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Tom Joad, as a representative of all migrant workers, is the protagonist of the novel. He is the rootless man, the individual who must learn responsibility for what capitalism has done to people and to the earth. Along with Tom, the Joads and the other migrants are sent on the road on a quest to rethink their relationship with both humanity and the land itself. This process has been called "education of the heart." By the end of the novel, Tom relinquishes his self-absorption and embraces Casy's mixture of Emersonian idealism and a particular form of American communalism. He plans to translate Casy's dream of organizing people to improve their living conditions into action.
Poverty is the antagonist of Tom Joad and all migrant workers. Poverty throws people into an intense relationship with nature and its contingencies. Steinbeck, a naturalist, believed that people were the helpless victims of an indifferent environment. The Oklahoma land companies and the Californian landowners are the forces that inflict the poverty in the context of the novel.
The climax occurs in Chapter 26 when Casy is murdered, and Tom avenges his death and goes into hiding. These events cause Tom to mature and accept the philosophies of Casy. He realizes that the only way to fight the poverty and poor treatment is to take unified action.
The novel outwardly ends in tragedy. The Joads, like all the migrant workers, are continually plagued and threatened from the start of their journey to California. Their lives progressively deteriorate until the novel's ending when the family is considerably reduced in number, and Rose of Sharon's stillborn child is seen floating downstream. They have no money or no food for the winter, and have no idea how they will make it. Tom Joad, the protagonist, fully shares in the family's suffering from intense poverty.
In addition, Tom lives in fear of being discovered as a murderer. The only bright spot in a bleak ending to the novel is Tom Joad's new insight about life. He becomes aware that he has to be concerned not only for his own family's welfare, but also for the welfare of all families. It is only through a united effort that the migrant workers can rise above their extremely low level of poverty. Ma, the pillar of strength, who has cared mainly for her own family, also embraces this philosophy, and Rose of Sharon is seen nursing a dying man in the last scene of the novel. These are also small signs of hope.