Tom Joad is the second oldest son of Ma and Pa Joad, tenant farmers in Oklahoma. He is a lean, tall man in his late 20s. Tom was sent to prison for stabbing and killing a man in self-defense. He has been let out early on parole for good behavior. Tom keeps to himself. He is an outsider who chafes against authority figures who try to push him around. Even so, he is devoted to his family, especially his mother. Early in the novel, Tom is seen as a man who is not contemplative. Instead, he would rather focus on daily tasks. Casy, a preacher, often annoys Tom with his constant reflection about why life's occurrences happen the way they do. Tom also gets angry when pushed around, at times resulting in violent actions. This instinct can get him in trouble. After Casy dies, Tom comes to understand what his friend was talking about. As the story develops, Tom's leadership skills emerge. Tom realizes that people are part of one soul. Also, he sees that people can better fight oppression when they join together. Tom becomes a man who channels his outrage for the greater good of humankind.
Ma Joad is married to Pa Joad. At the start of the novel, they are tenant farmers in Oklahoma. She has two daughters and four sons. Ma is a strong, sturdy woman but is also gentle. She stabilizes and unifies the family. In this way, Ma acts as the center, or heart and soul, of the family. As the story develops, Ma's role shifts from backbone of the family to family leader. As the Joads face various hardships, the family threatens to break apart. To counteract this, Ma takes the reins of the family, despite her husband's protests. At times, however, she looks to Tom for leadership.
Pa Joad is married to Ma Joad. When the story begins, they are tenant farmers in Oklahoma. He is a physically strong man who is the breadwinner of the family. Early on, Pa is seen as the leader of the family. However, as the story develops, Ma takes on the role of family leader. Although Pa doesn't like this change, he accepts it. Part of him realizes that Ma is better suited to leading the family during the difficult times they are facing. Although Pa is persistent in his efforts to aid the family, he realizes in a way that he has become a broken man. He becomes unsure and often second guesses himself.
Jim Casy is a former preacher. He baptized Tom Joad when Tom was a boy, but Casy has since grown disillusioned and quit preaching. Casy has a long head with a high forehead and a stringy, muscular neck. He meets Tom as the younger man walks toward his home in Oklahoma. Casy is a man who constantly questions why things are the way they are. He is concerned with the plight of the tenant farmers who are being forced off their land and realizes his new calling is to help these farmers. Thus, he travels with the Joads to California. In California, Casy gets arrested and comes to a deeper understanding while in prison. He realizes that if people join together, they can fight against oppression and overcome it. When he is released from jail, he leads a strike against the unfair labor practices of landowners. After Casy is killed, his ideas inspire Tom Joad.
Rose of Sharon
Rose of Sharon is the older daughter of Ma and Pa Joad. Her name is a biblical reference to the following verse in Song of Solomon 2:1: "I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys." She is married to Connie and is pregnant with his child. At first, Rose of Sharon is seen as an immature young woman. She has romantic notions of what her married life will be like. Her husband encourages these notions. However, when Connie abandons Rose of Sharon, she has a rude awakening. At the end of the story, Rose of Sharon shows considerable maturity by offering to breastfeed a starving man.
Al Joad is the third son of Pa and Ma Joad. He is a cocky 16-year-old boy who thinks mostly about women and automobiles. Even so, he also feels a responsibility for helping the family. Al looks up to his brother Tom. Throughout the story, Al shows the desire to become an independent man. He talks about going off on his own and getting a job as a mechanic. By the end of the novel, Al does break from the family when he gets engaged to a young woman named Aggie.
Uncle John is Pa's brother. He is a man racked by guilt over his wife's death. Much of his life is devoted to performing penance for his sin. For example, he leaves chewing gum under pillows for children and cuts wood for no pay. Uncle John has severe mood swings. As he lives his repentant lifestyle, carnal pressures swell up inside of him until they burst, at which point he goes on drinking sprees and sleeps with prostitutes. Throughout the novel, Uncle John has little character development. However, at the end of the novel, he shows a willingness to look past his complexes by agreeing to bury the dead infant.