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Free Study Guide: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Free BookNotes

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Uncle John

Uncle John is a man of few words and seldom speaks during the novel. He suffers from a guilt complex of having sinned and caused the death of his wife. When his wife was pregnant she developed stomach pains and asked for a doctor. Uncle John, however, told her that she had probably eaten too much and the pain was a result of indigestion. His wife died the next afternoon from a ruptured appendix. When his guilt become too great, he relieves himself through drinking and sex. His character is obviously not strong, but he does worry whether his sins have brought the manifold misfortunes upon the Joad family. In the novel's final chapter, he floats Rose of Sharon's still born baby downstream in an fit of anger; he hopes someone will find the lifeless form and realize the cruelty inflicted on the migrants.

Tom Joad

Tom Joad is the protagonist of the novel and the narrative action chronicles his development from a self-absorbed egoism to a concern about humanity at large. The novel opens with Tom as the representative walking man, who along with the Joads and the other migrants, will be sent on a quest to understand the implications of his relationship with the land. At the novel's opening, he hitch hikes his way home after serving four years in the prison for killing a man in a drunken brawl. At this stage he is only concerned with his own wants and desires. He tells Casy that "I'm just gonna lay one foot down before another." He feels no trace of shame for having killed a man and says he would do the same even now if similar circumstances presented themselves.

In the beginning, Tom does not show any sympathy with Casy's ideas of One Big Soul. Beyond himself, he does show a genuine concern for his own family, and beneath his hard exterior lies a human heart that is capable of kindness. When Tom meets Casy during the strike at the Hooper ranch, the ex-preacher tells him of the importance of organizing workers in order to improve their living conditions. Tom does not say much but thinks about what Casy has said. When Casy is killed, he feels compelled to remember his teachings. Having to hide in a cave since he kills Casy's murderer, Tom has a lot of time to think. He reflects on Casy’s ideas and decides to translate them into action. Ma warns him that Casy had to sacrifice his life; Tom says it does not matter. He now believes that his soul is a part of a big soul and that he will always be present everywhere. Tom has learned to love and work for humankind.

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon transforms from a petulant young girl who is obsessed with her pregnancy to a nurturing woman who shares her milk with a starving man. At the beginning, she is on quest of beauty and romance in life. She seems immature and shares constant secrets with her equally immature, nineteen-year-old husband Connie. Both of them have great (and unrealistic) plans for their future and for their baby. They plan to move away from the family, live in a California town, buy a house, and own a store. Sadly, Connie deserts her, for he lacks the physical and moral capacity to continue the difficulties endured by the Joad family.

Throughout the novel, Rose of Sharon tends to think that every event will affect her baby in a negative way; in so doing, she foreshadows the actual events surrounding her infant at the end of book. She worries about seeing the dog run over, fearing it will harm the fetus. She complains about not getting to drink milk and fears that her baby will be born deformed. In the ending scenes of the novel, Rose of Sharon works with the family in the cotton fields. She goes into labor soon after this and gives birth to a stillborn child because of malnutrition and extreme exhaustion. Her final action of nourishing a starving man on the milk meant for her dead baby shows that she too shares Casy's love of the people; although she does not bring life into the world, there is rebirth when she brings life to a dying man.

Al Joad

Al is the sixteen-year old brother of Tom. His chief interests seem to be girls and cars. He feels responsible for the Hudson that the Joads buy and tells Tom it is part of his soul. Al admires Tom and uses the notoriety of his elder brother to gain popularity. From the very beginning of the novel, he wants to leave the family and work in a garage. At the novel's end, he announces his decision to leave the family and stay back with Agnes Wainwright, the girl he proposes to marry. He fulfills a minor role in the novel.

Jim Casy

Casy is viewed as a Christ figure. As an ex-revivalist preacher, he has rejected the formal Christianity, which he once preached. He, like Christ, goes into the wilderness to think things out. He realizes that there is no sin and no virtue--only action. Some actions are nice and some are not nice. He bases his philosophy on the love of people and remarks that "maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy spirit--the whole shebang. Maybe all people got one big soul ever'body's a part of." He thus arrives at the Emersonian philosophy of the Oversoul. In the early stage of the novel, Casy is still the contemplative person. He realizes that his calling lies with the people on the road and accompanies the Joads on their journey to California.

Casy fulfills his commitment to help the Joads by surrendering himself for arrest in order to protect Tom. Casy then goes to jail and learns that the poor must unite together to bring about social change. This marks the beginning of the movement from "I" to "we." He tells Tom that when a single prisoner protested against the poor quality of food, nothing happened. But when all the prisoners unitedly complained, the quality of the food improved substantially. Casy then realizes that his mission in life is to organize the migrant farm workers into unions so as to improve their living conditions. He knows that by organizing a strike he is possibly endangering his own life. Like Christ, he will gladly sacrifice himself for the good of others.

Casy preaches a religion of love. He realizes that humankind as a whole comprises an organism just like the other social units of family, corporation, union, and state. He feels a kinship with all people and sees all acts of living as holy. His belief that individual family interests should be subordinate to the common welfare of humanity and his belief that all individual souls are part of one big soul parallels Jesus' rejection of family bonding for the kingdom of Heaven's sake. Casy's initials, J.C., correspond to those of Jesus Christ. He dies in a Christ-like manner saying to his murderers that they do not know what they are doing. His message reaches the public only after his death. Tom, Casy's disciple, carries out the work outlined by him.

Casy's religion bears a striking contrast to the fierce religiosity of Granma, the dogmatic hell and brimstone religion of the preachers who work on peoples' fear, and the fanaticism of Mrs. Sandry. His function in the novel is to act as the mouthpiece of the proletarian message and to provide a juxtaposition to the Joads. The development in Tom's character can only be seen by contrasting his former egocentric self with his later adoption of Casy's philosophy. Casy's philosophy also guides Ma's actions.

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