The Value Of Women In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, follows the story of the Joad family’s migration towards California in search of work. As their journey continues, the power dynamic of the family changes significantly as people are accepted into the family and others choose leave. Two of the characters who are the most empowered by the shifting dynamic are women, thus introducing a fairly uncommon concept: strong, capable women. This contradicted the limits that were commonly set on women in this time period, such as their abilities to work and to have valuable individual thought. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck rejects this oppression of women, emphasizing their value in society.

The family expects Ma and the other women to carry out the domestic responsibilities of the family. The women, especially Ma, are most notably responsible for the cooking and serving of meals. This was a common expectation of women during this time period, along with other household duties, while men tended to work primarily outside of the home and earn an income for the family. Although Ma is not earning a salary, Steinbeck emphasizes that the work she does is important nonetheless, writing that Ma “seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken”. This implies that Ma, although she is not the most dominant leader of the family, is still a necessary support to the family, and that she is well aware of the importance of her position. Even with an understanding of her importance, Ma still defers to her male family members, whether it be in making a decision or simply responding to others. “Ma looked to Tom to speak, because he was a man”, and this action shows the reader that Ma is aware of both her importance to the family and her supposed inferiority to the men around her.

However, it is not only Ma who is affected by this unfair treatment. There are many moments in which other female characters can be seen succumbing to their male authorities. Another female character frequently seen under such conditions is Rose of Sharon. As she is a young woman in love, she is not quite as wise as Ma, nor does she have such an established role in the family. She is, however, pregnant. When the family first leaves on their journey, they all must load into the one vehicle they possess. Being pregnant, the cramped quarters are less than ideal for her. Although sitting in the front seat would have been more ideal for her condition, the front seat is reserved for the leaders of the family, who also happen to be the men. “Uncle John would have preferred not to sit in the honor place beside the driver. He would have liked Rose of Sharon to sit there. This was impossible, because she was young and a woman”. Even though she is pregnant and needed the comfort and space far more than Uncle John, because she is a woman, she is not entitled to the seat, nor the authoritative power it represents.

This power dynamic has not gone unnoticed by critics. Critic Warren Motley describes the traditional patriarchal structure, particularly reflecting on how women were not treated as equals when it came to decision making. He notes, “women have a voice in the deliberations, but final responsibility for choosing a course of action lies with the older men”, thus demonstrating once again the unjust treatment of women in the time, especially the disregard for their individual thoughts and opinions. In addition to Motley, critic Jenn Williamson also weighed in on the patriarchal structure of the Joad family in the beginning of the book, saying that “the men experience having their needs taken care of without participating in the work behind the caretaking”. This takes the division a step further, showing that women are not only left out of the decision making process, but they are left to another sphere entirely, one which renders them responsible for the wellbeing of the family without truly having a say in its management. The women are left to the domestic chores while the men handle the work that they deem more important.

Ma Joad especially has been affected by this patriarchal order, however, she has not succumbed to it, nor has it broken her. Although Ma is fairly complaisant towards the beginning of the book, she does eventually gather up the courage to confront her husband. When one of the group’s two vehicles breaks down, they are forced to make a choice: either split up so that they can keep moving, or stay together and wait until the car can be fixed. As the tide turns towards splitting up, Ma firmly takes her stand, opposing anyone in the group who says otherwise. This rebellion shows Ma’s resentment toward those who deny her an opinion, as well as her willingness to defend her own freedoms.

Ma stepped in front of him. 'I ain't a-gonna go. '

'What you mean, you ain't gonna go? You got to go. You got to look after the family. ' Pa was amazed at the revolt. Ma … reached in on the floor of the back seat. She brought out a jack handle and balanced it in her hand easily. 'I ain't a-gonna go,' she said.

'I tell you, you got to go. We made up our mind. '

And now Ma's mouth set hard. She said softly, 'On'y way you gonna get me to go is whup me. ' She moved the jack handle gently again. 'An' I'll shame you, Pa. I won't take no whuppin', cryin' an' a-beggin'. I'll light into you. … I'll wait an' I'll wait, an' jus' the minute you take sleep in your eyes, I'll slap ya with a stick a stove wood. '

… Pa's anger did not rise, and his hands hung limply at his sides. And in a moment the group knew that Ma had won. And Ma knew it too.

When Ma “stepped in front of” Pa, she is physically asserting herself as a force to be reckoned with. She is preventing Pa from carrying out the group’s plan not only by arguing with him, but by physically blocking his path. Pa argues against her, stating that she has to “look after the family,” a common expectation of women of that time period, but she still doesn’t budge. Seeing that Pa isn’t stepping down, Ma grabs a jack handle from the back seat, preparing to defend herself. She is described as holding the weapon easily, which just further illustrates her confidence and persistence in what she is fighting for. It is likely that Ma has never had to hold such a tool, let alone use it as a weapon, so the description of it balancing easily in her hand shows readers her lack of fear and instability while facing the authority that she had been subjected to. Even after Ma has acquired a weapon, Pa still insists that she has no say, telling her that they have already “made up their mind. ” In response to Pa’s attempt at quieting her, “Ma’s mouth set hard. ” Her firm expression portrays the unwavering support she has for her own belief, as well as her stubborn refusal of the plan laid out by the men of the group.

Ma continues to push even further. Rather than simply denying Pa’s wishes, she essentially dares him to try to make her do anything other than what she has her mind set on. Ma tells Pa that the only way she will be going with them is if Pa were to whup her. Ma takes the ultimate stance in this moment by showing that she is willing to suffer in order to have her way. She is challenging Pa, essentially daring him to beat her, because she doesn’t believe that he will, and she is willing to accept the consequences if he does. As she stands her ground, she gently moves the jack handle again, showing her confidence and ease in her revolt while simultaneously reminding Pa that there will be repercussions for him, as well. As if this reminder wasn’t enough, she goes on to threaten Pa. This is a huge step in the development of her strength and dominance over Pa, as the roles have been somewhat reversed. She is no longer afraid of him, but rather showing that he is the one who should be afraid.

