Ma represents the "citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken." Because she is stronger than Pa is, she becomes the guiding force behind the family. She is always calm and controlled in her emotional reactions. She is impenetrable and does not allow any event to upset her. She has long ago denied herself from acknowledging hurt and fear for the interest of the family in general. She has to build a strong outward demeanor so as to keep the family from losing heart. Her hazel eyes seem to have experienced all the possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a calm and superhuman understanding.
During the novel, Ma becomes increasingly influential in the decision-making process and acts with authority. It is Ma who decides to take Casy along with them to California when Pa doubts whether they will be able to feed another person. Ma exhibits an ample amount of wisdom and tact in managing her family since she is thoroughly familiar with the nature of each member and treats them accordingly. She knows that if Pa breaks down, the family will be destroyed and, therefore, knowingly incites him into anger so that he will be more energetic. She understands that Rose of Sharon is worried about her pregnancy and the fact that Connie has deserted her. She recognizes that Al does not share Tom's sense of responsibility. She sees the quiet strength underlying Tom's demeanor of a drifter. She sympathizes with Uncle John's need to drown his sorrows in drink and does not criticize him for spending money at a time when the family needs it most. She cooperates with everybody and treats each family member according to his or her need.
Ma devotes herself to protecting the unity of the family and retaining its spirit. She realizes that in their migrant way of life, the family is the only thing that is important and valuable: "All we got is the family unbroke." When the Wilsons' car breaks down and Tom suggests that they continue traveling on separately, Ma refuses to allow this. She threatens to fight Pa with a jack-handle until he sees her point of view. When they stop beside the Colorado River, Ma threatens to hit a deputy with a skillet. Her concern for the family to cross the desert safely prompts her not to tell anybody that Granma has died. Casy is filled with admiration at Ma's extraordinary strength: "All night long an' she was alone . . . there's a woman so great with love--she scares me. Makes me afraid an' mean." She faces all the pressures acting on the family with a quiet determination.
Ma embraces the love of humankind in which Casy believes. Ma shows her awareness of the potentiality of organized action early in the novel when Tom returns from prison. She tells him that he cannot fight the system alone but thinks that something could be achieved if all the sharecroppers united together and protested against their eviction. Casy eventually helps to organize such united group action, and Tom leaves the family to translate Casy's ideas into action. Ma shows a readiness to help other people: she acts charitably when she leaves some food and money for the Wilsons; she leaves some stew out of her own meager individual share for the starving children at the Hooverville Camp; and she gives Tom her last dollars to help in the effort to unite the people. In the last chapter of the novel, Ma goes beyond her primary concern for her family to embrace humanity: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do."
Ma expresses the spirit of the novel. She says, "If you're in trouble
or hurt or need--go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help."
The novel is filled with incidences of this helpfulness: the clerk at
the Hooper ranch store helps Ma by lending her ten cents to buy sugar
since he cannot allow her to take it on credit; Al, in the diner, sells
the family bread and candy at reduced prices; and Tom is sold spare parts
at a cheap price since the salesman believes the boss usually cheats the
migrants. Ma also expresses a Whitmanian faith in the ability of the people
to survive. Ma believes that "us people will go on livin' when all
them people is gone . . . We're the people that live. They ain't gonna
wipe us out. Why we're the people--we go on." Ma believes that they
are the chosen ones who will endure every hardship and continue to people
Pa has a weaker personality than Ma Joad. He undergoes a loss of identity when his stable life as a farmer is destroyed; he does not adapt to the new migrant way of life. He continues to live in the past and cannot face the present circumstances. He is the helpless victim of an indifferent environment. He cannot understand the new forces of capitalism and market economy blowing across the country, which hold profit as the sole motive of business. His foolishness is shown when he sells the entire belongings of the Joads for a mere eighteen dollars.
Despite his shortcomings, Pa is a good man who is not afraid of hard work. He is not lazy or predisposed to leisure. His concept of family is more constricted than that of Ma. Pa questions whether they can afford to take Casy along and wonders if they will be able to feed an extra mouth. His primary concern is only for the immediate family members. He is more self-absorbed than Ma, who shows no hesitation in taking the ex-preacher along.
Pa cannot detach himself from the past and the land, which he has cultivated. He spends all his free time thinking about how it used to be. He relinquishes his nominal authority over the family and looks to Ma for direction in making decisions. He sadly remarks, "Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care." Ma consoles him by saying that women adapt themselves to changing circumstances more readily than men. Pa's sole effort of building a mud embankment proves futile, and he is unable to check the advancing flood waters in the box car camp. The Pa who was earlier offended by Ma's authority, at the end of the novel, meekly obeys her decision that they must move to a safer and drier shelter.
Pa never shows any awareness of the implications of Casy's philosophy. He
is merely concerned with himself and shows no desire to sacrifice for
others. As Tom accurately observes, Pa is merely concerned with earning
his own meal even if it is at the expense of others. Throughout the novel,
he never acts for the good of humanity at large.
Grampa and Granma are vividly depicted. Grampa has a cantankerous, complaining, mischievous, laughing face. "He fought and argued, told dirty stories. He was as lecherous as always. Vicious and cruel and impatient, like a frantic child, and the whole structure overlaid with amusement." Grampa retains his position as the titular head of the family, but no longer makes any decisions. When the Joads gather around the truck in a family council to decide about when to leave for California, Grampa has the right to make the first comment. He has a strong affection for Granma, but he glories himself in provoking her. As Granma is fiercely religious, he derives immense pleasure in talking about his past escapades. Grampa refuses to leave the land, which he settled, and when the time to leave arrives, he has to be drugged and physically carried to the truck. But he belongs with the land and dies on the very first night of the journey. He is buried alongside the road in Oklahoma.
Granma has survived "only because she was as mean as her husband. She
has held her own with a shrill, ferocious religiosity that was as lecherous
and as savage as anything Grampa could offer." Granma is fervent
in her beliefs. She asks Casy to say grace before breakfast and orders
him to pray when Grampa is dying. Her life loses meaning with the death
of Grampa, and she dies soon after his death. Ma regrets that neither
Grampa nor Granma survived to see the fertile Californian valleys. Tom
rightly perceives that both of them were too advanced in age to confront
any new experiences.