The Grapes of Wrath | Critical Essay by Lorelei Cederstrom

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of The Grapes of Wrath.
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Critical Essay by Lorelei Cederstrom

SOURCE: "The 'Great Mother' in The Grapes of Wrath," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 76-91.

In the following essay, Cederstrom examines the significance of archetypal maternal figures and feminine values in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Cederstrom, "An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization."

Pagan cultures identify the earth, with its seasonal cycles of birth, growth, death, and renewal, with a feminine principle. Such cultures worship an earth goddess, on whose fecundity and compassion men depend, and depict her as a maternal figure, a "Great Mother." In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, with Ma Joad as matriarch, adopt the Great Mother's ethos and iconography. On the road to California, they become a matriarchy valuing family and nurture, a social system with roots deep in a primitive time when men lived in harmony with the land and in direct opposition to the patriarchal forces driving the Dust Bowl disaster. The novel's famous final image, in which Rose of Sharon gives her breast to a starving man, is not Christian iconography but the culmination of the pagan, earth-directed values of the Great Mother.

In his depiction of the destruction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended upon her abundance, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath presents a visionary foreshadowing of the universal ecological disaster that looms so prominently on the horizon today. Equally visionary is his evocation of the primordial alternative to the patriarchal structures and attitudes that are destroying the earth. Throughout the novel, he describes the reemergence of the archetypal feminine and asserts the importance of matriarchal cultures that understand the relationship between the cycles of their lives and the natural world. An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization.

This alternative surfaces among the people who are the first victims of the decline of the old order, the migrant families. The failure of Western civilization to provide the necessities for these disinherited wanderers leads them to establish a more primitive social order based upon feminine values and matriarchal structures. Concurrent with the development of the matriarchy is the irruption of images, patterns, and attitudes associated with the primitive and transformative forms of the matriarchal deities. Throughout the novel, patriarchal culture and its attitudes give way to manifestations of the presence of the archetypal "Great Mother."

The powerful closing scene of the novel in which Rose of Sharon suckles a starving man at her breast provides an iconographic image of the Great Mother: "Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There!' Her hand moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously." The haunting power of this image indicates the presence of a powerful archetype. Sensing an archetypal pattern, critics have related Rose of Sharon to the Madonna, and her nurturing gesture has been seen as a manifestation of Christian love. One must keep in mind, however, that Rose of Sharon is not a mother suckling her child; her baby was born dead, "a blue shriveled little mummy." At her breast is a starving stranger, a fellow refugee from a rising flood that has already destroyed many homes and families. This archetypal gesture and mysterious smile are, nonetheless, the fitting conclusion to the novel, for it is in this affirmation of the power to give life and to take it, to nourish even while surrounded by the death and destruction she has wrought, that the full power of the Great Mother is evident. A detailed analysis of the archetypal Great Mother as she appears throughout the novel reveals more clearly the iconographic significance of this scene.

It is necessary to define the limits of this archetype as Steinbeck has used it, for in her many facets, the Great Mother encompasses virtually everything. "Woman=body=vessel=world," is the formula Erich Neumann uses to define the all-inclusive quality of the archetypal feminine. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Great Mother appears in both her elementary and transformative characters. In the former, she can be seen as a primordial spirit behind both the positive and negative forces of nature, manifesting herself in soft sunlight and scourging drought, in gentle rain and destroying flood, in food and shelter as well as famine and deprivation. In her elementary character she is also present in the home and in the cultural activities that grow out of the establishment of facilities for sleep, food preparation, and so on. In her transformative character, the Great Mother is a force for change in the individual and society; this change may involve growth or destruction, rebirth or death, for both are within her domain.

This last point must be emphasized, for destruction is as much a part of the Great Mother as is creation; she who gives life can also bring death to the natural world or the individual. A well-known icon of the Great Mother, the nineteenth-century Indian statue of Kali dancing on Shiva, indicates both aspects of her character; Kali holds a sword of destruction in her upraised hand and holds out a bowl of nourishment in the other. Similarly, among the dual mother goddesses of Central America we find the Mayan earth goddess who "gives all life, all food—and then cries in the night for human blood, her food." Even the more familiar Near Eastern goddesses like Isis, Astarte, Ishtar, Artemis, and Diana have a dark face in which they represent the "womb-tomb, abysmally prolific with children and with death." This same ambivalence is present throughout Steinbeck's novel and is profoundly expressed in the paradoxical situation of the final scene, when the man near death by starvation and flood, two disasters particularly associated with primitive earth goddesses like the Great Mother, is given the nourishing breast, the most elementary symbol of her life-giving quality.

