The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
Nothing But The Facts, Ma'am
We'll give you the rundown on Tom Joad. He drinks whiskey on occasion, he used to pull girls' pigtails when he was little, and he likes girls and dances a lot. He's also Ma Joad's favorite child (but don't tell the other five kids), and he doesn't like it when people swerve to hit animals on the road; he says, "Gives me a little shakes ever' time" (16.279).
Oh yeah: and he killed a man with a shovel at a dance after the man stabbed him with a knife. No biggie, right?
These are the cold, hard facts about Tom, and from them, we might come to fear him just a wee bit. But we also might detect that Tom Joad is kind of a softie.
Tom Is Many-Layered, Like an Onion
We've already established that Tom Joad is not the kind of guy we'd want to mess with. And yet, if we were met with desperate circumstances and had to make an epic road trip across America in a broken-down, used car with all of our earthly possessions in tow, we'd absolutely want Tom Joad on our team.
There's no doubt that Tom doesn't take any BS. When a truck driver shows Tom a sticker that says "no hitchhikers allowed," Tom replies,
"Sure—I seen it. But sometimes a guy'll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker." (2.3)
Ooh. We're stealing that line for our own devices.
Basically, Tom is always always able to zero in on the heart of the matter. He reinforces that old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover." He tells the truck driver early in the novel:
"You got me wrong, mister… I ain't keepin' quiet about it. Sure I been in McAlester. Been there four years. Sure these is the clothes they give me when I come out. I don't give a damn who knows it. An' I'm goin' to my old man's place so I don't have to lie to get a job." (2.56).
Tom's got nothing to hide. He's honest as the day is long, and he's not interested in burying the truth.
Tom: Older Brother Extraordinaire
Did you happen to notice that Tom is really good at giving advice? He's like a dustbowl Dan Savage. For example, he tells the one-eyed mechanic (who cries about how lonely he is) to get an eye-patch and to take a bath. That's pretty practical advice. And when his little brother, Al, gets all defensive about having broken the touring car, Tom tells him to chill and stop being so self-conscious. When Noah tells Tom that he's going to leave the family, Tom tries to tell him it's a bad idea. When Winfield gets sick from eating too many peaches off of the tree, Tom knows exactly what is wrong with him.
All of that time spent in prison really taught Tom a thing or two about life, liberty, and the pursuit of bacon. He's got his feet on the ground, and, like his mother, he can strategize and problem solve better than a chess prodigy.
Tom The Martian
But there's something a little off about our Tom. He's not like his family. He's a little different, almost a stranger. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he spent four years in the state penitentiary. Even though he's our hero, we sometimes feel like Tom is a mystery, and we wish we knew more about him.
Tom begins the novel as a rough and tough convict who's hell-bent on heading home and relaxing at the family farm for a while. When he realizes that times are tough, Tom doesn't run away. He doesn't sit back and let someone else make all of the decisions. He doesn't take naps in the haystacks. He steps up. He takes the lead. He helps usher his family across the country. Tom is a leader.
Tom is not the only Martian around: Casy is a little quirky himself, and he's been out of town for a long while, too. Maybe that's why Tom and Reverend Casy get along so well—they're both outsiders. Quickly, they become like two peas in a dusty pod. We think Tom looks up to Casy, and sees the preacher as a kind of mentor. In any case, Tom takes a liking to Casy's ideas, and to his words. These ideas and words transform Tom over the course of the novel.