It’s Women’s Work: An Analysis of the role of women in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

By Emily D. Irvine: 5-17-12


Patriarchy assumes that the needs of men are central to the wellbeing of all, with women serving to meet male need and children born to ensure the system has a legacy. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck presents a far more complex familial hierarchy under a patriarchal system,  asserting that men are allowed to be in charge only when times are good, and Ma Joad increasingly takes control of the family as hardship increases. Women in Steinbeck’s novel are portrayed as adaptable in times of adversity, capable of temporarily changing their role in the family and leading it by example to accept rapid changes in circumstance, something the men find nearly impossible, often resorting to violence rather than change to fit the unchangeable conditions. Women are not necessarily empowered in this novel, nor does Ma Joad’s seizing of the family undo the patriarchy. The Joad family’s only goal is to reconstruct the family structure lost in their displacement, the dream of a house surrounded by orange trees and jobs for the men a hope for a return to normalcy, a return to the patriarchy that the dust destroyed. This is not a novel that analyzes or makes any claims for sexual equality, or that presents patriarchy as something that is right, just something that is. This is a culture of survival, where money means food and food only, the ability to survive another day and another day only, not thrive under the promise of continued prosperity. Men are only capable of leading and only permitted to lead when they have fulfilled their role as provider and protector. When they fail, women drive the family out of the path of the flood not because it is easy but because they must, because the men are no longer whole.

The Grapes of Wrath opens with a shift, a shift in climate, a shift in a lifestyle, and a shift in family structure. The dust that chokes the parched crops is observed by the men, the men are observed by the women, and the men and women are observed by the children, who must assess when they are allowed to run and shout, exhibiting a learned behavior that in their short lives, only rain, it has been determined, is a cause for celebration. The women study the men secretly, “for the corn could go, as long as something else remained” (3). In this first dismal chapter, women and children are passive observers to the responses of their men, the family structure intact and the way of life temporarily secure, women and children alike knowing “deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole” (4). This “wholeness,” the presence of “something else” in the absence of corn appears to be nothing more or less than dignity and security, and as both are lost with each passing chapter, the patriarchy weakens, men feel their failure, and women must lead until order is reestablished.

The introduction of Ma Joad establishes her as the family’s stronghold even before the long journey and fracture of the patriarchy begins. Her strength is evident in every line of prose surrounding her character and appearance, though she remains entirely nameless. Pa Joad is known to be Tom Joad Sr., but his wife is only Ma, and it is her role as a mother that defines her in this novel, for she fiercely defends the family as a whole by individually nurturing each of its parts, defending and hiding the son who breaks parole, serving as nurse and midwife to her pregnant daughter, herding Ruthie and Winfield, who are interchangeable aside from their gender, and devoting her most precious time to feeding all with the appearance of effortlessness in the task.

“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And  since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was in her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on” (74).

Ma Joad is the source of emotional assurance for the family where Pa is supposedly responsible for the economic security. How the family “feels” as a whole is entirely dependent upon the emotions Ma allows to surface in herself. Ma’s ability to hide inner anguish becomes essential throughout the novel, her emotional immovability responsible for the family’s crossing of the desert into California, calming Rose of Sharon throughout what is obviously going to be a tragic pregnancy, and the family’s will to evacuate the flood waters at the novel’s conclusion.

Ma officially strips power from Pa when she whips out a jack handle and refuses to allow the family to split on the road. She speaks the established language of men by threatening violence to make her point, asserting that should Pa try to use violence against her to bend her to his will, “I’ll knock you belly-up with a bucket. I swear to Holy Jesus’ sake I will” (169). This insubordination, expressly stated as a revolt, is the turning point of leadership in the Joad family’s journey. Ma realizes before everyone else that once the family splits it can never be made whole again, and she defends its unity with a jack handle. The family expects Pa to get angry, but  his “anger did not rise, and his hands hung limply at his sides. And in a moment the group knew Ma had won. And Ma knew it too” (169). Pa relinquishes control of the family without a fight believing the usurpation is a temporary measure, that he is soon guaranteed work and the means to reclaim security and structure for the family and thereby his place at he head of it. Anger is for now unnecessary, and Ma is the new power.

Anger becomes essential and sustaining when the promise of work and security fades away as quickly as windblown pamphlets. Ma completely controls the family’s emotion when she decides it is time for them to leave the dignity of the government camp and take their chances elsewhere. When Pa asserts that he has been “thinkin’” about what to do, Ma plainly says, “We’ll go in the mornin’,” ending Pa’s right to decide the matter. Pa acknowledges his defeat and the change in times when he responds, “Time was when a man said what we’d do. Seems like women is tellin’ now. Seems like it’s purty near time to get out a stick” (352). The exchange continues with Ma getting the last word, asserting essentially that men have a right to beat their women if they do their job and provide bacon for the little ones. She deliberately works Pa into a fury by making him feel inadequate, for “take a man. He can get worried an’ worried, an’ it eats out his liver, an’ purty soon he’ll just lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an’ make ‘im mad, why he’ll be awright” (352). Ma takes responsibility for the family while placing all responsibility on Pa. Man must work so woman can buy food and feed the family. If man fails to make money, woman fails to feed the others, she fails to bear strong children, and therefore fails in her duties because of the failure of the family’s head. If the woman can’t feed the children, then the man has no right to father them. He has failed, and he needs to know it. Ma does not present this logic to be cruel, but to save. Work is entirely out of everyone’s control and everyone at this point has become equally aware of it. But it is better to make the men believe that they have failed and can fix it rather than force them to acknowledge that their failure is beyond their control. Either way, man is equally unable to provide and therefore unable to hold his place as the head of the family. Ma leads by controlling emotion, forcing anger to replace despair because anger keeps the men whole.

