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The Personal Development of the Characters in John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath'

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Have you ever been through a difficult time that resulted in you growing as a person and your relationships with others changing? John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ follows the Joad family on their journey to California in hopes of finding work after being evicted from their farm. In these desperate times, each character grows to adapt to their ever-changing environment, which causes shifts in one’s personality and the relationship between characters to strengthen. Such character developments and changes in relationships can be understood through five different layers, with each layer having an association between Steinbeck’s writing and ecologist Ed Ricketts’ ideas.

Inspired by Rickett’s system of observing, describing, dissecting, and cataloging members of species, layer one studies the depiction of individual characters and plot. Steinbeck creates every character to be unique, with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. For example, when Jim Casy is first introduced, we learn that he is no longer a preacher and is more absorbed in his own thinkings. He explains to Tom Joad, “Once a fella gets use’ to a way a thinking’, it’s hard to leave” (Steinbeck, 69). Since he has spent much of his life spreading the ideas of the church, Casy continues to theorize about God in his own time to have a deeper meaning of life. He is portrayed by Steinbeck as a diligent thinker who enjoys teaching his ideas to others and is not afraid to share with those who may disagree.

As the family travels west, the migrant workers unite to help each other. Layer two explores the bonding of individuals and communities in a progression from “I” to “we” based on Rickett’s study of interactions between clusters of several species or associations between species. Ma Joad provides the strongest example of the progression from “I” to “we”. When the Joads ask the Wilsons to join them on their journey to California, Ma tells them, “You won’t be no burden. Each’ll help each, an’ we’ll all git to California” (202). She tends to use the term “we” when describing situations because they are all facing the same struggles and can work together to overcome or lessen their challenges. Ma also repeatedly proves her strength and caringness to others by helping those less fortunate.

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Through the novel, we learn about the Dust Bowl and its impacts on individuals. Layer three examines the historical context of the novel, which relates to Rickett’s study of the history of a species. One of the major effects of the Dust Bowl was families heading west in search of work. Migrant workers would travel from all over the Midwest on Route 66, which is described as “the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there” (160). Steinbeck uses a negative tone to describe the situation, which causes the reader to feel sympathetic towards the Joad family and other migrant workers during this time. This helps to create a negative association between the Dust Bowl and the quality of life.

As the family dynamics change, different members grow to have more or less power. Layer four studies Steinbeck’s theory of “universal plight and power struggle”, an idea connected to Ricketts’ theory of organizing animals by ecological niches. Since the beginning of the novel, Ma has been a prominent leader figure. When the family was having a meeting prior to leaving for California and Ma left the group to go into the house, the others waited until “she walked back to the brooding council” to continue their meeting (158). The family does not make decisions without her and relies heavily on her at times. During their journey to California, while Pa Joad becomes less and less of a head figure and Ma also takes on a more authoritative role, oftentimes directing family members on what they should do.

Layer five combines all of the previous four layers and creates the emergence of Steinbeck’s argument for social awareness and activism using Rickett’s theory of organizing species by ecological niches. Within this layer, we uncover the expansion from “I” to “we” to “all, the whole thing, or one soul.”

By the end of the novel, certain characters, such as Tom, have become enlightened while others are still considered shallow. When he was first released from jail, Tom’s main goal was to return to his family and work on the farm for his father. As the novel progresses, he learns to think of others and prioritize things as a whole. After Tom needed to go into hiding due to a fight, he told Ma, “Soon’s my face gets a little better, why I’ll come out an’ go to picking” (552). He understands that he is at risk of being sent back into jail and doesn’t want to jeopardize the family.

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The Personal Development of the Characters in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-personal-development-of-the-characters-in-john-steinbecks-the-grapes-of-wrath/
“The Personal Development of the Characters in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-personal-development-of-the-characters-in-john-steinbecks-the-grapes-of-wrath/
The Personal Development of the Characters in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-personal-development-of-the-characters-in-john-steinbecks-the-grapes-of-wrath/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
The Personal Development of the Characters in John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-personal-development-of-the-characters-in-john-steinbecks-the-grapes-of-wrath/
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