Ma Joad in the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


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Ma Joad in the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
In the 1930s, America’s Great Plains experienced a disastrous drought causing thousands of people to migrate west. As their land was devastated by the Dust Bowl, deprived farmers were left with few options but to leave. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the journey of the Joads, an Oklahoma based family which decides to move to California in search of better conditions. Coming together as thirteen people at the start, the Joads will undertake what represents both a challenge and their only hope. Among them are only four women embodying every ages: the Grandma, the Mother and her two daughters, the pregnant Rose of Sharon and the young Ruthie. Appearing in Chapter Eight the mother, who is referred to as “Ma”, holds a decisive role in Steinbeck’s novel. She is, along with her son Tom (the main character of the book), present from the early stage of the story until its very end. We will attempt to trace back her emotional journey (I) as well as to analyze its universal aspects and to deliver an overall impression on the book (II).
Steinbeck describes Ma as a strong woman, physically “heavy, thick with childbearing and work” (Chap.8). From the moment the author introduces her to the reader, she displays two qualities that remain throughout the book: generosity and self-control. Her first word aims to welcome stranger at the family table (“Let’em come”).

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Her face is “controlled” and even as she sees her son back her first reaction is rather calm: she worries about him breaking out of jail and his possible madness. She will consistently adopt a similar attitude during the family’s journey. Her main concern lies in the unity of the group. For instance; she speaks up against her husband when he suggested leaving Tom behind with the Wilsons and their broken car. From that point her authority has continuously grown over the family. Despite her first son’s departure and the grandparents’ deaths, Ma finds the strength to focus on the primary goal of getting to California. In Chapter 18, she is the prominent actor of the family’s entrance in the State of California: she faces the police twice and hides Grandma’s death to the family so that they could proceed further into California. At this stage she stands out to the eyes of the reader as well as to the other family members who show signs of surprise. From her family standpoint, one could understand that she carries rather successfully the heavy weight of their misfortunes. In doing so, she is all alone for her husband is not taking similarly audacious initiatives. From the reader’s standpoint, Ma acquires a moral superiority: she keeps on sharing food generously despite their deprived situation (Chap.20) and adopts a moderate stand at Connie’s departure. Yet Ma is not fail-safe and she knows an emotional pick at the time they settle in the government camp (Chap.22). As moving has prevented her from thinking back about her losses, Weedpatch’s improved conditions allow her to look back and figure her profound sadness. This has the effect of liberating her from traditional power balance within couple: she has no more hesitation to take the lead and face her husband whom she openly critics for not being able to feed the family (start of Chap. 26). Until the end, Ma opposes the family separation as Tom has to run away for murder. Only when Ruthie’s mistake makes the separation inevitable, does she resign to let him go without crying. Ma eventually does not manage to keep her family united. The end of the novel presents yet an unchanged generosity and leadership as she suggests Rose of Sharon to breastfeed a dying stranger.

Ma Joad represents the matriarch, a figure of power in the household. Although she does not detain the authority that rests with the father in the early stage, she shapes key decisions for the family. She bears the characteristics of universal motherhood: Ma is protective as most mothers are. She plays the role of a healer for the group and provides shelter for her children. She refuses to see her sons leave and they would have to hide from her to do so (as did Noah: “You tell Ma”). Nevertheless does she have a favorite son in Tom (“Ain’t he a fine boy!”), which I would reckon is a universal aspect of motherhood. Ma’s portrait validates various clichés on marital relationships: she takes care of the household while she expects her husband to make a living. Out of resources, these ‘classic’ rules do not apply and the parents find themselves equal in dealing with the problems. Akin the rest of the family, Ma is a very proud character who does not like to be told what to do to such extent that she sometimes appears stubborn: “I won’t take no whuppin’, cryin’ an’ a-beggin’” (Chap.16).
The book does wonders in revealing the authenticity of the Joads and their encounters. The alternation of long and short chapters provides the narration with rhythm. Although each of the characters carries its share of wrongdoing, from murder to mere selfishness, I find them attractive. They display a great deal of generosity and honesty. Perhaps the most appealing aspects is their conduct towards strangers: whether they barely know someone (in the case of Jim Casy), or they do not know someone at all (in the case of the Wilsons), the Joad will offer their help or else tell them straight their thoughts (e.g. “Ya full a crap!” to the one-eyed man). I particularly enjoyed reading the numerous dialogs in Steinbeck’s most direct style: “Seems like his language gets worse ever’ year. Showing off I guess!” (Ma, Chap.8). They provide the reader with an excellent mixture of serious content and hilarious expressions. Former preacher Jim Casy would best represent that balance as he addresses sacred issues such as faith in the most entertaining ways: his expression is often exaggerated but sometimes sensible. The utopia he speaks up for of a world where community prevails is well orchestrated. The Grapes of Wrath undeniably deserves its Nobel Prize.


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