The Metamorphosis of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Length: 2551 words (7.3 double-spaced pages)
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Tom Joad from Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is a prime example of a person whose morals and spiritual growth cannot be restricted by the law or any other limiting factor for long. Throughout the novel he develops from a man only interested in his own independent personal desires and needs to one who is devoted to his family and sacrifices his own personal comfort for the benefit of the family. At the novel's end Tom is continuing Jim Casy's generous work of uniting the poor hand laborers against the rich oppressive landowners who are starving the poor with low wages. Tom's concept of family grows with his work uniting the poor to encompass all of humanity.
Maslow's Humanistic psychological "Hierarchy of Human Needs" can be used to track Tom's personal development. Humanists believe that humans are constantly striving to be the best person that their present conditions allow them to be. The Hierarchy of Needs lists the needs that humans need to satisfy to reach the next level of development. One cannot move to a higher level of development without first satisfying the more basic levels. The first level includes the physiological needs: food water, and sleep. The next level is safety and security, then love and belonging. Next of the list is a healthy self-esteem and finally self-actualization. One who is self actualized has efficient perceptions of reality, autonomy, fellowship with hum ity, strong and loving interpersonal relationships, and is task centered.
At the beginning of the novel Tom has just been paroled from prison serving time for killing a man in a fight. Tom feels he was merely defending himself. He feels no guilt or shame about killing the man and would do it again under the same conditions. Tom's morals allowed him to justify the killing. These morals were instilled in him by his family especially from the strength and love of his mother. Tom is looking forward to "laying one foot down in front of another." At this point in he story Tom has his physiological needs met and is going home to his family to meet his needs of safety and security love belonging.
In chapter 6 Tom finds his house abandoned and meets Muley, an old neighbor that stayed behind after his family moved to California for work.
Tom's morals insist that he be a straight forward person that will face problems head on instead of hiding from them. This is shown when he, along with Muley and Casy are forced to hide from a deputy searching for trespassers. Tom despises having to hide from the deputy on his father's land. In this same chapter Muley shows them to a cave where the can sleep for the night. Tom refuses to sleep in the concealed cave, preferring to be out in the open. The cave symbolically represents change as a Freudian womb image. The cave is the womb of rebirth or developmental change in Tom's character. At this stage of the story Tom is not ready for the change that he will later undertake. Tom is forced to hide from the deputy that is looking for trespassers because if here were to be arrested he could have his parole privileges revoked. Tom realizes that he cannot act as a totally free person. With the threat of losing parole privileges, Tom must make his morals even more strict and resist the urge to lash out at oppressors like the abusive deputies and hostile California land owners.
In chapter 8 Tom is reunited with his family who are on the verge of migrating west to California to find work. Ma Joad takes Tom aside and asks him if he's mad. Ma knew a man, Purty Boy Floyd, that went to prison and became "mean mad" because of it. Ma expresses the importance that he not be mad because she needs his strength to keep the family together. Tom assures her that he is alright. He tells her that he kept his sanity by taking one day at a time. This seems to be his philosophy from the beginning of the novel when he says he is "just going to lay one dog down in front of the other." Later Tom's character will develop into more complex philosophies.
Ma is the strength and binding force of the family in the novel but at times she goes to Tom to nurture her strength. In chapter 10 Ma explains to Tom that she has doubts about the conditions in California and the dubious handbills that promise high wages. She does not have the faith that she used to have. Tom inspires her by reiterating that the only way he was able to survive the years in prison was to live from day to day and not think about the future. This brings back Ma's confidence a strength to lead the family on. The rest of the novel is just about the family doing what it can to survive from day to day. They do not know what tomorrow will hold for them.
Tom's strong mind can be emphasized by comparing him to his sister, Rose of Sharon. Rose of Sharon is due to have a child soon and is always worried that events around her will effect the outcome of her child. In chapter 13 the family is on the road west when at a stop their dog is run over and killed. Rose of Sharon is frightened that seeing it will have a negative effect on the baby. She has a weak mind and lacks the understanding or the strength that the family has when it acts as a cohesive unit that Tom and Ma Joad have.
In the same chapter the Joads meet the Wilsons, a family that has suffered the same under the land owners. The Wilson's car is broken down. As Tom's level of development grows, he realizes that the only people that will help those in need are those that are in the same situation. He offers to help fix the broken car. The Wilsons and Joads temporarily become one family acting as an efficient cohesive group. Tom has increased the level of love and belonging by welcoming the Wilsons as new members to the group. At the same time the Humanistic levels of security and physiological needs are strengthened. Tom knows that there is safety in numbers and with more people traveling together they can pool their resources and become even more effective as a family.
Tom's sense of the family acting as an efficient group is again shown when the Wilson's car throws a con-rod bearing in chapter 16. The repairs will take a substantial amount of time. Tom suggests that the rest of the family keep on moving in the functioning car because the sooner they get to California the sooner they will be earning money. He says that he will stay behind with Casy to fix the car. Ma disagrees and argues that breaking up the family is the wrong thing to do. They come to compromise and agree to take the family up the road to find a place to spend the night while Tom and Casy repair the car. Ma emphasizes keeping the family together while Tom thinks of making the most efficient migration to California as possible. Tog her Ma and Tom make a good team as leaders of the family by coming to compromises between the two issues of speed and keeping together. This cohesion with Ma increases Tom's level of self-esteem.
