The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

Summary

Casy and Tom leave for Uncle John's house at daybreak. While walking, Tom describes Uncle John to Casy, coloring him as a lonely, somewhat touched older man. As Tom and Casy approach John's property, they see the family preparing for their trip west. Tom surprises Pa as he works on the truck. Pa's first concern is that "Tommy" has broken out. Assured that he is on parole, Pa decides they should surprise Ma who is preparing breakfast.

Ma is overjoyed to see Tom, but instantly worried that prison has made him "mean" and full of hate. He reassures her that it has not, and after searching his eyes, she can see that he is telling the truth. Tom is angry that they have been forced from their home, but Ma cautions him that he can't fight the bank alone. She figures that if everybody got mad together, they couldn't be put down, but everyone seems lost and dazed. Adrift and directionless, they are unable to band together to fight with a common purpose.

Tom is reunited with more family members at breakfast. Granpa and Granma are excited to see Tom. Behind them is Noah, the eldest son, who is quiet and slow. At Granma's insistence, Casy says grace over the meal, although he explains he is no longer a preacher. In his prayer, he says that holiness is when all people are working together, not focused on their individual desires. Tom asks after the rest of the family members and learns that his younger brother, Al, is out chasing girls, and Rose of Sharon, his younger sister, is now married to a neighboring boy, Connie Rivers. She is in the early stages of her first pregnancy. The two youngest Joads, 10-year-old Winfield and 12-year-old Ruthie, have gone to Sallisaw with Uncle John to sell a load of household belongings. Once everything has been sold, they will have about $150 for the trip. Within a day or two, the family plans to leave for the west.

Analysis

Ma's character is critical to both Tom's growth and the reader's understanding of the idea of humanism, the third component of Steinbeck's social philosophy. Her most obvious purpose in the novel is to provide the physical expression of Jim Casy's ideals. Her actions consistently emphasize the theory of love and spirit haltingly defined by the preacher, that love and unity among men is necessary if people are to survive. For Ma, this unity begins with her family. Her relief at seeing Tom stems primarily from her fear that they would have to leave the state with the family broken. Ma also unknowingly expresses the pragmatic aspect of the social theory that Casy is struggling to understand. The preacher yearns to bring a practical spiritual help to those folks who are suffering, but doesn't know how. He spends his time thinking, wondering how to express this principle of love, while Ma immediately acts upon it. She is a pragmatist, focusing not on what might or should be, but how life is.

Although Pa is the "head" of the family, Ma is its backbone: It is her strength and support that keeps the family functioning. She knows each member's weaknesses and is accepting of them. Her ability to calm Tom enables him to evolve spiritually. Understanding his reckless temper and independent nature, she is frightened that in jail he has become "mean." She holds his face and scans his eyes, searching for truth that may not be expressed in words. This action foreshadows a later event in the novel in which she must hold Tom's face in the dark in order to "see" him.

For the majority of the novel's action, Ma works desperately to keep her family intact, not realizing that survival depends on embracing all persons as family. Her love operates on a deeper level, however, a level that indicates she seems to intuitively understand Casy's message that all people are holy and deserving of love because they all belong to one greater soul. Ma is always the first in the family to offer comfort and nourishment to others, just one indication of her subconscious, unconditional love. The larger concept of this love, that survival will only be possible through group action is glimpsed only fleetingly in her plea to Tom, "I got to dreamin'.… If we was all mad the same way, Tommy — they wouldn't hunt nobody down." She stops, not comprehending the validity of her dream.

Glossary

hackles the hairs on a dog's neck and back that bristle, as when the dog is ready to fight.

meerschaum a soft, claylike, heat-resistant mineral used for tobacco pipes.

Mother Hubbard a full loose gown for women.

Purty Boy Floyd infamous Depression-era bank robber; known for his kindness to poor people.

nestin' to place or settle; in or as in a nest.

speaking in tongues ecstatic or apparently ecstatic utterance of usually unintelligible speechlike sounds, as in a religious assembly, viewed by some as a manifestation of deep religious experience.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How does Granpa Joad die?




Quiz