The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)
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The Grapes of Wrath Summary and Analysis

by John Steinbeck

Chapters 16-20

Chapter Sixteen: The Joads and the Wilsons continue on their travels. Rose of Sharon discusses with her mother what they will do when they reach California. She and Connie want to live in a town, where he can get a job in a store or a factory. He wants to study at home, possibly taking a radio correspondence course. There is a rattling in the Wilson's car, so Al is forced to pull over. There are problems with the motor. Sairy Wilson tells them that they should go on ahead without them, but Ma Joad refuses, telling them that they are like family now and they won't desert them. Tom says that he and Casy will stay with the truck if everyone goes on ahead. They'll fix the car and then move on. Only Ma objects. She refuses to go, for the only thing that they have left is each other and she will not break up the family even momentarily. When everyone else objects to her, she even picks up a jack handle and threatens them. Tom and Casy try to fix the car, and Casy remarks about how he has seen so many cars moving west, but no cars going east. Casy predicts that all of the movement and collection of people in California will change the country. The two of them stay with the car while the family goes ahead. Before they leave, Al tells Tom that Ma is worried that he will do something that might break his parole. Granma has been going crazy, yelling and talking to herself. Al asks Tom about what he felt when he killed a man. Tom admits that prison has a tendency to drive a man insane. Tom and Al find a junkyard where they find a part to replace the broken con-rod in the Wilson's car. The one-eyed man working at the junkyard complains about his boss, and says that he might kill him. Tom tells off the one-eyed man for blaming all of his problems on his eye, and then criticizes Al for his constant worry that people will blame him for the car breaking down. Tom, Casy and Al rejoin the rest of the family at a campground not far away. To stay at the campground, the three would have to pay an additional charge, for they would be charged with vagrancy if they slept out in the open. Tom, Casy and Uncle John eventually decide to go on ahead and meet up with everyone else in the morning. A ragged man at the camp, when he hears that the Joads are going to pick oranges in California, laughs. The man, who is returning from California, tells how the handbills are a fraud. They ask for eight hundred people, but get several thousand people who want to work. This drives down wages. The proprietor of the campground suspects that the ragged man is trying to stir up trouble for labor.


Rose of Sharon stands as a stark contrast to the rest of the characters in The Grapes of Wrath. She is the only adult character who retains some sense of hope for their future; she believes in the possibility of living a decent life with her husband and eventual child. The other characters expect little more from California than meager survival, while Rose of Sharon hopes to live the traditional American dream. She is the one beacon of hope within the Joad family. Even her younger brother, Al, does not have a similar optimism. He is defensive and combative, consistently worried that others will blame him for problems with the car.

Ma Joad once again reveals herself to be the center of the Joad family when she demands that they not leave Tom and Casy behind, even temporarily. She leaves the family no option but to remain together, even threatening violence against anybody who opposes her. In doing so, she reiterates the idea that the strength that these people have is in unity.

Steinbeck makes it quite clear by the end of the chapter that once the Joads reach California they may not find work. Casy mentions that he has seen numerous others travel westward, but has seen nobody travel back east, and the ragged man that the Joads meet at the campground confirms this fear. Even worse than a crowded labor market is the fact that the presumed opportunities for jobs are a fraud, inducing too many workers in order to drive down wages. The ragged men even suggests that the Joads will face a worse fate in California than they did in Oklahoma. For revealing this information, the ragged men is automatically pegged as a labor agitator, a derisive label consistently given to those who expose social injustices.

The one-eyed man serves as yet another picture of the American experience. He is garish and grotesque and his introduction is a break from the realistic depiction of the novel. The one-eyed man reveals his life story almost immediately, a device that is far from dramatically realistic but serves to give him some layering. He is one of the many workers the Joads encounter, but he is not insignificant. Steinbeck gives him some personality and history to emphasize the importance of all working people, whether or not they are the focus of this particular story. His appearance also demonstrates once again that Tom is forthright and direct. He will not shy away from standing up to a person, a quality that gives him an air of authority but may prove dangerous.

Chapter Seventeen: A strange thing happened for the migrant laborers. During the day, as they traveled, the cars were separate and lonely, yet in the evening a strange thing happened: at the campgrounds where they stayed the twenty or so families became one. Their losses and their concerns became communal. The families were at first timid, but they gradually built small societies within the campgrounds, with codes of behavior and rights that must be observed. For transgressions, there were only two punishments: violence or ostracism. Leaders emerged, generally the wise elders. The various families found connections to one another


This chapter focuses on the society of the migrant workers, a somewhat idealized society that forms spontaneously. It is an essentially communal society, one with rules and regulations determining polite behavior and enabling the various, disparate families to find common interests. In essence, Steinbeck uses the campground life to build a utopian society in which ostentatious display of wealth is shunned, equality reigns and no real ruling class emerges. The closest to a ruling class that emerges is the elderly, who rule from wisdom and experience.

