The son of a cropper, Tom—released from prison after serving time for manslaughter—returns to find his family has lost their farm and is moving west to California to start a new life. Tom does his best to protect his family and stand up for what he thinks is right, sometimes leading to fights in which he must defend either himself or his loved ones. By the end of the book, with his family’s respect and admiration acting as the wind at his back, Tom aims to keep other migrant workers from being exploited.
As the matriarch, Ma’s biggest concern is trying to keep the Joad family together. She is the quintessential caretaker, putting others’ needs ahead of her own. Ma finds herself taking a greater leadership role when she feels Pa is not being proactive. A pillar of strength for her family, Ma has a realistic view on hardship, acknowledging tough times but knowing that the family unit will see them through.
A good man and hard worker, Pa leads the Joads west after the family is evicted from their farm. The difficulties the family faces on the journey to California, including the inability to find work, wear Pa down. When solutions begin to fail him, he lets Ma assume the role of decision-maker.
A former preacher who has lost his faith in organized religion, Casy accompanies the Joads on their trek. He initiates a change in Tom Joad by inspiring him to further the cause of helping the migrant people. Jim Casy is often seen as a Christ figure (they share the same initials); he goes to jail in Tom’s stead, and later martyrs himself as he stands up for the workers. Casy possesses the novel’s chief philosophical voice, wondering whether all men are part of a larger soul.
Married and pregnant but still a bit childish, the oldest Joad daughter matures over the course of the novel. Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie dream of living the city life in California, but after Connie abandons her, she shows signs of stress. She worries that sinful behavior will kill her baby, and ultimately gives birth to a stillborn child, probably due to malnutrition. The novel concludes with Rose of Sharon saving a man’s life by letting him drink from her breast, an act that demonstrates how much she has changed, and positions her as a symbol of hope.
Rose of Sharon’s husband, Connie has a pipe dream of living in the city and taking classes so he can work in radio someday. Not held in high regard by the Joads (except for Rose of Sharon), their wariness is confirmed when Connie abandons his wife and unborn child shortly after reaching California.
Tom’s grandfather stirs up trouble and acts out constantly, shocking people with his feisty language. A fighter in spirit, Grampa’s body can no longer keep up. He refuses to leave the land that he knows and loves, forcing the family to sedate him so they can get on their way. Grampa dies not long after he is taken from his home; he gets buried in Oklahoma.
Tom’s grandmother is a devout Christian. She pokes fun at and challenges her husband. Distraught over Grampa’s death, Granma takes ill and passes away soon after crossing into California.
Tom’s sixteen-year-old brother enjoys working on cars and chasing girls. With Tom’s help, Al is responsible for maintaining the family truck, making him a crucial component in getting to California. By the end of the journey, he gains confidence and independence, opting to stay behind with his new fiancé, fellow migrant Agnes Wainwright, when the rest of the family moves again.
Tom’s older brother is described as being slow and emotionless. While delivering Noah, Pa panicked and pulled too hard, leaving his head somewhat disfigured. Noah believes that Ma and Pa are sorry they had him. He decides to stay near a river and live off of fish, telling only Tom of his intentions.
Tom’s uncle carries a heavy burden of guilt; his young wife died after John ignored her complaints of stomach pain. John blames himself for her death and believes that he brings bad luck to the family. He does what he can to help out but keeps mostly to himself, numbing his pain with alcohol.
The youngest Joad daughter, twelve-year-old Ruthie competes with her brother Winfield and loves to show off. Ruthie finds herself at a crossroads between being a child and becoming a young lady. She tells a bully that Tom has killed two men, which forces Tom to leave the family.
At ten years old, Winfield is the youngest Joad child. He looks up to Ruthie, but is also competitive with her. Despite his age, Winfield must work picking peaches and cotton with the rest of the family in California.
The Joads camp alongside this married couple on Highway 66. Sairy’s health declines while traveling; she can go no farther once they reach California, and the couple must part ways with the Joads, their fate left uncertain.
An Oklahoma neighbor to the Joads, Muley, unable to leave his land, stays behind when his family makes the trip west. With Tom fresh out of prison, Muley provides him with an update on the Joads and the area’s economic situation.
While at a Hooverville camp, Knowles warns Tom and Casy of the awful labor conditions that await them. He provides the initial spark for Tom and Casy’s subsequent interest in unionizing the migrant workers.