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The novel is set during the Great Depression, a time when the average unemployment rate was 25%. Most Americans were pinching pennies and giving up everything just to keep their families afloat. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joads, a poor family from Oklahoma, as they travel to California in search of work and a better life. John H. Timmerman, in his book John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken, says that “Ma Joad is the lodestar that evinces calm and grants direction.
” In other words, Ma is the center of the family. She is the person that is able to keep the family together and keep them motivated. Throughout the novel, Ma transitions from a motherly role to one of leadership and control. At the beginning of the novel Ma just has a typical motherly role. She helps Granpa get dressed, makes breakfast, and does laundry. The men of the house, such as Pa, Uncle John, and Tom, were the ones who made all the decisions for the family.
For example, when Casy asked if he could travel to California with the Joads, “Ma looked to Tom to speak, because he was a man, but Tom did not speak” (93-94). As a woman, Ma had little to no control about major decisions. However, Ma was still the person that the family looked to for support. When Tom saw Ma for the first time after getting out of prison he said, “Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding.
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken” (74).
During the journey to California, Ma wants nothing more than to keep the family together. She knows that if the family doesn’t stay together, then none of them will make it to California. Ma even goes as far as hiding the fact that Granma died. Ma didn’t want the family to stop in the desert because if they had, then they most likely wouldn’t have made it across. Also, Ma proves the loyalty she has to her family when Rose of Sharon mentions the plans that she and Connie have for when they get to California. Ma says to them, “We don’want you to go ‘way from us,” she said. “It ain’t good for folks to break up’” (165). Family is the most important thing to Ma. She proves it through not only her actions, but also her words. Ma starts to grow more confident in herself and more likely to speak out. Pa can no longer claim control of the family because he is no longer able to provide for the family. Ma realized this and begins to voice her opinions more and more.
For instance, when Pa tried to leave Casy and Tom behind to fix the car, Ma threw a fit and threatened Pa with a jack handle. “She brought out a jack handle and balanced it in her hand easily. ‘I ain’t a-gonna go,”” she said (168). This was one of the first times in which Ma proved to have control over Pa. The entire family was shocked by this blunt rejection of what Pa said. “The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power. She had taken control (169).” As the Joad’s journey come to an end, Ma is basically the man of the house. She stands up to Pa and puts him in his place by making him realize that he has no job and no money, which means he has no right to have control. “Ma put the clean dripping tin dish out on a box. She smiled down at her work. “You get your stick, Pa,’ she said. “Times when they’s food an’a place to set, then maybe you can use your stick an’ keep your skin whole. But you ain’t a-doin’ your job, either a-thinkin’ or a-workin’.
If you was, why, you could use your stick, an’ women folks’d sniffle their nose an’ creep-mouse aroun’. But you jus’ get you a stick now an’ you ain’t lickin’ no woman; you’re a-fightin’, ’cause I got a stick all laid out too'” (352). Pa knows that he has no right to lead the family anymore, so he gives in to Ma. “Woman takin’ over the fambly. Woman sayin’ we’ll do this here, an’ we’ll go there. An’ I don’ even care.’ ‘Women can change better’n a man,’ Ma said soothingly” (423). Ma is a very important character in the novel. She is the strongest member of the Joad family and strives to keep the family together. Without Ma, the family probably never would have made it across the desert after the passing of Granma. Ma is an emotional crutch for family members and friends alike. She keeps the family from having emotional breakdowns and keeps them moving on their journey to California. “All we got is the family unbroken” (169). Those words were said by Ma. She wanted nothing more than for her family to make it to California together.
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