On the most basic level, the Great Mother as the giver of life or death appears as a personification of the Earth itself. In Steinbeck's earlier novel, To a God Unknown (1933), the earth is constantly imaged as a female presence, a presence that like "an ancient religion" might "possess" those who come to know her. The Indian, Juanito, shares with homesteader Joseph Wayne his understanding of this ancient power: "My mother said how the earth is our mother and how everything that lives has life from the mother and goes back into the mother." Joseph spends his entire life trying to understand the Great Mother as she is manifest in the earth he tends. Indeed, he can be seen as a priest assisting in her mysteries, as he works to ensure the fertility of the earth. He views these priestly duties as "the heritage of a race which for a million years had sucked at the breasts of the soil and co-habited with the earth."

It is apparent from the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath that man has lost awareness that the earth is both sacred and living. Mother Earth is still fertile, but the crops are covered with dust. The land has been raped, and growing the same crop year after year under these conditions has destroyed the ability of the earth to nurture those who treat her this way. The Joad family suffers because they too have been guilty of this kind of neglect: "'Ever' year,' said Joad, 'Every year I can remember, we had a good crop comin' an' it never came. Grampa says she was good the first five plowin's, while the wild grass was still in her.'" The novel opens many years after the last of the wild grass; the land is not even owned by people any more but by banks or corporations.

The matriarchal consciousness has also been lost, for as Neumann notes, it is dependent upon man's "participation mystique with his environment." The participation mystique has been replaced by an attitude of unemotional domination: "No man touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses." The land is worked by a "machine man" who sits on an iron seat on an iron horse. Steinbeck has embodied the lack of connection to the land in a number of small details as well. Tom Joad, returning to his home, discovers that all the artifacts that symbolize a life close to the earth are askew. The well is dry; there are no weeds under its trough. The house is aslant, all of the windows are broken, and there is a hole where there once was a stovepipe. The machine man's lunch is another detail of this kind. It is wrapped in waxed paper, and all his food is processed: Spam, white bread, "a piece of pie branded like an engine part." The result of this process of alienation from the earth, the Great Mother, is separation and exile. The machine man "goes home, and his home is not the land"; the Joads have lost both home and land.

Both the male and female characters in the novel are depicted in terms of their relationship to the Great Mother. The women are divided between those who have no relationship to the earth, land, or a natural life and those whose lives demonstrate the many faces of the archetypal feminine. The female counterparts of the machine men are defined by the objects with which they surround themselves: big cars, cosmetics, clothing and potbellied husbands. Their feminine attributes are disguised: breasts are confined, "stomachs and thighs straining against cases of rubber."

These women are also distinguished in terms of their relationship to time. The matriarchal consciousness is at work when a woman lives in tune with the cycles of nature. Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History notes that primitive peoples experience the sacredness of life by living in tune with seasonal cycles and the recurrence of crops. In opposition, our contemporary world measures life linearly, as history, a progress from one point to another, stamping masculine measurements upon feminine cyclicality. Women, even in an industrial society, experience themselves at least in terms of biological cycles. Steinbeck's nameless women on the road, however, have accepted linear time and have lost the regenerative capacity that comes from recognizing oneself as part of an eternally recurring pattern. Steinbeck is explicit about this: the eyes of these women are "sullen, disliking sun and wind and earth, resenting food and weariness, hating time that rarely makes them beautiful and always makes them old."

In contrast, the Joad women are linked to the cyclicality of the archetypal feminine. Granma, Ma, and Rose of Sharon manifest the three ages of the Great Mother: hag, mother, and nubile daughter. The youngest girl, Ruthie, remains outside; she has not yet achieved her initiation into womanhood, so she merely watches and learns. Granma is shrill, ferocious, and assertive, true to her mythical forebears, Hecate, or Athene as Crone. She once shot off one of Grampa's buttocks, an act that indicates her tendency toward matriarchal dominance. Her power is apparent; she outlasts her mate, without succumbing to grief. Her acceptance of death as a part of a pattern of renewal is indicated by Ma's assertion that Granma "always et a good meal at a funeral." As her own death approaches, Granma becomes "like a little baby." A sense of her involvement in the recurrent cycles of life is suggested by the mysterious whisperings between dying Granma and pregnant Rose of Sharon.

