Steinbeck’s Symbolic Women


Steinbeck’s men are wonderfully nuanced and richly detailed. From jailbird good guy Tom Joad to the intriguing ex-reverend Casy, men in The Grapes of Wrath squat in the shade, patch old tires, and are the inheritors of ancient agricultural knowledge. They squint and spit and ponder the future. They take action. They drive.

In the first pages of the novel, Steinbeck establishes that men are the backbone of the family unit:

Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break.

Like most rules, this simplistic model becomes complicated with exceptions and special circumstances throughout the novel. The repetitious narrative of Dust Bowl migration challenges the Joads’ individuality as Steinbeck critiques the 1930s’ agricultural and economic status quo.

Still, Steinbeck’s women exist in the shadow of his men, comparatively shallow elements of the family unit.

We are first introduced to Ma Joad, whose physical appearance is a puzzle of contradictions. Both “strong” and “delicate,” “wispy” and “plump,” “great” and “humble,” Ma is “as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess.” She is the lynchpin of the family – understandable, considering her ability to encompass every possible positive quality.

Unfortunately, we are never told her first name; she is referred to as “Mrs. Joad” or “Ma,” confining her identity to her role as a wife and mother even as the family relies on her judgment, which is indeed faultless, time and time again. Mr. and Mrs. Joad’s interactions are [very] darkly humorous as Mr. Joad wonders aloud whether he should beat her, and how, in his bafflement that his wife is seizing control over the family’s destiny.

If Ma Joad is the character who single handedly rallies the family together, her own daughter provides a cautionary example of a nuclear family gone awry. Pregnant and abandoned by her husband, Rose of Sharon (or “Rosasharn,” according to characters’ pronunciation) becomes depressed and unmotivated to continue. Her constant whining is treated as simple weakness of character and a source of frustration for Ma Joad, and her desire to care for her unborn child is expressed as petulant greed. Tom mocks her changing body, comparing her to a cow repeatedly. (Yes, you read that correctly – Rose of Sharon is compared to livestock.) Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child comes as no surprise; by the novel’s denouement, Steinbeck has made it clear that she is a failure.

For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the novel was Al’s sexual encounter with one of the women in the Weedpatch camp:

“You think I got to go out with you. Well, I don’t! I got lots a chances.”

“Now wait a minute.”

“No, sir – you git away.”

Al lunged suddenly, caught her by the ankle, and tripped her. He grabbed her when she fell and held her and put his hand over her angry mouth. She tried to bite his palm, but he cupped it out over her mouth, and he held her down with his other arm. And in a moment she lay still, and in another moment they were giggling in the dry grass.

How quickly and easily Al’s aggressive physicality are resolved! “The blond girl” (she, too, is never named) makes her resistance known before simply giving up. This illustration of female sexuality as submissive and consent as a one-sided decision cemented a male-dominant status quo in the novel.

The Grapes of Wrath is certainly a product of its time, but like books that portray colonized peoples as simplistic and ahistorical, it must be scrutinized with a modern eye. I loved many things about The Grapes of Wrath, from Steinbeck’s ability to evoke the simultaneous multiplicity of Dust Bowl experiences to the novel’s Biblical flood. But as I read the final words, I couldn’t help but wonder why Rose of Sharon’s breast milk was only validated by the fact that it enabled a man’s survival. Think of how different the novel would be if it had ended with a meeting of women in the barn during that apocalyptic monsoon! The image of Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, and a woman being saved by Rose of Sharon’s breast milk could have formed a new holy trinity, but instead the breastfeeding was overtly sexual and even vaguely incestuous.

I had planned to continue my research this week with Anna Karenina, but my advisor recently sent me a PBS documentary on a Korean adoption gone awry. I cannot for the life of me get this video to load, but I’m reading so much for work these days that I’m going to keep trying. Adoption has also popped up in a variety of movies and TV shows I’ve watched recently, from Dawson’s Creek to There Will Be Blood, so it might be time for a diversion into contemporary pop culture. The research continues slowly but steadily, and I’m glad that my topic of focus saturates so much of the media we consume.



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