When Pa finally succumbs to despair, stating “seems like our life’s over an’ done,” Ma ceases pushing him to anger and instead becomes a wise nurturer, once again modifying her role in the family to suit the emotional needs of the men. She states that, “man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an‘ loses his farm an’ thats a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on” (423). By comparing women to the earth and to the water in the last pages of the novel, Ma Joad has described her role in it, the unstoppable force that can also conform to that which contains it. She cuts her environment as much as she nourishes it, sustaining the family and driving it forward.

Ma Joad continuously shapes Rose of Sharon into the woman she needs to be to someday help her own family survive, proving that pregnancy in and of itself is not enough to make a girl into a woman. Ma spends moments alone with every member of the family, but her time with Rose of Sharon is a time of instruction. She nurtures her, but in a way that suggests the girl must soon find the strength to nurture others. Before crossing the desert, Ma Joad explains pain and grief to her daughter, the burdens of experience fast approaching to taint her youth.

“When you’re young, Rosasharn, ever’thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It’s a lonely thing… You’re gonna have a baby, Rosasharn, and that’s somepin to you lonely and away. That’s gonna hurt you, an’ the hurt’ll be lonely hurt, an’ this here tent is alone in the worl’, Rosasharn…. They’s a time of change, an’ when that comes, dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ in a piece of all bearin,’ and bearin and dyin is two pieces of the same thing. An then things ain’t lonely any more” (209-210).

Ma’s voice is said to be “so soft, so full of love, that tears crowded into Rose of Sharon’s eyes” (110), a description that gives no indication that Rose of Sharon understands what her mother is telling her, merely that she comprehends the love with with which it is told. Ma is preparing Rose of Sharon for the burdens that come with womanhood by assuring her that every woman has bore them, that there is no loneliness in the experiences themselves and no loneliness  in being the family’s citadel for it means being surrounded by family. Ma changes her tone with Rose of Sharon in the government camp, not allowing her to mope because she feels ill, telling her “They’s times when how you feel got to be kep’ to yourself” (303), the theme of women’s emotional control being taught to Rose of Sharon. Go vomit, everyone does it, but then clean yourself up and move on. There are no distressed damsels in this story for such behavior is never allowed to take root in young girl’s minds. Bearing children is not cause for self pity, and any illness is causes can’t be shown because the men need breakfast and need it cheerily and effortlessly without feeling as if their needs are a burden to the women.

Rose of Sharon spends the novel in Ma Joad’s shadow, an unproven woman in the process of bearing her first child and learning what womanhood means through the strength of her mother. The final chapter of the novel begins with the prospect of new life as Rose of Sharon begins labor. As the women assist in the birth, the men attempt to build a levee to keep back the rising river, unpaid work but work none the less, work to protect the women and children because work needs to be done. With the stillborn child, new life is unable to thrive and therefore one of woman’s prime purposes is a failure. But Rose of Sharon is allowed only one line of despair, “the girl lay back again, and covered her eyes with her arms,” (449) a sign of strength, an inherited strength to not allow the men to see women despair, proof that Rose of Sharon has learned what womanhood means in the culture she will live in. Ma tells Rose of Sharon she can “have more,” and that she will be alright. The loss of Rose of Sharon’s baby is a cause of open despair for the men, not the women, as it is Pa who sends the lifeless, shriveled body down the river, telling it to “go down an’ tell ‘em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ‘em that way,” (448) the failure to create life used as a desperate plea for dignity. The family stops, desperate to continue but unable to create a new generation to replace the generation lost at the beginning of the journey. Ma reaches under Rose of Sharon’s blankets and feels her swelling breasts, filled with new milk without a child to feed. Because she cannot nurture and sustain new life, Rose of Sharon feeds a starving middle aged man, fulfilling her duty as a woman by nurturing men even in the absence of children. The complete loss of dignity in the final pages of the novel are accompanied by a intense swell of humanity, Rose of Sharon gaining the courage of her mother, concealing her own inner grief, taking control of emotion so that life can continue. Life does not begin or end for the remaining characters; it only continues.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck presents a family, a family that represents thousands of families who struggled to survive in the darkest decade of the twentieth century. This is not a novel that seeks to unravel the familial structure of the dust bowl migrants but to present them as they were, people with a history and a way of life they sought to relocate, not reinvent. The reinvention of the family structure that occurs in the novel happens out of a desperate attempt to preserve, the hope that displacement is only temporary and the familiar aspects of life will someday resume. Ma Joad exemplifies womanhood under a male-centric structure, the force that remains silent in times of prosperity but is unleashed in adversity, guiding and shaping men to fulfill the expectations that have been created for them through generations of unquestioned patriarchy.