Chapter Eighteen: When the Joads reach Arizona, a border guard stops them and nearly turns them back, but does let them continue. They eventually reach the desert of California. The terrain is barren and desolate. While washing themselves during a stop, the Joads encounter migrant workers who want to turn back. They tell them that the Californians hate the migrant workers. A good deal of the land is owned by the Land and Cattle Company that leaves the land largely untouched. Sheriffs push around migrant workers, whom they derisively call "Okies." Noah tells Tom that he is going to leave everyone, for they don't care about him. Although Tom protests, Noah leaves them. Granma remains ill, suffering from delusions. She believes that she sees Grampa. A Jehovite woman visits their tent to help Granma, and tells Ma that she will die soon. The woman wants to organize a prayer meeting, but Ma orders them not to do so. Nevertheless, soon she can hear from a distance chanting and singing that eventually descends into crying. Granma whines with the whining, then eventually falls asleep. Rose of Sharon wonders where Connie is. Deputies come to the tent and tell Ma that they cannot stay there and that they don't want any Okies around. Tom returns to the tent after the policeman leaves, and is glad that he wasn't there; he admits that he would have hit the cop. He tells Ma about Noah. The Wilsons decide to remain even if they face arrest, since Sairy is too sick to leave without any rest. Sairy asks Casy to say a prayer for her. The Joads move on, and at a stop a boy remarks how hard-looking Okies are and how they are less than human. Uncle John speaks with Casy, worried that he brings bad luck to people. Connie and Rose of Sharon need privacy. Yet again the Joads are pulled over for inspection, but Ma Joad insists that they must continue because Granma needs medical attention. The next morning when they reach the orange groves, Ma tells them that Granma is dead. She died before they were pulled over for inspection.


The arrival in California is anticlimactic at best. The Joads cross the border only to enter the harsh California desert. They still must journey farther to reach the orange groves. There is further evidence that California will not prove the solution to the Joad's problems. The migrant workers are loathed, and there still remains the problems of the wealthy corporate interests. The rich owners are characterized as paranoid, vindictive and cowardly. Steinbeck even makes the explicit contrast between the cowardly owners and Grampa, a fearless old man even in his final days. The rich owners have wealth, but they suffer from loneliness and fear. In this manner they are worse off than even the most impoverished.

The family loses yet another member once they reach California when Noah decides to leave. However, this loss is voluntary, as Noah, Tom's brother who has been frequently ignored, decides that he will stay at the river and support himself by fishing. This loss demonstrates the sense of hopelessness that has set in. Noah, like Muley Graves, decides to leave society instead of being crushed by it.

Although Granma seems to be at the brink of death during the beginning of this chapter, she eventually pulls through. Once again Ma takes charge, ordering the Jehovites to leave them alone. She even confronts the deputies who threaten her, effectively intimidating them. The deputies are the first example of the contempt toward "Okies" that was mentioned earlier in the chapter. This hatred is made even more explicit by the boy at the gas station, who remarks that the Okies are less than human.

The various members of the Joad family become more tense and irritable as the journey continues. Rose of Sharon and Connie begin to feel a sense of claustrophobia, bothered by the lack of privacy, while Uncle John worries irrationally that he may be the cause of the family's troubles. Uncle John, like Sairy Wilson, wishes to use Casy as a preacher, a designation he loathes but nevertheless accepts. Casy's protestations that he is not a preacher and does not believe in god seem excessive. He refuses to be called a preacher because he has doubts, and others approach him as a preacher expecting certainty.

The death of Granma Joad is significant for it demonstrates just how much Ma Joad can bear. The event forces her to confront and intimidate several police officers and hide Granma's fate from the rest of the family.

Chapter Nineteen: California once belonged to Mexico and its land to the Mexicans. But a horde of tattered feverish American poured in, with such great hunger for the land that they took it. Farming became an industry as the Americans took over. They imported Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Filipino workers who became essentially slaves. The owners of the farms ceased to be farmers and became businessmen. They hated the Okies who came because they could not profit from them. Other laborers hated the Okies because they pushed down wages. While the Californians had aspirations of social success and luxury, the barbarous Okies only wanted land and food. Hoovervilles arose at the edge of every town. The Okies were forced to secretly plant gardens in the evenings. The deputies overreacted to the Okies, spurred by stories that an eleven year old Okie shot a deputy. The great owners realized that when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away and that when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.


Steinbeck traces what he sees to be the sorry history of California, fraught with slavery and oppression. Americans took the land from the Mexicans, put Asian workers into virtual slavery, and finally condemned the Okies who were forced to build shantytowns. Yet Steinbeck predicts that the conclusion of this history will be the overthrow of the capitalist owner class. He relies on Marxist-Leninist predictions that capitalist imperialism creates its demise through its own success. Eventually the accumulation of wealth in too few hands will deprive of the population to such a degree that they have no choice but to revolt. He also reiterates themes previously developed, such as the contempt for Okies from ordinary Californians and particularly authority figures such as the police.

