“Frailty, thy name is a woman!” This quote can be found in William Shakespeare’s famed literary work, Hamlet. Throughout the decades and centuries there has been much dispute about the strength and role of “the weaker vessel.” But, many other sources have proven that women are, in fact just as strong if not stronger than any other “vessel.” In literary works throughout history, women have been portrayed in helpless and domestic, “feminine” roles. John Steinbeck did not employ this depiction in his novels, The Grapes of Wrath in particular. In the novel, The Grapes of Wrath the roles in which Stienbeck portrayed the women was contrary to the common roles of women, in the economic depression the United States suffered through in the 1930’s, which is the time period in which the book was set. Examining his portrayal of the female characters throughout the book one sees, the women becoming strong, dominant characters, and family leaders.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the actions of Ma Joad are used to portray her as the strongest character. We can see this throughout the book even as early as chapter ten, in this chapter the reader feels sympathy for her having been permanently removed from the land and home she has known for so many years. Despite all of the pain caused from this, we are taken to the scene on page 95, where Ma is alone in her empty house. She picks up an old and tattered box, filled with memories; she gently caresses these momentoes, “She bit her lower lip, thinking, remembering. And at last she made up her mind.” She then selected a few items carefully, “ Then gently and tenderly she closed the box and smoothed the top carefully with her fingers. Her lips parted. Then she stood up, took her lantern, and went back into the kitchen. She lifted the stove lid and laid the box gently among the coals.” This shows strength in that, she is able to part with these memories she cherishes for the good of the family so there is more room on the truck for items that are essential to survival. It is shown again on pages 201 through 203 where Grandma is dying and Ma is lying beside her comforting her. We see what a struggle this was for her when she talks to the rest of the family on page 203 and tells them that Grandma has died and as the family looked at her “…with a little terror at her strength.” She relayed to them the story of the night before and after all of that, all she can say is, “The fambly hadda get acrost.” This is a prime example of the strength residing in this woman, lying beside her dying mother quietly, without a word, or support from anyone else. There is a story early in the book, humorously relating Ma’s “assertiveness” gives an account of when Ma “beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken.” When, what she meant to do was go after him with the ax, which was in the other hand. When Ma was through, there was nothing left of the chicken but it legs and Mimi Gladstein makes an acute analysis of this situation in The Indestructible Women: Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon when she says, “Though Ma struggles against those forces which are destroying her family, her weapons prove to be as ineffective as a live chicken. She fights with all her might and is left with little more than an inedible pair of chicken legs.” These examples and many others prove it is evident throughout the novel that Ma Joad is the strongest character. Again referring to a quote from Gladstein, “In terms of overwhelming odds, both physical and mental, none of the other characters covered in this study has quite as much to endure as Ma Joad.”
Ma Joad is not the only woman in the book shown to have strength, in the beginning of the novel, Rose of Sharon is a weak, self-centered character, but under the careful tutelage of Ma, she becomes strong and ready to become a pillar in the family structure. We see this, when we compare two passages from the novel. One of these passages is from page 113, this is the time when the Joads are on their first day of travel. The passage describes Rose of Sharon, “She was pleased with herself, and she complained about things that didn’t really matter. And she demanded services of Connie that were silly.” When one compares this early description of Rose of Sharon to a later passage on page 380, that shows her stubbornly insisting that she is going to pick cotton along with everyone else even though it is cold and may start raining, one sees the stark contrast and the drastic change that has occurred. Even, or especially if, one was to compare the early description of her with her selfless action concluding the book, you will see this exorbitant change and contrast.
The typical role of women in the nineteen thirties is one associated with housewifery, child bearing/raising and “the cult of domesticity.” The man of this time was the “breadwinner,” where the women generally stayed at home and did the menial tasks that follow the position of “full-time homemaker.” During the depression they were expected to do even more work taking care of growing gardens and providing inexpensive meals from gardens, as well as supplementing family income with extra tasks. The Joads broke away from this male dominated family structure. Maybe not per say because they were a different type of family and, therefore, more accepting, but that the situation was one of need, and the women of the Joad family saw the need and did something about it when the men no longer wanted to think. Hence, the Joad family progressed from the traditional patriarchal domination to one of matriarchal domination.
Ma assumes the role of matriarch initially without intending to. On page 81, Ma and Tom are conversing, it is soon after he had gotten home and the preacher inquires if he can come to California with the Joads, “Ma looked to Tom to speak, because he was a man, but Tom did not speak. She let him have the chance that was his right, and then she said, ‘Why, we’d be proud to have you.’” She follows this up with a disclaimer saying that the rest of the men can review the decision when they return home. As is obvious from the behavior described there, she initially had no intention of taking place as head decision-maker of the family. She is first shown to force her will onto the rest of the family on page 149 when the Wilson’s car breaks and Tom voluteers to stay behind while the rest of the family heads to California. She shows this when she brandishes an iron bar and refuses to go on, saying to Pa, “ On’y way you gonna get me is to whup me. …An I’ll shame you, Pa. I won’t take no whuppin’, cryin’ an’ a-beggin’. I’ll light into you. An’ you ain’t so sure you can whup me anyways.” After this act of forcefulness, and on the next page, when Tom and the rest of the family realize they cannot fight Ma’s will, where Ma “looked in astonishment at the bar of iron. Her hand trembled. She dropped her weapon to the ground.” This fact shows that she did not deliberately wish to initiate a physical conflict. In addition on page 313 the novel shows Ma, determined to keep the family going and not starving, demands to leave the Weedpatch camp, even though it is a nice camp. When Pa comments on his lost power by saying, “Time was when a man said what we’d do. Seems like women is tellin’ now. Seems like it’s purty near time to get out a stick.” To which Ma replies, “You get your stick, Pa, times when they’s food an’ a place to set, then maybe you can use your stick an’ keep your skin whole. But you ain’t doin’ your job, either a-thinkin’ or a-workin’. If you was, why, you could use your stick, an’ women folks’d sniffle their nose an’ creep-mouse aroun’. But you jus’ get your stick now an’ you ain’t lickin’ no woman; you’re a-fightin’, ‘cause I got a stick all laid out too.” Which is a blatant disregard for his now lost power and not to mention a harsh blow to the sensitive male ego. There are many things that could have happened to the Joads if Ma had not assumed the role of caretaker and leader, many involve the untimely demise of the Joad family at the expense of the men’s unwillingness to leave the Weedpatch camp. To quote from page 125 of The Indestructible Women “When the men are disheartened and defeated, the women bear up and take charge,” which is very true throughout this novel.
The way in which Steinbeck portrays his female characters in The Grapes of Wrath, as caretakers, but also leaders is contrary to their accepted role in the family at that time period and also throughout literature. There have been many misunderstandings of women’s roles in the past. Many literary works contain the classic “damsel in distress” story; everyone grew up with them, the stories where the handsome prince comes to rescue the frail, beautiful and feminine princess, unlike these other stories, The Grapes of Wrath is written as a testament to the strength of all women. If only Shakespeare had known Ma Joad.