The Character of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

On the surface, The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the westward travels of an Oklahoma family turned off of their land. Beneath that surface, Steinbeck has captured all of the teeming, seething turmoil that spelled the life of the poor tenant farmer in the 1930’s, and he has brought it into a correlative position to the larger forces which govern our lives. It is the story of a family uprooted, who is forced to adapt to new standards and a new way of life while grasping tenuously onto their personal dignity. In turn we have a parable of the demise of the single for the rise of the many: the family is breaking up, and its importance and identification is being absorbed by the larger community, the “Okies.”

As he examines the social forces at work bringing change to both large and small groups, Steinbeck gives us the individual to serve as the monitor, or, perhaps, the example of these events: Tom Joad. For it is Tom’s growth which serves as a focal guideline to the growth of the mass; and Steinbeck, through Tom, allows the reader to understand the detail of the larger changes by making Tom the example through his own perceptions of his personal changes. “This growing awareness on the part of the people en masse is paralleled by the education and conversion of Tom and Casey.”(1)

The book begins with Tom as the solitary figure making his way down the road. He is alone. He is seeking to return to an environment which has been secure and in which his role has been primary – his family. He knows nothing of the changes that nature and economics have brought to his native countryside and is only concerned that he get there to reassume his position and find some personal comfort. His concerns are only his own, but they are not allowed to stay that way for long. With the arrival at his old home, the discovery of its destruction, the meeting of Casey and the intrusion of Muley Graves, a larger picture starts to impose itself on Tom, and his concerns grow larger in scope through the book. They grow first to his family, then to the small group (Joads and Wilsons), then to the small community (tent camps and government camps) and finally to the entire community (society and a universal one).

Peter Lisca writes that “At the beginning of the book, Tom’s attitude is individualistic. He is looking for himself. As he puts it, ‘I’m still laying my dogs down one at a time,’ and ‘I climb fences when I got fences to climb.’”(2) He comes home a hero, returning from a strange and exotic world, prison. He is seeking to find his old niche but times have changed, and he is immediately thrust into a leadership role by which he must help the family move out. Tom is caught between generations: he is the only one of the Joad children who is both old enough to assume responsibility and young enough to adapt to the new life ahead. Put into this position, he begins his personal growth.

With his little brother, Al, Tom relates to the machines newly found a necessity. They fix the truck and the Wilson’s car and keep them running because, as Griffin and Freedman point out, “The young people are more in tune with the machines of their times, whereas the older ones are not prepared to accommodate to the exigencies of the industrial economy.”(3) Or, as Tom says to Casey, “Got to grow into her when you’re a little kid. . . . It ain’t jus’ knowin’. It’s more’n that. Kids now can tear down a car ‘thout even thinkin’ about it.”

But, being the right age is not the sole factor which puts Tom into a leader role. As we see in two incidents involving strangers, Tom is a person of acute perception and understanding of others. Given the repeated and somewhat desperate questions of a gas station owner they meet along the road, Tom cuts right to the heart of the man’s situation telling him he’ll soon be on his own journey, to which the man can only reply, “How’d you know?” And, again, at the junk yard where Tom and Al go to get parts for the car, they are met by a one-eyed attendant filled with hatred and self-remorse. But Tom sees right through his act and strongly belittles him for not putting a patch over his bad eye and going out to meet the world instead of complaining and sitting in his room feeling sorry for himself.

Tom is also manually able. He can fix the car, drive the truck, pick cotton, fight and skin a rabbit. The ability to perceive the situation, coupled with the manual skill to deal with what must be dealt with, allows Tom to be the key to survival. “The commonplace details of indigent life magnify in their importance because of their consequences.”(4) Tom has the ability to deal with these details both psychologically and physically.

The family leaves home in search of a new life. The road they travel is crowded with thousands of others just like...

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Biblical Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath

The biblical symbolism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath can be viewed as essentially messianic in nature. However, this is not to say that the message or point of the novel is in itself religious. Walter Fuller Taylor, in his commentary on the work, makes the relevant point that Jim Casy, a figure who is depicted in a very Christ-like manner by Steinbeck, actually denies any similarity between the Son of God and himself. Indeed, “the theology and ethic of Casy’s religion have little…to do withChristianity.”(1) All of life, as Casy conceives it, is unified in a holy transcendental soul whose capacity for goodness can be vitiated only by any act which has at its root individual selfishness: “But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella harnessed to the whole shebang – that’s right, that’s holy.”(2) The message of salvation that Casy brings and that Tom Joad carries forward is one of adaptation to the environment of the world. The constant reference is to an earthly salvation in which man can survive happily; the codes of behavior are natural actions. Steinbeck has none of his characters aspire to a higher spiritual plane. The hierarchy of values, as he dramatizes it, has been aptly cited as the need and dependency which man evidences in respect to the “primal elements (water, sun, fire, land) . . . sex, womanhood, family life, death, mutualism of spirit. . . .”(3) In short, the messianic word is an emphatic reminder of the individual’s place in the scheme of humanity. The only sin is failure to recognize such a relationship. As such, this message is not in the tradition of the Messiah.

Earlier, the biblical symbolism was described as related to the concept of a savior. This is because those references not conspicuously involving Casy and Tom as either Moses or Jesus do relate significantly to a race of people wandering in search of salvation in one form or another. The mythic image of the journey that Steinbeck sustains throughout the novel suggests that of the Hebrews who fled to Canaan to escape the oppression in Egypt. Very specific parallels have been noted: the drought and barren soil relate to the Egyptian plagues; the corporations which invaded Oklahoma and the banks which took over the farms have biblical reflections in Pharaoh and the Egyptian tormentors; California, the destined land of hope and opportunity can be likened to Canaan, while the people of Hooverville find appropriate ancestors in the inhospitable Canaanites.(4)

The biblical parallels continue throughout the text of the novel. Perhaps, most significantly, these references work as actions. Ma Joad constantly refers to her family and traveling companions in a phrase borrowed from the Book of Psalms: “For He is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”(5) This identification is given valid dimension when Uncle John places Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child in an apple box and sends it as a message to their oppressors: “And then he leaned over and set the box in the stream and steadied it with his hand. He said fiercely, ‘Go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way. That’s the way you can talk. . . . Maybe they’ll know then.’”(6) The image of Moses, placed as an infant in a basket, is inescapable. Also, notable is the messianic tone of the parallel. The dead child will beget condemnation upon...

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The Relevance of The Grapes of Wrath Today

(Novels for Students)

The Grapes of Wrath is arguably John Steinbeck’s finest novel and the summation of his California experience. His first two novels...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)

The Grapes of Wrath: Preserving Its Place in the Curriculum

(Novels for Students)

Steinbeck’s success in creating a potent or powerful novel may be seen in the characters of the novel, in the complete structure of the...

(The entire section is 3057 words.)

The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study

(Novels for Students)

[In The Grapes of Wrath, function], not mere design, is . . . evident in the use of characterization to support and develop a conflict...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)