The Grapes of Wrath Ma Joad
by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath book cover
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Ma Joad

Extended Character Analysis

Ma Joad is the matriarch of the Joad family. She is described as heavyset, calm, and wise. Ma is the healer, arbiter, and nurturer of the family. As such, she keeps the family together through her calm nature and ability to find humor. She understands that if she wavers, the family will fall with her.

Ma Joad’s Leadership

Near the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad is on equal footing with Pa Joad. They lead the family together, as Pa Joad is confident in his abilities to help and support the family. However, as the novel progresses and things become steadily worse for the family, Pa Joad becomes unable to provide and recedes from the role of patriarch. Because of this, Ma Joad is left to lead and make decisions for the family.

An example of Ma’s leadership can be seen when Ma Joad lies to the border agent and to the family about Granma. She claims Granma is very sick, but Granma had actually already died. So, Ma’s lie ensured that the family got through the border and the desert without complications. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Ma Joad took advantage of it and helped the whole family. Ma Joad makes many hard decisions, and in the face of strife, she rises up to be a successful and tenacious character.

Ma Joad as a Nurturer and Protector

Despite Ma Joad's leadership, Steinbeck still casts her character within traditional gender roles: she is the nurturer, caretaker, and protector of her children. She does not act as the leader because she wishes power and control; her main concern is to keep the family together, because the family is her way of understanding the world.

Ma not only works hard to ensure the family retains some semblance of normalcy, but she tends to care for everyone, not just her direct family members. Throughout the novel, Ma includes and helps the many families that the Joads come into contact with. For example, she takes in the Wainwright family after their daughter and her son Al marry, viewing them as her own family. Her actions promote a sense of community.