In a crisis, a person’s true colors emerge. The weak are separated from the strong and the leaders are separated from the followers. In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, forced from their home in Oklahoma, head to California in search of work and prosperity only to find poverty and despair. As a result of a crisis, Ma Joad emerges as a controlled, forceful, and selfless authority figure for the family.
Ma Joad exhibits exelent self-control during the sufferings and frustrations of the Joad’s journey. Ma knows that she is the backbone of the family, and that they will survive only if she remains calm. Ma keeps her self-control when Ruthie tells some children about Tom’s secret. The family becomes nervous and enraged over the situation, but Ma restores order by handling the situation in a calm and collected manner. If Ma were to ever show fear, the family would most likely collapse. For, “Old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear.” Thus, if Ma acts as if everything is all right, then the family will assume everything is all right. Most members of the family openly express their doubts or fears. Ma may be just as frightened as the rest of the family, but she always maintains a front for the rest of the family. When Ma had fears, “She had practiced denying them in herself.” This extraordinary self-control helps to keep the Joad unit together and alive.
Ma, like all leaders, must be forceful for things to work in her favor. Numerous situations occur in which Ma must be forceful or relinquish her role as the head of the family. Her forceful leadership occurs once when the family, without Ma’s consent, agrees to leave Tom and Casey behind to fix the Wilson’s car. Ma feels this will break up the family and uses a jack handle to prove her point. It is at this point Ma replaces Pa as the official head of the family. Ma’s forceful leadership also surfaces when she threatens a police officer with a frying pan and when she decides for the family to leave the government camp. In both situations Ma must use force to achieve her objectives; in both situations, she emerges victorious. Eventually, Pa becomes angered because of his loss of power to a woman and says in frustration, “Seems like times is changed.” Ma’s will and forcefulness help her to be the steadfast leader her family needs in its darkest hour.
Ma’s selflessness emerges as her most important quality as the leader of the family unit. Often Ma sacrifices her own well-being for that of the family. For example, Ma risks her mental well-being when Granma is dying. The family stops at the California border, and Granma is dead. Ma fears that if she tells the guard, the family might not be allowed to enter California. She lies to the guard, saying Granma feels very sick and needs a doctor. She spends the rest of the night lying beside the body, waiting until it is safe to tell the family. In response to the situation, Ma says miserably, “The fambly hadda get acrost.” Ma’s selfless qualities are also expressed by her actions toward Jim Casey’s ideals. Casey feels that all is holy, and everything is a holy action. In nearly every action, Ma shows concern for her family’s needs and sometimes, when the situation arises, the needs of strangers as well. Also, Casey believes in an oversoul, and Ma’s selflessness embraces this concept. Ma thinks of everyone as if she is thinking of herself, making her one with the whole community, thus fulfilling the oversoul concept. Ma’s sacrifice of her needs for those of the family is a subtle yet powerful method of her leadership of the family unit.
In the Joad’s hour of darkness, Ma emerges as their savior. Ma’s success can be attributed to superb self-control, forcefulness, and selflessness. Just as Ma leads, Pa is shown to
be no more than a reluctant follower. In a crisis, a person’s true colors show. Some people run and hide, some step aside to follow, and a select few step up