John Steinbeck | Critical Essay by John H. Timmerman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of John Steinbeck.
This section contains 4,083 words
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Critical Essay by John H. Timmerman

SOURCE: "The Squatter's Circle in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 203-11.

In the following essay, Timmerman discusses the function and significance of the squatter's circle as a symbol of patriarchal authority and unity.

In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the indomitable Ma Joad emerges as a hero and the leader of, in her words, "the fambly of man." In so doing, however, she also displaces Pa Joad from his traditional position of authority in the family. While several critical studies have examined those qualities of Ma Joad that direct her leadership—qualities of humor, a steadfast vision, and a resilient ability to bend and adapt to new situations without breaking—Pa Joad has disappeared from critical scrutiny as if of no account. In fact, Steinbeck very carefully directs the reversal of leadership roles through the use of the "squatter's circle" motif.

That the migrant family of the 1930s was strongly patriarchal has been demonstrated by Tom Collins' detailed reports on California migrant camps during the late 1930s. Collins was the manager of the Kern County Migrant Camp and was also Steinbeck's most profitable source of information about migrant traditions. He personally escorted Steinbeck through both the established government camps and the squatters' camps. More importantly, Steinbeck took back with him to Los Gatos hundreds of pages of Collins' reports and assessments of migrant families. These reports figured directly into Steinbeck's composition of his novel.

Collins' weekly reports from Kern County's Arvin Camp, prototype for the Weedpatch Camp in The Grapes of Wrath, testify that these migrant families, while traditionally patriarchal, were experiencing a revolution of matriarchal uprising. As the men foundered in the bewildering tides of joblessness, indirection, and poverty, the women assumed dominant authority in the family.

One of the most revealing parts of Collins' reports in this matter of family authority appears in his weekly entry entitled "Bits of Migrant Wisdom." Here Collins diverges from his statistical information, his detailed accounts of camp activities, and his necessarily objective analysis to satisfy the governmental bureaucracy, to probe intimately the nature of migrant lives. Frequently such musings and probings focus upon marital relationships. After recounting at some length in his report for June 6, 1936, one protracted and often violent lover's quarrel, Collins observes: "We just let her cry. In fact we encouraged her to cry and bawl to her hearts [sic] content. That's what she wanted to do. Migrant women are that way." But he does not leave the portrait with this traditional depiction of the weakly crying woman. There is tougher stuff in the camp women, and one has an idea that Collins appreciates the woman he quotes two paragraphs further in the story: "A woman neighbor summed the incident thusly; 'She aint ole nuf ter u'stand men folks. She'll larn sum day. What she shuld a-dun was ter kick him plenty in the fanny, only she wont.'" Collins observes, "we believe she will do that soon." While he portrays the migrant women in their customary matriarchal roles of canning, housekeeping, and sewing, he also senses a tide of revolution sweeping through them.

A second observation of Collins, appearing in his report for June 13, 1936, recounts a specific example of a woman revolting against the patriarchal system:

Reversing the usual migrant system whereby the man is the master of the house, the bride in this instance rules the roost. She can be heard every evening after the boy's return from work, laying down the law. On one occasion we saw her sitting down giving him orders on proper dish washing and later, instructions regarding sweeping out the tent and doing the family wash. He grunted a lot but went about the task as "ordered."

Collins closes with a terse reflection: "Maybe a new day has dawned for the migrant woman, eh?" If it had, nowhere would it be more evident than in Ma Joad's reversal of the patriarchal role in the family.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad rises as the force that unifies and directs the disintegrating family. In order to do so, however, on several occasions she stands up to and eventually displaces Pa from his family role. The first such incident occurs on the road to California, when Ma brandishes a jack handle and orders Pa to keep the family together. Tom Joad has offered to lay over with Al to repair the blown connecting rod on the Wilson car, while the others travel ahead. Ma's rebellion is forthright and undeniable:

And now Ma's mouth set hard. She said softly, "On'y way you gonna get me to go is whup me." She moved the jack handle gently again. "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."

Repeatedly, she defies and threatens Pa, and he finds himself bewildered in the face of her assertion of authority. Tom Joad wonders, "Ma, what's eatin' on you? What ya wanna do this-a-way for? What's the matter'th you anyways? You gone johnrabbit on us?" To which Ma replies with the first annunciation of her vision of the primacy of the family: "Ma's face softened, but her eyes were still fierce. 'You done this 'thout thinkin' much,' Ma said. 'What we got lef' in the worl'? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks.'" The effect is undeniable: "The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power. She had taken control."

