and comes to believe that all men are part of one large soul. The subject of Steinbeck's scientific observations, Tom is the survivor who adapts and assimilates with others, realizing that he lives in the community of men, not alone. After the fight in which Casy is killed, Tom takes up the proverbial torch, teling his mother that he will carry on the struggle for equality and opportunity, principles on which America was founded. He assures her that he is not really leaving her,
Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where-wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there....I'll be in the way kids laugh when theyre hungry an' they know supper's ready.....why, Ill be there. See?...I'm talkin' like Casy.
Tom emerges as a man to speak for all the dispossessed. He, like Ma extends himself.