Study Guide

The Grapes of Wrath Family

By John Steinbeck


Chapter 10

And then all of a sudden, the family began to function. Pa got up and a lighted another lantern. Noah from a box in the kitchen, brought out the bow-bladed butchering knife and whetted it on a worn little carborundum stone. And he laid the scraper on the chopping block, and the knife beside it. Pa brought two sturdy sticks, each three feet long, and pointed the ends with the ax, and he tied strong ropes, double half-hitched, to the middle of the sticks. (10.114)

The Joad family seems at times to be able to communicate without words. When they are at their best, they run like a well-oiled machine, knowing exactly what chores to do next. However, they are not always able to communicate in this way. When times get bad, they have a harder time being as tuned into one another.

And still the family stood about like dream walkers, their eyes focused panoramically, seeing no detail, but the whole dawn, the whole land, the whole texture of the country at once. (10.204)

We feel like the Joads are very detail-oriented people, people who keep their nose to the grindstone and who very rarely have time to consider the bigger picture. Why is it significant that they see the "whole land" at this moment? What are they doing?

Chapter 13

She walked for the family and held her head straight for the family. (13.169)

Ma Joad is pretty much the pillar of the Joad family, no doubt about it. Without her, we don't know how far the Joads would get in their quest for a new life. She supports the family in a way that no one else, not even Pa Joad, can.

The family became a unit […] Pa was the head of the family now. (13.172)

Pa may be the head of the family, but it sure seems to us like Ma Joad is the one who calls the shots, the one who makes reasoned and sound decisions. We rarely see Pa Joad act like "the head of the family."

Chapter 17

The families moved westward, and the technique of building the worlds improved so that the people could be safe in their worlds; and the form was so fixed that a family acting in the rules knew it was safe in the rules. (17.10)

The country has allowed these families to lose their lands and has done little to help them rebuild their lives. As a result, these families must create their own miniature countries in which to function and think. These families are in need of structure, of a society that cares about them.

At first the families were timid in the building and tumbling worlds, but gradually the technique of building worlds became their technique. Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being. And as the worlds moved westward they were more complete and better furnished, for their builders were more experienced in building them. (17.3)

The families who become one family know the value of laws to protect the unit, to protect the bonds that they form.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. (17.2)

"Family" is reinterpreted at night when the migrant worker families settle down on the side of Route 66. They reach out to and connect with one another. No one family wants to go it alone. No one family wants to be independent or self-centered. The families seem to need one another to make it. They need each other's support. They are not trying to outdo one another.

Each member of the family grew into his proper place, grew into his duties; so that each member, old and young, had his place in the car; so that in the weary, hot evenings, when the cars pulled into the camping places, each member had his duty and went to it without instruction: children to gather wood, to carry water; men to pitch tents and bring down the beds; women to cook the supper and to watch while the family fed. And this was done without command. (17.14)

Why would it be important for everyone to know their place in these camp communities?

Chapter 30

[the little boy in the barn:] "Says he wasn't hungry, or he jus' et. Give me the food. Now he's too weak. Can't hardly move." (30.206)

In this last scene, we see an example of a family who still knows what it means to be a family, even in dire circumstances. The starving father is a reminder of the selflessness, of the sense of community that once was associated with the idea of family, and his son has not left his side.

Ma Joad

[Ma Joad:] "Use' ta be the family was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody." (30.48)

Ma Joad articulates a huge shift in the way the Joad family functions. At the beginning of their journey, when they had just been kicked off of their land and when everyone was still alive and still part of the family, every Joad seemed to know that the family unit was more important than their own wants and needs. That's why they were so appalled by people like Will Feeley who drives a tractor for the landowners – he was thinking about himself and not the larger community. The Dust Bowl and the dire circumstances in California has broken the Joad's family, has made people more self-interested.