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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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What are the Joad family's feelings about leaving home for California in The Grapes of Wrath?

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John Steinbeck’s novel traces the struggles of the extended Joad family from Oklahoma on their way to California in the 1930s. The Joads lost their land to the Dust Bowl, and, like many other tenant farmers, could no longer grow crops. Steinbeck uses the personal struggles of the characters in this novel to depict the broader conditions, social injustices, and isolation that affected the Southwest region of the United States in that era.

The Joad family consists of many biological members, plus a few close friends. One of Steinbeck’s major themes in The Grapes of Wrath is the strength of the family relationship. In addition to those members related by blood, he considers all the travelers on the journey to California, including those they meet on the way, as part of the extended family. They all have different motives for migration to the West. Some travel reluctantly, others travel willingly. Some wish to start new lives, while others feel they have no choice.

In the first of a few examples, at the outset of the story, protagonist Tom Joad is an ex-convict who has been released on parole and plans to head to his family’s farm. Upon arrival, he finds the farm deserted and he learns from a neighbor that the Joads relocated to Tom’s Uncle John’s place and plan to migrate to California. This is not Tom’s desire. He favors a self-centered approach and wants to fight a forced migration without considering the desires of the rest of the family. He is isolated and lonely.

Ma Joad is the matriarch of the family. She is a strong woman who, unlike Tom, is selfless and shows compassion to others. She is willing to migrate to California if it is best for everyone.

Pa Joad often relies on Ma Joad’s strength. Selfish like Tom, he eventually learns to cooperate for the benefit of the family.

Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) is Tom’s young sister who is pregnant. She is obsessed with motherhood and she and her husband, Connie Rivers, are anxious to head to California to start a new life. She is materialistic and believes she will realize her dreams at the end of her journey. However, it is not to be. Her husband leaves her and the child is born dead. Even the willing migrants find suffering as they head to the West.

Noah, the oldest son in the Joad clan, had been born brain-damaged. He has no qualms about leaving the Joad family and is the first to make it known. He wants no part of the relocation and opposes the trip.

As the family begins to work together, they buy and old truck and try to work things out. Noah says, “If we pitch in, we kin get ready tomorrow.”

Ma Joad’s desire for family unity might become reality:

“And then all of a sudden, the family began to function. Pa got up and a lighted another lantern. Noah from a box in the kitchen, brought out the bow-bladed butchering knife and whetted it on a worn little Carborundum stone. And he laid the scraper on the chopping block, and the knife beside it. Pa brought two sturdy sticks, each three feet long, and pointed the ends with the ax, and he tied strong ropes, double half-hitched, to the middle of the sticks.”

Despite the fact that Steinbeck portrays the togetherness of family in order to overcome problems and the unity of all people in a common cause, the tribulations of the Joad family demonstrate that the author’s vision of world society operating in unity is not reality. Even facing forced migrations due to soil damage or bank foreclosures, the motivations of human beings are not universal.

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The Grapes of Wrath was written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939. The novel is set in the time of the Great Depression and focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers. During this time, many families were forced to leave Oklahoma after years of drought and the Great Depression. The family members generally try to view the move as a fresh start; they see fliers announcing fruit-picking jobs in California and begin to think about a future there. Although Ma tells Tom that she thinks the stories about California sound too good to be true, soon even Grampa is convinced about the move:

''I sure will be glad to get out there. Got a feelin' it'll make a new fella outa me. Go right to work in the fruit."

Shortly after this declaration, though, Grampa gets cold feet. He notes that an old neighbor—Muley Graves—is staying put and says he wants to do the same and live off the land like Muley. He is drugged and made to come along anyway, but neither he nor Granma make it as far as California. Meanwhile, Rose of Sharon is already planning ahead for her life with her husband Connie, not realizing that he will soon betray her and the family. As they near California, they begin to hear rumors that California may not be such a paradise after all. Still, they press on to see for themselves.

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For the most part, the members of the Joad family seem resigned to their fate in regards to their feelings toward leaving home and moving to California. None of them particularly want to leave, but they have watched their opportunities and their livelihoods dry up with their crops and be carried away with the dirt on the wind. They don't want to leave, but life on their farm in no longer sustainable.

The exceptions to this idea are Muley Graves and Grampa; both refuse to leave. Their reasons are very similar. Everything they have and everything they are was devoted to making their farms prosperous; the land is "in their blood." They are too invested and too emotionally intertwined to leave. Muley, in particular, seems to understand that staying will likely mean physical starvation, but he consciously chooses this over the emotional and spiritual starvation that would occur if he leaves.

Grampa is much the same, however, he isn't given the option to choose for himself. With a heavy dose of cough medicine, the Joad family drugs him and takes him away against his will. Grampa's fate, however, isn't changed. Once removed from his farm, he withers and passes quite quickly.

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