Tom describes Ma as the "citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken." Neumann describes numerous instances in which the primordial Great Mother is similarly depicted as an encompassing shelter. Ma is the center and source of the family and its emotions; Tom sees her position as "great and humble." Her beauty arises out of her services within the family: "From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess." At the center of the humble recurring cycles of family life, Ma continually reflects the many aspects of the nurturing force of the Great Mother.

The first time we see Ma she is cooking pork, food from an animal that is associated with her throughout the novel. Neumann notes that "the pig is a symbol of the archetypal feminine and occurs everywhere as the sacrificial beast of the Earth Goddess." It is the pork that Ma has salted and prepared that keeps the family alive on the road. Like Granma, Ma lives in tune with recurrent cycles and is contrasted with the male characters. On the road, the men are concerned with maps, miles, and time: "From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles and the Hudson was doing thirty-five miles an hour. From Gore to Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles; Checotah a long jump to Henrietta—thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it." Ma sees the journey differently: "it's jus' the road goin' by for me. An' it's jus' how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones."

Before the journey, Ma was just one voice among many in making group decisions. As the novel progresses, Ma becomes more dominant. She forces the men to accede to the human needs of the family and decides when they will stop and go on. Pa threatens to reestablish patriarchal dominance with a shovel to the side of her head but acquiesces to her rule every time. Off the land, yet unable to relate to industrial society, the lives of the Joads are organized around primitive, matriarchal cultural activities. Preparing food and making shelter are their most immediate concerns, and Ma is the prime mover in creating the rituals of this primitive civilization. Ma also instructs Pa and the others about the importance of the family over property and the superiority of cyclic time over linear. A conversation between Pa and Ma establishes their separate priorities:

"Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care."

"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."

"We got nothin', now," Pa said…. "Seems our life is over and done!"

"No it ain't," Ma smiled. "It ain't, Pa. An that's one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks—baby born, an' a man dies, 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. We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on!"

Ma is also a purveyor of matriarchal folk wisdom. She knows about burial rites, for example; Grampa is sewed neatly into his shroud, coins traditionally placed on his eyes. Ma also presides at births, acting as midwife, and she initiates Rose of Sharon into womanhood by piercing her ears: "Does it mean sompin?" Rose of Sharon asked. "Why course it does,… course it does," Ma replied. Everything Ma does is in accord with her function as an archetypal mother. She experiences herself as a provider of nourishment; others experience her as a source of strength. Her character has a positive effect on those around her for it is firmly rooted in the generating spirit of the Great Mother.

Rose of Sharon in her preoccupation with her pregnancy represents the transformative and life-giving power of the Great Mother. From the beginning of the novel, Steinbeck links Rose of Sharon to fertility: "The world was pregnant to her; she thought only in terms of reproduction and motherhood." This pregnancy transforms her husband, Connie, as well. Steinbeck describes both Rose of Sharon and Connie as drawn together in contemplation of this central female mystery: "The world had drawn close around them and they were in the center of it, or rather Rose of Sharon was in the center of it with Connie making a small orbit about her. Everything they said was a kind of secret." "Fecundation," Neumann notes, "makes the woman into a numinous being for herself and for the male."

Removal from their home and land disrupts their relationship and focus on the child to be. Uprooted, Connie and Rose of Sharon both attempt to adjust to the patriarchal structures of the larger world. Connie begins to dream of a new life in the machine age, hoping to work in a store or a factory or to learn a technical trade, and eventually, he deserts the family in pursuit of these fantasies of power in the world of men's work. Rose of Sharon hopes to have her baby in a hospital, attended by doctors, rejecting traditional female wisdom by her willingness to accept male authority over female functions. Rose of Sharon's defection is strongly punished, however, for Connie abandons her, and her child is stillborn. Her recovery is directed by her mother as she reinitiates Rose of Sharon into the female mysteries of life and death: "Ma lay close to Rose of Sharon. Sometimes Ma whispered to her and sometimes she sat up quietly, her face brooding."

It is at Ma's direction that Rose of Sharon transcends her individual suffering by giving her breast to the starving man. Neumann notes that the production of milk is an archetypal transformation mystery, involving a woman's transition from nubility to motherhood and focusing a woman's awareness of herself as a nurturing force. As she holds the starving man in her arms, Rose of Sharon develops into full womanhood. She moves from the inturned self-obsession of her adolescent passion for Connie to an understanding of self-less maternal love. Her smile reflects her recognition of the Great Mother within.

