The Grapes of Wrath Essays and Criticism
by John Steinbeck

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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...

(The entire section is 9,306 words.)