In American Literature history, writers mainly focus on the development of the male characters throughout the story. This main focus on the male characters throughout the story allows the authors to create a stereotypical strength in men which is reflected in society. This standard is obeyed by many authors, portraying men as the more dominant and powerful characters throughout the story. Very rarely are women characters portrayed as being the most dominant and influencing character in a story, as they are commonly oppressed by male characters. This dominance of male characters influences the stereotypical views of genders not only in literature but also in real life. However, this stereotypical male dominance is challenged by Steinbeck in, The Grapes of Wrath, as he amplifies the roles of the female characters. This development of the roles of female characters leads to the stereotypical barriers being overcome in the story as characters step up as the main characters. In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck allows characters such as Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon to take the role as a leader by oppressing Pa Joad, and exposing stereotypes about the emotional and decision making skills of women.
To start, Ma Joad is not always seen as the leader of the family as it takes a while for Pa Joad to give up the reigns to her, which may have been a little difficult for him. This resistance between male characters being able to give up their head roles in a story acts as a metaphor for how most authors do not want to fight the norm in society by allowing women to take the limelight. This resistance from Pa Joad can be seen when Pa said, “ “John, what should we do … Be a good girl, Ma. Don’t make us more complicated.” The thought that Pa Joad excluded Ma from the conversation explicitly shows that they look down upon Ma when it comes down to responsibility. However, throughout the story Steinbeck’s use of tone and characterization shows us how Ma Joad not Pa Joad has the optimal characteristics to be the leader of the family. This revelation eventually leads to Ma Joad taking over the family and their migration to California. This shift in responsibility can be seen when Ma allows Casey to join them on the trip showing her authority to make decisions, “ “ We’d be proud to have you.” The act of Ma Joad stepping up in her roles, supports the idea that both sexes are, “ Nothing if not equilitarian,” a topic discussed by Warren Motley, the author of From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: Ma Joad's Role in The Grapes of Wrath. The idea of both sexes having equal societal roles is a, “ entirely foreign [concept] to primitive humanity,” thus showing the effect that stereotypes have on our society. Hence, the fact that Steinbeck has allowed female characters to expand their roles shows possible change society could have. allows the thought for a change needed in society.
In addition to Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon is another character who is a female character that has developed from a childish young character into a young woman through the uptake of responsibilities. In the beginning of the story, Rose of Sharon was described as a childish nuisance in the family till Steinbeck allows her to gain responsibility by making her a mother. The responsibility of a child has placed Rose of Sharon in a state of need; however, this is where the character transformation occurs. Instead of becoming more of a nuisance, she steps up and assists the family in their troubles. This can be seen when she is pregnant, she insists that she has to pick cotton showing that her mindset has grown and now she is thinking for the better of the family. Factors that add to her desperate state include her husband leaving her and giving birth to a stillborn baby; however due to the expansion of her characteristics she finds generosity inside of her to give to the community and family. She, “ loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast …” to feed the sick man at the end of the story. This shows the independence which is a characteristic which is seen as something women lack in society. This addition of strong characteristics to female characters allow for their roles to expand setting an example to women in society.
Furthermore, in addition to the expansion of female roles in the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s specific development of the story, precisely targets certain stereotypes about women in society and reveals that they can be broken. History has previously pictured women as incompetent and emotionally unstable to complete any work or lead a family on any occasion. This is the main reason why the male characters are usually the ones taking the main role. However, these stereotypical weaknesses are not seen in Ma Joad or Rose of Sharon. Throughout the story, along with the development of characteristics they show bravery and leadership. Certain situations called for, “Ma’s face blackened with anger. She got slowly to her feet. She stopped to the utensil box and picked out the iron skillet.”Mister,” she said. “You got a tin button an’ a gun …” This specific part of the plot shows her bravery and courage to protect and lead the family through hardships. This shows how women are capable of taking the roles of men not only in literature but also in society.
To sum up, the role of women in literature have been limited as a secondary character mostly lead by other leading male characters. This is due to the stereotypical constraints placed on women in society depicting them as : weak, emotional, and incompetent. These characteristics not only limit the roles of women in society but they also influence the literature written at that time. The literature written influences the fact that women are incompetent and are always so dependent of male characters for success. However, Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath is one of the only authors of his time to actually go against this societal norm and fight for the equality of women roles in society. By placing Ma Joad, a female character as the head of the family he depicts the change in society needed to find equality among both sexes and to break down stereotypical barriers.