The male characters in the novel also experience the transforming power of the Great Mother. Speaking of the power of the feminine to act as a catalyst in men's lives, Neumann notes that "the male experiences … the feminine directly and indirectly as provocative, as a force that sets him in motion and impels him toward change." The details that surround the various transformative experiences in the novel indicate clearly that the change is brought about as characters realign their former patriarchal attitudes in accordance with matriarchal values, rather than as the result of Christian conversion or the development of social consciousness. Steinbeck has created strong patriarchs in his other novels, but one looks in vain for sustained masculine attributes in either Pa or Grampa. Grampa, for example, was a force to be reckoned with until he left the land; it took only a few days of separation from his vital relationship to the earth for him to die. Pa, too, as we have noted, off the land becomes more and more an auxiliary of Ma, indicating a consistent dependence on the feminine whether manifested in land or woman.

Pa's attitude toward the archetypal feminine remains a troubled one, characterized by fear and misunderstanding, a fault for which he pays. Although Mother Earth fed him, he did not know how to ensure the fertility of his land; the constant raising of the same crop contributed to the failure of his farm and the removal of his family from their roots. In the scene that describes the birth of his first son, Noah, Pa is depicted as someone who fails to understand the fundamental transformation mystery of birth. Noah is sacrificed to his father's impatience and fear of the natural functions of the feminine:

For on the night when Noah was born, Pa, frightened at the spreading thighs, alone in the house, and horrified at the screaming wretch his wife had become, went mad with apprehension. Using his hands, his strong fingers for forceps, he had pulled and twisted the baby. The midwife, arriving late, had found the baby's head pulled out of shape, its neck stretched, its body warped; and she had pushed the head back and molded the body with her hands. But Pa always remembered and was ashamed.

As a result, Noah is strange, aloof and alienated from the rest of the family. Halfway to California, however, Noah undergoes a symbolic rebirth, a baptism that brings him back into connection with the Great Mother. The rite of passage takes place in one of the domains associated with the feminine, a river where the men have come to wash and cool themselves. The river is too shallow to allow them to submerge their heads, signifying that their masculine consciousness will impede them from receiving the full benefit of their experiences in the female element and must be left behind. Noah's limited intelligence is a benefit in this case, and he is the first to respond to the call of the instinctual life promised by the Great Mother in the river. He tells the others: "I was in that there water. An' I ain't a-gonna leave her. I'm a-gonna go now,… down the river. I'll catch fish an' stuff, but I can't leave her. I can't." Noah's use of the feminine pronoun is significant here. When told that Noah is gone, Pa does not understand, and his failure places him in the position of a child in the family, subservient to Ma, who seems to understand everything.

The case for the centrality of the Great Mother in the novel is challenged by the frequent and obvious association of Jim Casy with Christ. It is obvious that Casy not only shares Christ's initials but also delivers the Christian message of love and professes a willingness to sacrifice himself for his fellow man. His relationships with women, however, reveal him as a truer disciple of the Great Mother than follower of Christian dogma. Casy tells Tom that he is no longer a preacher because love of God and religious ecstasy led him to express that love physically. "Tell you what," he said, "I used ta get the people jumpin' and talkin' in tongues, an' glory-shoutin' till they just fell down and passed out…. An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time." This combination of religious ecstasy and sexuality causes Casy to question how the so-called working of the devil could be present when a woman felt full of the divine spirit and leads to his abandonment of his ministry. Sexuality is, of course, perfectly compatible with the worship of the Great Goddess and has always played a part in her rituals.

Casy's concept of spirituality also departs from the narrow Christian view and emphasizes a unity between body and soul, in which sex and food reflect spiritual mysteries. His attempt to define a divine principle that includes both body and spirit leads to something akin to the oversoul of cosmic consciousness: "Maybe it's all men an' all women that we love; maybe tha's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." He explicitly separates his spiritual ideas from Christianity, asking, "Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus?"

Casy's views seem very similar to those that Steinbeck himself expressed. Robert Bennett, in The Wrath of John Steinbeck; or, St. John Goes to Church, reports that when Steinbeck was in college, he could not refrain, upon visiting a church, from responding to the minister's comments on the necessity of nourishing the soul: "A lot of crap," he remarked rather loudly. "If the soul is immortal, why worry about it—it's the body that—" Casy, too, respects the body; although he expresses guilt at betraying his Christian principles through his sexuality, his experience of woman as a "holy vessel" leads him to take her to the grass time and again. Casy also feels alienated by the sexual prudery of Christianity and enjoys laughing at the old joke about the bull and the heifer.

