Character Analysis of Ma Joad

By Jillian Little


One of the main traits Ma Joad exemplifies in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, is her unwavering generosity. Although taking care of the family is always her first priority, even when she has practically nothing more to give, Ma Joad finds a way to share what little she has. One example of the many instances where Ma Joad shows her exuberant generosity is in chapter twenty, when hungry children are lured to her by the scent of the stew she is cooking. Ma Joad tells them,"I'm a-gonna set this here kettle out, an' you'll all get a little tas', but it ain't gonna do you no good. I can't he'p it. Can't keep it from you," (Steinbeck 258). The Joads are barely able to provide for themselves at this point and are in no way in a position where they can be sharing their food with others, but this doesn't stop Ma Joad. She can't help but give the children whatever she can manage. Ma also proves her generosity in chapter eighteen, when she offers money to Mr. Wilson. Steinbeck says, "Ma took the two bills from Pa's hand. She folded them neatly and put them on the ground and placed the pork pan over them. 'That's where they'll be,' she said. 'If you don' get 'em, somebody else will,'" (Steinbeck 220). After this transaction the family only has forty dollars left, and still need to get a job and find a place to stay. They will probably need every last cent they have, but that doesn't stop Ma Joad from sparing a few dollars for Mr. Wilson. The generosity she displays helps to further stress the importance of the theme of poor people helping each other in The Grapes of Wrath.
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Another trait that makes Ma Joad so important in the story is her strength. "She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she has practiced denying them in herself," (Steinbeck 74). This quote how shows how Ma Joad is the pillar of strength for the Joad family. She never allows herself to crumble, because if she did the rest of her family would crumble along with her. Her strength in the hardest of times allows the family to remain calm and keep moving forward. An example of this is when Granma dies in chapter eighteen. Ma Joad is originally the only one who knows of Granma's passing, and has to suffer with this knowledge privately, as she lays with the corpse all night in the truck so that the family will be able to cross into California. She also doesn't let Tom touch her when she shares the news of Granma's death with the family. She says, "Don' touch me. I'll hol' up if you don' touch me. That'd get me," (Steinbeck 229). Although Ma Joad is feeling upset at the loss of Granma, she will not allow herself to be visibly emotional because she knows that she must stay strong so that the family does not crumble. Ma also uses her strength to protect her family from outside forces of harm. In chapter eighteen when a rude police officer threatens to "run them in" and insults her family, Ma Joad almost throws an iron skillet at him out of fierce protectiveness for her family. Again, in chapter twenty two when a crazy woman is upsetting Rose of Sharon by telling her that she will lose the baby if she sins, Ma ushers the woman away from Rose of Sharon and makes sure she won't be bothering her again. No matter how bad circumstances become, Ma Joad remains strong and keeps herself together for the sake of the family. Without her, the Joads would not have been able to endure such trying times.
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The third main trait that Ma Joad possesses is her phenomenal leadership skills. Before taking the journey to California, Pa Joad was the active leader, although Ma Joad had really been leading the family all along. As the family begins to face hardships on their journey, Ma steps up as the active leader of the family despite gender roles, because she knows her family needs her. Ma Joad is able to make quick decisions and assert herself, while Pa Joad begins to falter and hesitate as times get tough. One Example of when Ma Joad displays her leadership skills is when she hears the news that Ruthie told about who Tom was, while he was in hiding. Steinbeck shows how clear-minded Ma can be when he writes, "Ma brushed the hair on the back of her head gently, and she patted her shoulders. 'Hush,' she said. 'You didn' know,'" (Steinbeck 414). While the rest of the family is enraged and worried about the situation, she is able to stay patient and handle the situation calmly, like a good leader. She shows her leadership skills again while the family is at Weedpatch camp. It is during this time that we see Ma begin to give the orders, and make the big decisions. Ma is also the one who makes the final decision for the family to abandon the boxcar and seek higher ground, which may have saved their lives. If Ma Joad was not such a great leader, the Joads would not know how to handle situations or make the right decisions that Ma so strongly makes.