Chapter Twenty: The Joads take Granma to the Bakersfield coroner's office. They can't afford a funeral for her. They go to a camp to stay and ask about work. They ask a bearded man if he owns the camp and whether they can stay, and he replies with the same question to them. A younger man tells them that the crazy old man is called the Mayor. According to the man, the Mayor has likely been pushed by the police around so much that he's been made bull-simple (crazy). The police don't want them to settle down, for then they could draw relief, organize and vote. The younger man tells them about the handbill fraud, and Tom suggests that everybody organize so that they could guarantee higher wages. The man warns Tom about the blacklist. If he is labeled an agitator he will be prevented from getting from anybody. Tom talks to Casy, who has recently been relatively quiet. Casy says that the people unorganized are like an army without a harness. Casy says that he isn't helping out the family and should go off by himself. Tom tries to convince him to stay at least until the next day, and he relents. Connie regrets his decision to come with the Joads. He says that if he had stayed in Oklahoma he could have worked as a tractor driver. When Ma is fixing dinner, groups of small children approach, asking for food. The children tell the Joads about Weedpatch, a government camp that is nearby where no cops can push people around and there is good drinking water. Al goes around looking for girls, and brags about how Tom killed a man. Al meets a man named Floyd Knowles, who tells them that there was no steady work. A woman reprimands Ma Joad for giving her children stew. Al brings Floyd back to the family, where he says that there will be work up north around Santa Clara Valley. He tells them to leave quietly, because everyone else will follow after the work. Al wants to go with Floyd no matter what. A man arrives in a Chevrolet coupe, wearing a business suit. He tells them about work picking fruit around Tulare County. Floyd tells the man to show his license -­this is one of the tricks that the contractor uses. Floyd points out some of the dirty tactics that the contractor is using, such as bringing along a cop. The cop forces Floyd into the car and says that the Board of Health might want to shut down their camp. Floyd punched the cop and ran off. As the deputy chased after him, Tom tripped him. The deputy raised his gun to shoot Floyd and fires indiscriminately, shooting a woman in the hand. Suddenly Casy kicked the deputy in the back of the neck, knocking him unconscious. Casy tells Tom to hide, for the contractor saw him trip the deputy. More officers come to the scene, and they take away Casy, who has a faint smile and a look of pride. Rose of Sharon wonders where Connie has gone. She has not seen him recently. Uncle John admits that he had five dollars. He kept it to get drunk. Uncle John gives them the five in exchange for two, which is enough for him. Al tells Rose of Sharon that he saw Connie, who was leaving. Pa claims that Connie was too big for his overalls, but Ma scolds him, telling him to act respectfully, as if Connie were dead. Because the cops are going to burn the camp tonight, they have to leave. Tom goes to find Uncle John, who has gone off to get drunk. Tom finds him by the river, singing morosely. He claims that he wants to die. Tom has to hit him to make him come. Rose of Sharon wants to wait for Connie to return. They leave the camp, heading north toward the government camp.


The cruelty of the California police is prominently in this chapter, beginning with the introduction of the Mayor. He has been subjected to continuous torture by the police, which has driven him insane. The reason for this torture is simple: it is an attempt by the police to prevent the migrant workers from settling in California. If they were to settle down, they could vote and have political power. If they have no permanent residence, they cannot organize and threaten the ruling business elites. Yet anybody who opposes their designs is automatically labeled a labor agitator and placed on the blacklist, preventing him from working anywhere. The police can even murder migrant workers, for they have no name and no property, and thus no power.

The family loses one more member when Connie Rivers abandons his pregnant wife. He leaves out of selfishness; he believes that he would have been better off staying in Oklahoma and that he can make a better life for himself away from the Joads. What he does out of self-interest is tantamount to treason for the Joads. Connie reveals himself to be arrogant in his belief that he can aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. Ma Joad, in contrast, remains the center of authority, generous and just. She gives away some food to starving children when her family can ill afford to spare food themselves, and even defends Connie, claiming that it is useless to criticize him for leaving.

Connie's selfish behavior is reflected in Uncle John's similar actions. He has also held out from the family, keeping five dollars for himself in order to get drunk. However, when he wishes to behave selfishly, he still makes some sacrifice for the family, giving up more than half of his money. Furthermore, his behavior is spurred by a heavy sense of guilt rather than a lack of concern for the others.

There is some indication of hope for the Joad family. The government camps are safe terrain for them, where they cannot be bothered by intimidating police officers and can expect some comforts.

The sudden outbreak of violence is not an unexpected event, considering the previous accounts of the California deputies' cruelty and Tom's warning that he is still capable of committing violent acts. Yet the fight is somewhat softened: Tom does little more than trip the deputy, while Casy knocks the man unconscious. It is the deputy who causes the real havoc, inadvertently shooting an innocent woman. Still, the outcome of the event is significant for Jim Casy. He takes Tom's place as the scapegoat for the crime, sacrificing himself to save Tom. His role in the novel as a spiritual martyr is fulfilled.

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