Unlike the Father whom Jesus worshiped, Casy's god is a god unknown. Moreover, it is a divine principle that expresses itself through a feeling of unity with the natural world and an unqualified maternal love. Casy's rejection of formal religion is apparent in the scene when Granma asks him to bless their food. Here he explains his reluctance to participate in rituals of Christian tradition but agrees to present a more general blessing based upon a redefinition of holiness in terms of the central functions of the Great Mother, food, and love:

Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I coudn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy…. An' then I got thinkin' I don't even know what I mean by holy…. I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all.

As Casy travels with the Joad family he becomes more and more closely attached to Ma and is initiated by her into some of the mysteries of the Great Mother. His first communal gesture is to help slaughter a pig, which is, as mentioned earlier, one of the Great Mother's sacrificial beasts. For the other men, this slaughter is simply part of their ordinary work, but Casy involves himself in the women's task of salting down the meat, thereby becoming an initiate in one of the fundamental mysteries of the Great Mother, that of food transformation. Ma is dubious about his participation at first: "It's women's work," she protests. "It's all work," the preacher replies. "They's too much of it to split it up to men's and women's work."

In the final analysis, interpreting Casy as a Christ figure leaves out too much of his fundamental earthiness. If he is seen as the unconscious prophet of a primitive earth goddess, both his sexuality and his feeling that "all that lives is holy" and "what people does is right" can be taken into account. Nor do Casy's sacrifices of himself take him beyond the realm of the Great Mother, for she has always demanded sacrifices in her honor; pain and deprivation are associated with her most primitive rituals. Casy's first sacrifice was for the Joad family, the second for the family of man. Casy's last words are reminiscent of Christ's as he tells the men who are attacking him: "You don't know what you're a doin." But his rationale for this remark is not that they do not know they are killing a son of god but that they do not know that they are "starvin' kids," a basic concern of the matriarchs and the Great Mother.

Tom Joad is more nearly a Christ figure than Casy, but he is even more profoundly the son of his mother. He is badly abused by the patriarchy both before the novel opens and later in the work camps and rejects the hierarchies of patriarchal society as well as the violence toward the weak that sustains those structures. After each confrontation with men and authority, he returns to his mother for support and spiritual nourishment. Before he leaves the family, he undergoes an initiation into the mysteries of the Great Mother. The initiation begins with a symbolic reentry into the womb, as he hides in the maternal, cavelike darkness of a culvert. His mother brings nourishment to him, and he discusses with her his plans to aid the other migrants by organizing them. He envisions an apotheosis for himself, one in which he is absorbed into a maternal darkness, maintaining a transcendent presence at food rituals: "I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever' where—wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there." His transformation from bitter ex-con to fighter for humanity is the result of his developing matriarchal consciousness in which the needs of the family, the earth, and those who live close to it are primary.

Unlike Tom, Casy, and Noah, Uncle John has been transformed before the novel opens. He has been punishing himself with drink and celibacy for contributing to the death of his wife, suffering in atonement for his sins against the Great Mother. He remains in the background for the most part, a living reminder of the failure of patriarchal rule and values. Ma gives him a bit of appropriate and useful advice when she warns him not to burden others with his crimes against life: "Don't tell'em," she warns. "Go down the river an' stick your head under an' whisper'em in the stream." John does not take her advice at this point, but at the end of the novel, he performs a ritualistic sacrifice in the river that can be seen as an act of reparation to the Great Mother for all of their sins. He takes Rose of Sharon's dead baby and casts it on the stream as a warning to others that they are betraying life: "Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk…. Maybe they'll know then."

Beyond the manifestations of the transformative power of the Great Mother in the central characters, Steinbeck's descriptions of the migrant camps also indicate a strong matriarchal principle at work: "In the evening, a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all." The highlights of life in these camps, culminating in the Weedpatch camp, are the rituals that develop around the basic functional spheres of the feminine. Birth and death incite community celebrations: "And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awe-struck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning."

Food preparation and laundry are social events on a smaller scale. Ma, for example, finds herself feeding twenty or more waifs in one campground. She is also told about the laundry rituals: "You wait till the women get to washing … know what they did yesterday, Mrs. Joad? They had a chorus. Singing a hymn tune and rubbing the clothes all in time. That was something to hear, I tell you." The principles on which families are established in the camps are based on the needs of women and children. The legal aspects of marriage, invented so that men can pass on their names and property, are no longer useful. The rules are simple: "a man might have a willing girl if he stayed with her, if he fathered her children and protected them. But a man might not have one girl one night and another the next, for this would endanger the worlds."