The family finds a place to stay for fifty cents a night per car. The proprietor of the camp insists that even though they are one family, they have to pay fifty cents per car or else the deputy will arrest them for being vagrants. Tom becomes enraged at the man's rudeness. The proprietor violated Tom's morals. Tom wants to deal with him as he would any other: give the man what he deserves and do it up front and straight forward. Tom becomes argumentative but Pa makes him stop because if e deputy is called and he is arrested he will be in even more trouble for violating his parole. Tom realizes this and says that he will take the extra car down the road for the night. The restraint that Tom must use takes away from his level of needs. He must now worry about his level of security and safety.
Casy begins to influence Tom in this chapter when he tells Tom that he has noticed the atmosphere changing. More and more families are traveling west. Casy is trying to think of what the future holds for them. Tom is introduced to the concept of expanding the meaning of family to include all humanity but still insists that he is "still layin' my dogs down one at a time."
In chapter 20 a man explains to Tom that the land owners print up thousands of handbills to fill positions for a few hundred. When hordes of destitute workers come they offer the jobs for extremely low wages. Tom has digested what Casy was saying about thinking of the future and the wider concept of family. Tom asks why the desperate workers did not bind together and organize a strike. The man explains that as soon as someone even talks of organizing he is arrested for stirring trouble. The man tells Tom that if he runs into a deputy to act "bull simple" because that is how the migrants are thought to act. Hearing this strips away Tom's levels of self esteem and belonging.
Casy talks to Tom about being disturbed by the situation with all of the destitute people are trapped in. He tells Tom that these people should have a more descent life and wonders how he can make things better for them. Tom listens and thinks the same as Casy but is unsure on how to make a difference. At the camp, a contractor and deputy unjustly try to arrest a man for insisting on a contract stating the wage. Tom sees this and is enraged that the deputy is wrongly prosecuting a man that is just doing what he sees as right much like Tom was when he killed the man in self defense. Tom defends the man and a scuffle ensues. Tom renders the deputy unconscious as the contractor runs for help. Casy tells Tom to go hide outside the camp because of the parole violation hanging over him. Casy takes the blame for Tom sacrificing himself much like Christ did for sinners. Tom talks to Ma and tells her that he is becoming "mean mad." The deputies and land owners are eating away at the migrants decency and turning them into animals. Ma insists that Tom has to keep in control because the family is on the verge of breaking up and needs his strength.
As the family leaves the camp they are confronted by an angry mob and forced to turn back because they do not want any migrants in their town. Tom is forced to act "bull simple" like he was advised to do. More and more of Tom's Hierarchy of Needs are being stripped away by the Californians.
The Joads find a government camp where the tenants make their own laws and deputies are not allowed without a warrant. In this camp a mentally ill religious fanatic scares Rose of Sharon by telling her how sinful people are punished by God with still-born children. Rose of Sharon is genuinely frightened by a false threat while Tom clings to his strength in the face of losing his freedom because of the inhumane way the deputies and land owners are treating him.
While in the government camp Tom is given time to recover his sanity somewhat because he does not have to deal with the constant badgering by the deputies. Tom is near the peak of his development because the camp offers security, belonging, a boost to his self esteem, and even a little work to earn money. Tom goes for a walk at night and finds a tent near a stream. Inside is Casy. Casy tells Tom that he is organizing a strike against the land owners that are paying sub-standard wages. Casy has found a method to make the situation better for everybody and urges Tom to join him. Some deputies find their strike camp and his Casy on the head killing him. Tom loses control when he sees his innocent friend killed and lashes out against the deputy letting out his repressed meanness killing him turn. This event is similar to the first time Tom killed a man because the person killed violated Tom's morals. Tom is hit in the face deforming his nose and escapes back to camp.
Tom's view of life is broadened by Casy. In the beginning he was only concerned with his own pleasure. Then he was involved with keeping his family together. At his point Tom is becoming enlightened to the idea of humanity as a whole. The family is forced to break camp because of Tom's actions. He hides in a pocket made of a folded mattress, almost like a cave. This is an example of a Freudian womb image where Tom is hiding in a shelter like his mother's womb and is readying for rebirth or change. The change is his severance from his biological family only to adopt a new family, humanity.
In chapter 28 Tom is forced to hide in a cave, another Freudian womb image, while the family finds work picking cotton. As Tom hides in the cave he thinks about Casy's talks. Tom tells Ma that he plans to continue and hopefully finish the work that Casy started. Tom wants to organize a strike to bring about fair wages. Tom explains to Ma that he must separate from the family because he would endanger them with the deputies after him.
After Casy's death Tom is at his closest point to being self actualized. He plans to spread the concept of everybody being a small piece of a bigger family. Tom has an efficient perception of reality. He is able to judge situations correctly and honestly. He is task centered in that he has found a mission to fulfill outside of himself. He has autonomy because he is free from dependence on external authority outside of his family. most importantly Tom has a fellowship with humanity. He finds deep identification with others and the human situation in general. Tom leaves the novel by giving Ma one last piece of advice. He tells her to take each day as it comes. Ma goes back to camp with Tom's wisdom and tells the rest of the family that all they can do is "jus' live the day."
Tom Joad developed from the beginning of the novel as a simplistic man only concerned in his own pleasure after enduring years of prison to one devoted to the well being of his family. Lastly, Tom becomes Casy's disciple in uniting the poor workers against the abusive landowners. Tom realizes that the concept of family includes all of humanity and that he must unite humanity into one family.