She even goes so far as to explain the extent to which she is willing to go, saying “I'll wait an' I'll wait. ” The patience she is willing to demonstrate only goes to further illustrate her strong belief and fearlessness in her contradiction. Pa’s hands hung limply, showing that he had not made any attempt to move them, nor fight back in any way. He has shifted from being a dominant figure to a submissive one, Ma claiming his position as the new leader. The moment that Ma won is incredibly important in her development. She not only won the argument, but also a new title. After this argument, Ma has asserted her dominance in the family, and takes on new responsibilities and expectations accordingly. She breaks with the societal expectations of her, and chooses instead to act for the benefit of the group, demonstrating Steinbeck’s belief in a woman’s ability to fight back against those who try to control her.

This moment was not only groundbreaking for Ma’s character, as she finally was able to voice her opinion and have it heard, but it also greatly affects the course of the entire book. Through standing against Pa and the rest of the men who had made that decision, Ma has established herself as a dominant power that is worthy of leadership. As stated by critic Tamara Rombold, “from this point on, Ma directs the family”. The structure of the Joad family instantly begins to shift “from a patriarchal structure to a predominantly matriarchal one” in which Ma is the leader, the binding force.

Following in Ma’s footsteps is her daughter, Rose of Sharon. She may not take as obvious a stand as Ma, but Rose of Sharon’s character “is portrayed as the inheritor of Ma Joad’s matriarchal wisdom and power”. As explained by critic Rachel McCoppin, Rose of Sharon matures gradually as a result of the terrible tragedies that are brought upon her, rather than taking a climactic stand against her authorities, as Ma did. This gradual evolution is another way in which Steinbeck demonstrates the capabilities of women. Through showing the effects of the journey in both male and female characters, Steinbeck recognizes that women are just as much formed by their circumstances as men, and thus are equally capable of achieving success.

As the women overcome their oppressors, they gain power, confidence, and respect. These traits allow them to make a more significant impact on not only their family, but their community as well. Once Ma has earned the leadership position in her family, she is in control of the family’s course of action. She determines the plan and does what she deems best for the family.

One good example of Ma exercising her new powers is when she makes the decision that the family must leave the government camp. Even though they are supplied with water and working toilets, as well as a supportive community, they still cannot find work, and thus cannot afford food. “‘First thing is, we got to eat. ’ … ‘I ain't watchin' this here fambly starve no more’”. Ma takes charge of the situation, forcing the men of the family, who have been searching for work, to recognize the fact that they have been unsuccessful and the family is sinking. “Ma, as a woman, adapted readily to changing situations, accepting life as a ‘flow’”, and this ability and alternate perspective allows her to realize the problems that the family is riddled with. Confronting the men, Ma says, “we been here one month. An' Tom had five days' work. An' the rest of you scrabblin' out ever' day, an' no work. An' scairt to talk. An' the money gone. You're scairt to talk it out. Ever' night you jes' eat, then you get wanderin' away. Can't bear to talk it out. Well, you got to”. The men have been returning unsuccessful and avoiding the problem, watching their money dwindle and their food growing increasingly scarce. Ma draws the issue out into the open, forcing the family to accept its failure and move on.

As Ma moves into the spotlight, she becomes a more dominant figure. This growth is also reflected in her daughter, Rose of Sharon. The novel’s concluding scene is a perfect example of Rose of Sharon’s growth. Just after her baby is stillborn, the family needs to find higher ground and safety from the flood. They find a barn, inside of which is a boy and his dying father. Ma immediately understands what must be done in order to save the man’s life. The two women make brief eye contact and the reader is shown that Rose also knows what must be done. By breastfeeding the old man and attempting to save his life, Rose of Sharon offers something that no other character can. Having just given birth, she possesses the ability to save the man’s life, a skill unique to her womanhood that no other character can offer.

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. … Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. … Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

By describing her body as tired and saying she moved slowly, Steinbeck illustrates her exhaustive state, as well as the fact that she continues in spite of her weakness. The man is described as frightened, and she is aware of this. She knows that he is opposed, but she also knows that it is vital to his survival, as expressed by her only line of dialogue in the scene: “You got to. ” Rose of Sharon proceeds to “pull his head close,” compelling the man to do what must be done and stop avoiding the situation.

Not only does Rose of Sharon save the man’s life by breastfeeding him, but she does it in a nurturing fashion, allowing the man to feel safe and relatively calm, even in the dire situation. “Her hand moved behind his head and supported it,” taking some of the strain off of the old man and onto herself, in spite of her own personal exhaustion and instability. She also began to gently massage behind his head, a motherly action that is likely also intended to give the man a sense of security and shelter. In the midst of all the tragedy she is going through, she smiled. Saving the man gives her a feeling of happiness. She knows that she is capable of saving him, and “out of her own need she gives him life”. Only Rose of Sharon posses this strength, making her valuable to the family and other characters in a unique way.

Both Ma and Rose of Sharon provide something new to the family, whether it be specific to their character as an individual, or as a woman. These specialized capabilities allow them not only to perceive the world differently than the men in the novel, but also to act where the men cannot. Steinbeck illustrates the importance of women and their value to society by showing potential, growth, and ultimately power and leadership in the two main female characters. Steinbeck strays from conventional descriptions of women in this aspect, demonstrating his belief in the potential of women to break out of their assumed roles and push for equality.

10 October 2020
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