Jim Casy primarily functions as a device in The Grapes of Wrath, in that he plays into the novel's major themes. In one sense, the ex-preacher redefines the concept of faith, suggesting that true human divinity can only be found on earth, working collectively within a group. Casy is a philosopher, a prophet, a wise man, and finally a martyr as he rallies people to his cause – or tries to. It’s no coincidence that “Jim Casy” and “Jesus Christ” have the same initials, nor that Casy is so flawed.
Casy evolves along with Tom, opening the novel filled with uncertainty and emerging a folk leader and migrant organizer. As Tom discovers the truth – that life is far more complicated than any one theory – Casy exhibits that truth. Casy gives his life for his cause, inspiring Tom further to seek his own truths and forge his own brand of activism. Without Casy, Tom’s transformation might be possible, but it would be far less dramatic and even less believable.
Ma Joad makes her own transformation, although perhaps less dramatically than her son, Tom. As Pa Joad’s influence over the family grows weaker and weaker, Ma comes forward to take his place at the center of the family. No matter how bleak circumstances get on their journey west, Ma Joad stands up to every hardship and fights for her family. Ma shows the determination and spirit that characterized women of the period, who refused to see their families fall apart despite the poverty and difficulty at every turn. Steinbeck seems to have a reverent respect for Ma Joad, and he shows it in his depiction of her.
Ma Joad’s greatest strength may be shown as she and the family cross the desert. Ma knows that Granma is dead, yet she rides silently alongside her corpse so the family can make it to their “promised land.” When they reach the end of the desert Ma warns Tom not to touch her; she can only hold on to her strength and resolve if he doesn't reach out to her. Her ability to make painful decisions in the best interest of her family enables Ma to lead the Joads when Pa begins to hesitate and gives in to uncertainty.
Although Ma keeps her private emotions private, she is not a “loner.” On the contrary – she is the novel's strongest genuine supporter of family and togetherness. Casy may talk about collective action, but Ma believes in the power of togetherness and the strength of a family. Steinbeck manages to make Ma a symbol of selfless sacrifice without making her a martyr. She is a common-sense character, which allows her to avoid sentimentality. The best example of this is the scene at the end of the novel when she silently gives her daughter permission to breast-feed the starving man.
Ma Joad proves that the most heart-breaking, difficult circumstances can be faced head-on and survived with one’s dignity very much intact. All she expects in return from her family is that they stick together.
(The entire section is 1235 words.)