Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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In The Grapes of Wrath, how does Steinbeck portray Tom Joad, a convicted murderer, as likable and moral in chapter 6?

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In chapter 6 of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck reveals that despite being a convicted murderer, Tom Joad emerges as a likable and moral man. Steinbeck illustrates these traits through Tom’s actions and words after Tom and Casy discover the Joad family’s abandoned homestead.

First, Tom is likable in his affection and concern for his family and their land. When he happens upon their well, he says, “She was a good well” and realizes it is completely dry … which tips him off that his family is either dead or gone. Tom notices an open gate to the pig pen and reminisces—“His eyes were warm”—how his mother Ma learned never to leave it open after a pig attacked a baby. The open gate and a discarded woman’s shoe that Tom stops to pick up and examine indicate that his family has left:

This was Ma’s. It’s all wore out now. Ma liked them shoes. Had ’em for years. No, they’ve went—an’ took ever’thing.

Steinbeck shows Tom as observant, perceptive, and self-aware. When Tom sees broken glass from a window broken by rocks, he concludes,

Kids ... They’ll go twenty miles to bust a window. I done it myself. They know when a house is empty, they know. That’s the fust thing kids do when folks move out.

Tom can admit his own youthful immaturity. When he spots a cat and kindly reaches his hand out to it, he realizes that no other people are around; otherwise, why would the cat be roaming around like a stray and rejecting human touch? Furthermore, why wasn’t the lumber from the Joad house stolen and their possessions taken by scavengers?

Tom is likable because he is kind to others. First, he releases the turtle he saved earlier and lets it wander away. Second, he greets an approaching man without suspicion and calls “Hey, Muley! How ya?” Tom and Muley engage in teasing banter as Tom asks (with concern) Muley about his family, and Muley catches Tom and Casy up on developments (e.g., the government taking away farmers’ lands and farmers migrating to California in search of work). Tom later takes charge of preparing a meal for all three men, skillfully skinning, cleaning, and cooking rabbit meat while Casy and Muley build a fire. Instead of complaining, Tom expresses how grateful he is:

“This here is a party,” he said. “Salt, Muley ’s got, an’ water an’ rabbits. I wish he got a pot of hominy in his pocket. That’s all I wish.”

While quietly cooking, Tom allows Muley to tell his long tragic tale before distributing the cooked rabbit meat to the men.

Steinbeck shows Tom emerging as a moral figure with Tom’s adherence to the division between right and wrong actions. Tom tells Muley and Casy about the episode when he killed a man in self-defense:

I felt that knife go in me, an’ that sobered me up. Fust thing I see is Herb cornin’ for me again with his knife. They was this here shovel leanin’ against the schoolhouse, so I grabbed it an’ smacked ’im over the head. I never had nothing against Herb. He was a nice fella. Come a-bullin’ after my sister Rosasham when he was a little fella. No, I liked Herb.

Nonetheless, Tom is honest and admits he would do the same thing again. He had nothing against Herb the man, just Herb’s actions. Instead of regretting what he did, Tom admits

But, hell, if I seen Herb Turnbull cornin’ for me with a knife right now, I’d squash him down with a shovel again.

If attacked randomly—“the thing that give me the mos’ trouble was, it didn make no sense”—Tom would still kill the aggressor.

Steinbeck ends the chapter showing Tom to be likable with his slightly softening personality. Tom invites Casy to join him with “You’re welcome … Ma always favored you, Said you was a preacher to trust.” He asks Muley if he wants to “walk on over with us?” Although Tom initially wants to stand up against authorities with flashing lights looking for drifters in the abandoned house, he eventually listens to Muley to back down and hide in order not to expose the other two men. Steinbeck provides a glimpse into Tom’s childhood with the cave where Muley sleeps:

“I dug her,” said Joad. “Me an’ my brother Noah dug her. Lookin’ for gold we says we was, but we was jus’ diggitf caves like kids always does.”

Steinbeck humanizes Tom with this memory and illustrates once again that Tom possesses self-awareness of his actions as a youth.

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