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The Changing Concept Of Family In The Grapes Of Wrath Essay, Research Paper

The Changing Concept of Family in The Grapes of Wrath

Throughout the book, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the physical transition of the Joad family from a small close-knit group of people living a quiet life on a farm in Oklahoma, corresponds with the internal transition of the concept of family. As the Joads leave their farm and journey westward, they no longer live just within their own isolated unit. Becoming involved with other families as they migrate, changes their focus and by the end of the book, the family members each reach out in their own way to embrace all of mankind as a family.

Initially, the Joad’s focus is on their own immediate family and their struggle to stay together. The individual family members appear to have specific roles. Mr. Joad, as was typical of the time and area, is the decision maker and the head of the family. Mrs. Joad, the emotional leader of the family, is the real strength and she recognizes her position. “She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.” (Pg. 80)

One of the first incidences of the family expanding along the journey is when grandpa dies. The Wilsons, another migrant family, loan their tent for Grandpa to rest and as Ma prepares Grandpa for burial, Mrs. Wilson cooks the family diner. More important, Grandpa’s death is recorded on a page from Mrs. Wilson’s Bible. An even more significant event occurs when the Joads are having a family meeting and Pa calls the Wilsons over to hear their thoughts. When it comes time to continue the journey, the decision is made that the two families will travel as one. Ma agrees, “‘Each’ll help each, an’ we’ll all git to California. Sary Wilson he’ped lay grampa out,’ and she stopped. The relationship was plain.”(Pg.162)

The changing concept of family is most evident at the camps, especially at the government camp. The entire camp was like a family because they set their own rules and ran the camp as they saw fit. Those having a hard time were helped as a matter of course not charity. When it appeared trouble was coming, they all worked together as a unit to defend the camp.

As the book progresses, the changes within the family are characterized differently in each character. Mrs. Joad’s primary concern is keeping the family unit together as they begin their journey. Soon, however, members of the family begin to leave. Noah cannot handle the changes and goes off on his own while Grandpa and Grandma leave through death. Connie abandons his wife and does not return. Al becomes engaged and goes with his fianc?e’s family. Even Young Tom leaves after he has accidentally killed another man and has to go into hiding. Mrs. Joad deals with each of these losses and appears to be stronger as the story continues, even making the decision for Tom to leave as it becomes necessary.

At the onset of the book, Young Tom has just been released from prison and is interested in making up for lost time and enjoying himself. He is a strong family support during the journey but is among the first to begin reaching out to a larger family. At the end he has focused on the plight and abuse of all the homeless farmers and recognizes that they must unite together as one in order to survive and be treated with respect. Tom’s family now becomes all the homeless who are being taken advantage of and have been left to starve and suffer. He realizes that man is no good alone and every man’s soul is just a piece of a bigger one. “Well, maybe like Casey says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one…”(Pg.463)

Rose of Sharon is totally focused on herself from the beginning. She is in love with her husband and excited about her pregnancy and sees that as her own little world. Her mother throughout much of the book shelters her but after her baby is born dead, she recognizes the needs of a starving old man and breast feeds him to keep him alive. This seems to be the final step in the incorporation of the family from a single unit to a broader concept of the whole family of man.

Though the immediate family becomes smaller, the Joads become part of a larger family as they unite together with other migrating families to endure the struggles and cruelties of the trip. In all ways they interact as a family. The Joads and the other families help protect each other, feed each other when the food is limited, and care for each other providing support during times of loss and death and also sharing in times of joy such as the birth of a new child. The Joad family endured several tragedies resulting in losses to their family group but ended up far greater in number than when they began.


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