"Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of," says a character Jim Casy at the beginning of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Each person is "a little piece of a great big soul," and each person is part of a family of souls. No one can survive without his family; and yet the events that unravel during and after the Joad family's journey to California ruthlessly tear the family apart.
While the Joads are on the road, numerous events ravage the family unit. First, Grandpa dies from a stroke after the Joads leave their land-- "he's jus' stayin' with the lan'. He [can't] leave it." Shortly after his death, Grandma follows. Noah stays behind at a river, and Connie deserts Rose of Sharon and her baby. The Wilsons, who have become part of the family, stay behind too when Sarah Wilson is too sick to continue. Before the family reaches California, they have already lost several members.
A striking blow to the Joads is dealt when Tom inadvertently kills a man. Tom, often the central support of the family, now has to leave the family and hide to prevent himself from being discovered. Although Ma continues to send Tom food, he is no longer physically close to his family. Later, when Ruthie unwittingly lets on that her brother is "a-hidin' right now from killin' a fella," Tom has to leave the family permanently and go "a long ways off, three-four hundred miles." Tom's departure devastates Ma and leaves the family bereft of another pillar of support.
"A fella ain't no good alone," and the situation becomes ever more desperate for the Joads when one by one, their family members succumb to disease, hunger, cowardice, and blind fate. "We was always one thing-- we was the fambly...whole and clear...," says Ma Joad, "we're cracking up...there ain't no fambly now." The Joads' journey to California in search of hope and stability instead leaves them with a shattered family unit.