Analyzing the Dynamic Role of Women in Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath"

Essay by desichic7589College, Undergraduate March 2006

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Living in a time period characterized by male dominance, Ma Joad defies the domestic role of a housewife as she takes command of her family in the face of unsurmountable odds. Although Steinbeck originally describes the Joads as a patriarchal family, he shifts the power into Ma's hands as she assumes the ultimate responsibility of making decisions. While Pa "breaks" (Steinbeck 6) under the deplorable living conditions, Ma remains strong for the sake of her family. In fact, she sacrifices her mental well-being by sleeping next to Granma's corpse, simply to ensure the family can cross the Californian border. Marvelled by her strength, the family receives courage to continue their journey despite the setbacks.

Presenting a progressive change in Ma's demeanor, Steinbeck portrays Ma as increasingly bold and authoritative. When Tom suggests the family continue driving, while he and Casy repair the car, Ma releases her frustration. Taking a jack handle in hand, she scolds, "You done this 'thout thinkin' much.

What we got lef 'in the world'? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks" (230). With this act of forceful leadership, Ma Joad becomes "the power" (231). Additionally, Ma demonstrates her authority when she makes a decision without consulting the family. Hearing news of a job in northern California, she responds,"'We're a-goin...I don' care what the pay is. We're a-goin'" (479). Pa appears apprehensive of this takeover when he complains,"'Seems like times is changed. Time was when a man said what we'd do. Seems like women is tellin' now'" (Steinbeck 481).

While the entire novel discusses the elevating role of women in society, the final paragraph serves as its basis. Both Ma and Rose of Sharon experience the loss of a child, which explains their maternal love toward mankind. By beastfeeding the starving man in the barn,