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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE NOVEL THE CHARACTERS
  • ROSE OF SHARON

    They say that mothers-to-be are sometimes irritable, often sickly, and always unpredictable. Rose of Sharon, the Joads' older daughter, qualifies in all three respects.

    Anyone on a difficult overland journey has every right to become upset and cross. But because she's pregnant, Rose of Sharon complains more than most, particularly after the family reaches California.

    She frets mostly over her baby. Will it be healthy if she can't get good food to eat? Will the baby be hurt by a bumpy road? The family dog gets killed on the highway as Rose of Sharon looks on. Will the shock harm the infant?

    A religious fanatic at the government camp plants the thought in Rose of Sharon's head that sinful mothers make their babies die. Rose of Sharon thinks she's sinned by dancing and by acting in a play back in Oklahoma. In spite of Ma's assurances, Rose of Sharon can't stop believing that if her baby isn't damned in one way, it is doomed in another.

    Do Rose of Sharon's antics make her seem immature, almost too young to be a mother? She is at a tender age, probably not yet 18. When Tom left for prison four years back, she was only a child. Now she's a woman, married to Connie Rivers.

    Connie and Rose of Sharon set themselves apart from the mundane matters that occupy the rest of the family. They focus solely on the baby. That they are bringing new life to the world allows them to dwell in the future instead of the here and now. They dream of the house they'll buy for the baby in California, about the car they'll drive, and about Connie's schooling and job.


    When the going gets tough, Connie abandons his young wife. What a setback for Rose of Sharon! Her every ache and worry are compounded. She grows sick and lethargic.

    At the boxcar camp some of Rose of Sharon's ailments go away. She gets plenty of rest and nourishing food. But feelings of bitterness over being deserted stay put. Secret jealousy and self-pity keep her from taking part in Al and Aggie's engagement celebration.

    As time for the birth approaches, Rose of Sharon does a surprising thing for someone in her delicate state. She insists on picking cotton with the rest of her family. Is she being ruled by a self-destructive impulse? Downhearted people often are. Or might her sudden desire to work be just one of those odd urges that pregnant women feel?

    Out in the cotton field she is chilled by the cold and wind. She develops a fever and lies in bed for three days. The next day, as the floodwaters rise around the boxcar, she goes into long and painful labor. The baby is born dead.

    Rose of Sharon takes the news stoically, which is unlike her. Maybe she's relieved to know that she won't have to raise a child in awesome poverty. Suffering through childbirth has perhaps opened her eyes. Throughout the book we've seen her concerned almost exclusively with herself and her problems. Now she looks out at the world and turns completely about. In an act of extreme charity, she suckles a dying man with the milk of human kindness.

    What Ma learned during months of suffering, Rose of Sharon discovered all at once: everybody must be treated as family if we are to endure. It's a message of love, which Rose of Sharon powerfully dramatizes for us in a barn.


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