Certainly there is steely resolve in this woman's spine. When the family camps along the Colorado River, and Granma lies hallucinating in the unbearable heat of the tent, Ma has her care of Granma interrupted by a pompous law officer who tries to threaten her. Ma stands up to him, brandishing her skillet like a war club. When Ma recounts the scene to Tom, he responds, "'Fust you stan' us off with a jack handle, and now you try to hit a cop.' He laughed softly, and he reached out and patted her bare foot tenderly. 'A ol' hell-cat,' he said." Truly Ma can be "a ol' hell-cat." Once before she lit into a tin peddler with a live chicken, beating the peddler until "they wasn't nothing but a pair a legs in her han." Ma's standing up to Pa Joad, however, is not a fit of pique, nor a momentary explosion of temper; rather, it is a standing up for a vision and a dream of her family.

This struggle for the family becomes clear in the second major episode of Ma's assertion of authority. Having enjoyed the comforts of the Weedpatch Camp for some time, having been solaced in the compassion of its members so that, in Ma's words, "I feel like people again." Ma nonetheless insists that the family move on. The family is disintegrating through lack of challenge and work; its dependency, in her view, breeds a slovenliness of spirit. Ma's order is terse and to the point: "We'll go in the mornin'," Pa remonstrates: "'Seems like times is changed,' he said sarcastically. '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.'" But his comments are no more effective against Ma's steely will than they were earlier. When Pa and Uncle John wander off, Tom remains to question Ma: "You jus' a-treadin' him on?" Work, Ma believes, absolves worry. Pa has had too much time to ponder; insufficient opportunity to provide: "Take a man, he can get worried an' worried, an' it eats out his liver, an' purty soon he'll jus' lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an' make 'im mad, why, he'll be awright."

A third time Ma Joad asserts her dominance over the family. After Tom strikes one of the landowners' goons and has to go into hiding, Ma again makes the decision to go. This time Pa readily accedes: "Come on now. Le's get out to her. Kids, you come he'p. Ma's right. We got to go outa here." He capitulates to her authority, but not until his own authority has been hopelessly battered. In fact, the Joad family has no reasonable place to go; all order seems destroyed.

Huddled in a boxcar, afflicted by the deluge of winter rains, Pa reflects: "Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care." Pa himself recognizes the transference of authority, and in response to this recognition Ma delivers her eloquent and compassionate eulogy to the power of the woman: "'Woman can change better'n a man,' Ma said soothingly. 'Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Don' you mind. Maybe—well, maybe nex' year we can get a place.'" She adds, "man, he lives in jerks—baby born an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk—gets a farm an' loses his farm, an' that's a jerk. Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that." At this final, bleak scene, a thoroughly defeated Pa, like a bewildered child, seeks the restorative comfort of Ma Joad, whose spirit flows like the river.

That moving description of man and woman by Ma Joad, however, also underlies the displacement of authority in the novel from thinking man to spiritual woman, from a rational life jerked apart to a life led by the heart that bends and flows like the river. To demonstrate this, Steinbeck parallels Ma's rise to authority with Pa's displacement from, and the destruction of, the squatter's circle. In the novel Steinbeck depicts the traditional physical posture for decision-making among the male leaders of the family as squatting on the haunches in a circle. It represents a high formality among the migrant men and functions in the novel as a testament to rational order and male authority.

In his typical pattern of introducing an event or condition in its broadest scope in the intercalary chapters and then focusing upon the microcosmic unit of the Joad family in the narrative chapters, so too Steinbeck introduces the traditional posture of the squatter's circle in Chapter 5, an overview of the dispossession of the migrant families. As the landowner's spokesmen come to evict the tenant farmers, "the tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust." The farmers band together in the face of adversity, drawing upon each other's strength to plot a course of action. When the owners drive away, the men are left to consider matters on their own. Steinbeck provides the first carefully ordered description of the squatter's circle according to the male hierarchy in the tenant family:

The tenant men squatted down on their hams again to mark the dust with a stick, to figure, to wonder. Their sun-burned faces were dark, and their sun-whipped eyes were light. The women moved cautiously out of the doorways toward their men, and the children crept behind the women, cautiously, ready to run. The bigger boys squatted beside their fathers, because that made them men. After a time the women asked, What did he want?

In this instance, all their pondering and figuring prove ineffective, as the monstrous roar of Joe Davis' son's tractor drones over the land, destroying the homes, despoiling the family's hope. From the start of the novel, the male authority structure is threatened.