This last custom, the development of a matrilinear principle, is responsible for Al leaving the Joads. Like Connie, Al had previously been a man of the new age. With his mechanical abilities he performed several small miracles in keeping the car on the road between Oklahoma and California. By the last scene of the novel, however, he has been absorbed by matriarchal principles and matrilinear necessities. His mechanical abilities fail at last, and he leaves his own family for the family of his wife, a custom demanded by the matriarchal world of migrant living. This is not regarded as a desertion of the family but a reestablishment of the basic principles on which the family can continue.

Steinbeck makes it clear that life in the migrant camps does not represent an emergent Christian communism. Rose of Sharon is frightened by a dour Christian woman who warns her against the sinful dances and wicked plays that are held in the camp, insisting that "they ain't but a few deep down Jesus-lovers left." During the dancing, the "Jesus-lovers" remain aloof and keep their children under close scrutiny, safely protected from these pagan celebrations. Ma, however, urges husbandless Rose of Sharon to attend the festivities, telling her that she will be especially welcome because "it makes folks happy to see a girl in a fambly way."

Thus, although the concluding scene has generated much debate, Rose of Sharon's nurturing of the starving man is the appropriate culmination of the many manifestations of the Great Mother throughout the novel. Critics who fail to see the importance of the developing matriarchal consciousness and to recognize the transformative power of the feminine interpret Steinbeck's final image in naturalistic terms, seeing the helpless humans at the mercy of the elements when the diminished family—Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, and Winfield—are driven from their boxcar home by the rising river. Other critics, unwilling to accept the implications of the ending for their theories about the Christian or communistic patterns, have tended to concur instead that "the ending is intentionally inconclusive," albeit generally supportive of an optimism about the survival of the family of man. In its poetic and paradoxical completeness, however, the image of Rose of Sharon nursing the stranger while the flood moves to engulf the family unites both the naturalistic and optimistic views.

Failure to recognize the culmination of the archetypal pattern in this has led to such realignments of the final message as John Ford's replacement, in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, of the powerful iconographic image of Rose of Sharon with Tom's farewell speech to his mother. Although the film's final scene, perhaps at Steinbeck's insistence, focuses on Ma Joad, the young Tom Joad, portrayed by rising star Henry Fonda, is the hero. Concluding the film with Tom's assertion of his ubiquitous, God-like presence "all around in the dark … ever' where—wherever you look," with its echoes of Christ's "insomuch as you do it to the least of them you do it unto me" restores an emphasis to patriarchal values and Christian masculinist perceptions of spiritual power that the novel undercuts.

Steinbeck, however, had no ambivalence about the conclusion of the novel, feeling its correctness, although he did not fully express the reasons for his decision. He certainly intended to take the predominant social attitudes to task, and whether he articulated it intellectually or not, the archetypal alternative to Western patriarchal values comes to the surface in the novel. Each of the characters is forced to choose between patriarchal and matriarchal attitudes toward the natural world and each other. Muley Graves provides an example at the beginning of the novel when he refuses to be driven from the garden by the appearance of the man on the machine. He will not leave the land that has been soaked by the blood of his father or the grass on which he first "laid with a girl." So he remains, living in caves and eating wild rabbits, thereby aligning himself with the vestiges of the Great Mother in nature, as he haunts the machine men who ride unfeelingly over the living earth.

The Joads confront the Great Mother within: the women learn to understand themselves as a part of the natural cycles of life and death; the men are forced to atone for their sins against life and are either transformed or die in the process. In each case, the Great Mother is experienced as a dual power, a womb/tomb that can nurture or destroy. In a brief scene toward the end of the book, Steinbeck reinforces this message, as Ruthie teaches Winfield a stern lesson about the gifts of the Great Mother. When Winfield attempts to grab a flower from Ruthie, she bangs "him in the face with her open hand." Winfield is learning early that the gifts of the Great Mother cannot be taken by force but must be earned by virtue of a reverent attitude toward nature and the feminine. He is also learning that she can withhold or bestow her gifts at will. The image of Rose of Sharon with the starving man at her breast expresses the paradoxical power of the Great Mother completely. Sword in one hand, bowl in the other, Kali, like Rose of Sharon, wears a smile.

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