While the intercalary chapters introduce the large, universal, macrocosmic scenes, the narrative chapters place the particular instance of the Joads within that pattern. A more detailed rendition of the squatter's circle is delivered in Chapter 10 as the Joad family prepares to leave Oklahoma. Here each male member assumes his hierarchical position in the squatter's circle, the women and children rimmed around its edges:

Pa walked around the truck, looking at it, and then he squatted down in the dust and found a stick to draw with. One foot was flat to the ground, the other rested on the ball and slightly back, so that one knee was higher than the other. Left forearm rested on the lower, left, knee; the right elbow on the right knee, and the right fist cupped for the chin. Pa squatted there, looking at the truck, his chin in his cupped fist. And Uncle John moved towards him and squatted down beside him.

Grampa Joad comes out of the house and, too old to bend physically to the squatter's circle, takes his seat of preeminent authority on the running board of the old truck. That, Steinbeck writes, "was the nucleus," the three male heads of the family. But Tom and Connie and Noah "strolled in and squatted, and the line was a half-circle with Grampa in the opening." After them, Ma, Granma, and the children come: "They took their places behind the squatting men; they stood up and put their hands on their hips." It is a careful order in a careful ritual, this pattern of the dominance of male authority. As the only non-family member, Jim Casy has the good sense to stay off to the side; only after the decision is made to include him on the journey may he come over and squat on the sidelines, a member of the male ruling hierarchy but still an outsider.

The squatter's circle represents several things in The Grapes of Wrath. First, the circle represents the hierarchy of male authority in the family. The men are ranged from the ruling eldest to the youngest or newest members; women and children are excluded from it as bystanders who only await the decisions. Second, it represents order, both a physical order in which the combined strength of the males unifies against the world, and a rational order in which decisions affecting the family may be discussed and decided. Third, it represents a chain of human unity; the members, within the hierarchy of authority, are one body. Within the circle there may be discussion and dissension, but when a decision is made the body is of one mind.

The squatter's circle is an emblem of unity, a physical testament to the preservation of old ways and the freedom to make choices. In his journalistic reports on the migrants, written for the San Francisco News, Steinbeck assessed this unique spirit of the migrants: "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land. They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain." Despite their travail and oppression, Steinbeck asserts that "they have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong." Elsewhere in his journalistic entries, Steinbeck discourses on the most devastating blow to the migrants: the loss of dignity. The disruption of the squatter's circle in The Grapes of Wrath is also a dissolving of the fragile fabric of human dignity; as the circle breaks down, so too do the independence, freedom, and dignity of the migrants.

All levels of significance for the squatter's circle are severely tested in the drama of the story. The dissolution of the Joad family's squatter's circle lies in direct correlation to Ma Joad's assumption of authority. When the Wilson car breaks down and Tom proposes his idea of laying over to repair it while the others go ahead, Pa and Uncle John automatically drop to their hams in a makeshift squatter's circle to discuss it. This time, however, Ma Joad makes her defiant gesture of threatening Pa with the jack handle, thereby disrupting the circle.

The raw conditions of the long journey and the rough introduction to California also serve to break up the circle. At the first California camp, Tom and Al help Floyd repair his car. About them men are squatting in small circles, driven to the solace of the unit as they try to figure out the woeful working conditions. When a man drives up to contract workers, all the squatting groups move up and gather around him. The squatter's circles disrupt under the authority of the landowner, but the men also coalesce as a larger unit than that of the family. Floyd tries to galvanize the separate units of men into one unit, encouraging them to stand with one circle against the contractor.

In the larger artistic pattern of the novel, Steinbeck has anticipated this scene in intercalary Chapter 14, Here, too, men squat around, lamenting their common loss, trying to determine what action to take. The scene parallels the action of the California camp:

And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting brews the thing you hate—"We lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.

In the California camp, Floyd's voice is the echo of this. And indeed this is the thing the landowners hate. They fight back with the indictment "he's talkin' red, agitating trouble." Under this banner they are free to disperse any group of men, disrupt any unit, abort any zygote. In the California camp, the collection of men remains simply that: a collection. No cohesive unity cements their spirits together. The disruption in the Joad family is poignantly encapsulated in one sharp portrait where Ma fries potatoes over a hissing fire and "Pa sat nearby hugging his knees," almost as if Pa, in a degraded stance of the squatter's posture, clings futilely to a position now much diminished.

Just as the later stay at the Weedpatch Camp is restorative to the Joad family spirit, so too it restores the dignity of the menfolk, particularly when they do unify here against the threat of outside aggression. Not surprisingly, the squatter's circles appear frequently in the narration as old routines are restored for a time. Yet, none of the men can escape the reality of joblessness. As if to turn their shoulders in protection against the fear, the men huddle frequently in the squatter's circle. At one point, the men squat by the porch of the manager's office. Pa opens the speculation on work, and the frightening reality of no work to be had. The mood of the circle changes; these men are restive, nervous. The strength of the circle has dissipated. Steinbeck repeats a grim refrain: "The squatting men moved nervously"; "The circle of men shifted their feet nervously." The squatter's circle is no longer a hierarchical arrangement of authority, vision, and, unity; it is a nervous assembly of men huddling in fear.

On the evening of the Joads' departure, the men fall back into the routine of the circle: "The evening dark came down and Pa and Uncle John squatted with the heads of families out by the office. They studied the night and the future." The future they see is grim indeed: the squatter's circle is a communion in despair. Only Ma's steely will drives them on. She makes the decisions. She instills order. She possesses the hope for the future. The family moves once again.

As the cold rains inundate the California valley, Pa and a body of men, unnamed and disorganized now that the family order has been ruptured, band together in a battle against the floods. The people's spiritual enervation and the depletion of male authority have already been established in intercalary Chapter 29. There Steinbeck establishes an overview of the dismal rains scouring California's valleys and depicts the men, weak and dejected, before the onslaught: "On the fields the water stood, reflecting the gray sky, and the land whispered with moving water. And the men came out of the barns, out of the sheds. They squatted on their hams and looked out over the flooded land. And they were silent. And sometimes they talked very quietly." The silence of the men is profound; here there is no purpose, no decision to be made, no work to go to. Only the vast desolation of the rain speaks.

This overview focuses in Chapter 30 upon Pa and a ragged band of migrants in their individual battle against the flood. That final warfare of male strength is paralleled neatly by the turbulent events of Rose of Sharon's birth and ultimately paves the way for her ascendancy to a position of authority as she changes from a naive, egocentric young girl to one who mysteriously rises to share Ma Joad's vision of the family of man. That ascendancy happens only with the thorough dissolution of Pa's preeminence in the squatter's circle.

After slogging in the mud all night, bending his physical strength with a rag-tag band of warriors against the onslaught of the flood, Pa staggers into the boxcar where Rose of Sharon has just given birth. In one explosive passage, Steinbeck clenches the transference of authority: "Pa walked slowly to Rose of Sharon's matters. He tried to squat down, but his legs were too tired. He knelt instead." Pa tries, terribly hard, to adopt the squatter's pose, his old position of authority and order, before Ma and Rose of Sharon, but he cannot. Weariness staggers him and he falls to his knees before them. From a position of authority he falls to a position of abnegation and supplication. He bends now before the authority of Ma. And Ma offers him the solace of her compassion: "Ma looked at him strangely. Her white lips smiled in a dreaming compassion. 'Don't take no blame. Hush! It'll be awright. They's changes—all over.'"

That transference also signals the victorious thematic closure to the novel, for Ma once more goads the family to action. She directs, gives orders. When the battered family enters the barn, Ma commands the men to get out. But there is no commanding of Rose of Sharon; there is only the mystical passing of authority based upon human giving, the needy giving all they have to the needy. Ma and Rose of Sharon look deeply into each other, and Rose of Sharon murmurs, "Yes." It is more than assent to Ma's will and authority. She ascends to this new order, not of protecting the one family, as in the male-ordered squatter's circle, but of giving to others in the "fambly of man."

Rose of Sharon does not squat. Hers is not the posture of authority and order as in the squatter's circle. Bearing one of the names of Jesus from the Canticles (2:1), she enacts the Christ-like posture of laying down her life for another. The Rose of Sharon of the Canticles is described as having "breasts … like clusters of the vine," and here she gives the new wine, not the grapes of wrath, but the wine of human compassion and nurture to the starved father next to her. Once, perhaps, he too held his place of authority in the squatter's circle. And just as Pa Joad kneels before Ma's benediction of compassion, this man too is nurtured by the one who bends down beside him.

The pattern of displacement in The Grapes of Wrath is from the male-dominated squatter's circle of hierarchical authority to Ma Joad's vision of caring for the "fambly of man" and Rose of Sharon's physical enactment of it. That pattern also undergirds the thematic heart of the novel. In his reports for the San Francisco News, Steinbeck observed that "a man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently his whole ethics toward society." In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrant male does indeed lose his position, but not his ethics, for those ethics are nurtured by the ascension to authority of Ma Joad and her ethical vision of the family of man.

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