Ma Joad tells Tom that she is concerned about going to California, worried that it won't turn out well, for the only information the family has gleaned is from flyers. Despite these reservations, Casy asks to accompany the Joads to California. He wants to work in the fields, where he can listen to people rather than preach to them. Tom says that preaching is a tone of voice and a style, being good to people when they don't respond to it. Pa and Uncle John greet the rest of the family with the truck, and they all prepare to leave. The two young children, twelve-year old Ruthie and ten-year old Winfield, are there with their older sister, Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) and her husband.
That night, the Joads hold a family conference and discuss a number of issues: they decide to allow Casy to come along with them, since it's the right thing for them to do. They also continue with their preparations, killing their pigs so that they will have food to take with them. While Casy is helping Ma Joad with food preparation, he remarks that she looks tired, perhaps sick. Ma Joad looks through her belongings, going through old letters and clippings she has saved; she burns these items before the family's departure. Before the Joads leave, Muley Graves stops in to say goodbye. Noah tells him that he's going to die out in the fields if he stays, but Muley accepts his fate. In another case of attachment to the land, Grampa refuses to leave; the other Joads decide to give him medicine that knocks him out and manage to take him with them.
This chapter illustrates the Joad family dynamic. The presence of numerous relatives from across three generations makes maintaining order difficult, as the family meeting demonstrates. The Joad family has Grampa as its nominal head, yet he exerts no special influence. If any member of the family leads the others, it is Ma Joad, who dominates by moral force. It is she who issues the final verdict that allows Casy to go with them to California. While Tom Joad is the main character in The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad is the story's moral center, reminding everyone that they have greater concerns than just their own interests. As she indicates, it would be wrong of them to refuse food or shelter to anyone.
Yet Ma Joad appears to be the principal victim of the move to California. Casy notices that she looks ill from recent events, and she is the only one in the family who appears to have regrets. For the others, this is surely an unfortunate move, yet Ma Joad must leave behind the memories that she treasures. Even Grampa, when he refuses to leave, does so in a display of bitter energy. Ma Joad, in contrast, is overcome with a great weariness.
Grampa's refusal to leave highlights how important the land is for the Joads and for other people like them. For Grampa, leaving the area where he was born and raised is unimaginable. Yet he has no options. If he were to remain, he would essentially cease to exist, much like Muley Graves.
The houses have been left vacant. Only the tractor sheds made of gleaming iron and silver are alive. Yet when the tractors are at rest the life goes out of them. The work of these machines is easy and efficient, so easy that the wonder goes out of the work and so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and its cultivation. In the tractor, a man grows a spirit of contempt, since such a man is a stranger who has little understanding of and no relation to the land. The abandoned houses slowly fall apart.
This chapter provides one more critique of the new means of cotton production that is overtaking the farms. The fate of the tractors contrasts sharply with that of the farmers who once worked there. The tractors and their drivers have no connection to the land, little understanding of and no relationship with it. The farmers, in contrast, have a deep and long-standing affection for the land on which they lived and worked; this is part of the reason why Grampa, in the previous chapter, refused to leave Oklahoma.
Steinbeck also continues to remind the reader that the tractors are inhuman. He creates a mocking metaphor (in which the tractors go home at the end of the day and go to sleep) to demonstrate how far the spectacle of the tractors is from an actual human experience. Steinbeck even explicitly establishes how "dead" the tractors are, comparing one to a corpse.
Chapter Twelve: Highway 66 is the main migrant road stretching from the Mississippi River to Bakersfield, California. It is a road of flight for refugees from dust and poverty. The people stream out onto Highway 66, risking the breakdown of their undependable cars on the way. And the travelers face other obstacles. California is a big state, but not big enough to support all of the workers who are approaching The border patrol can turn people back. The high wages that are promised may be a deception.
In this chapter, Steinbeck foreshadows a number of the problems that the Joad family will face on its travels. He highlights the problems that people often have with their cars -- including the possibility of breakdown, a problem that may afflict the Joad family's unreliable vehicle.
Building off earlier segments of The Grapes of Wrath, this chapter begins to affirm the unpleasant fact that California may not be a panacea for the Joads' problems. Even if the Joads reach the California border, they may be turned back. So many others are making the same journey that there is bound to be an overcrowded job market among the migrant workers in California. Arrival in California does not necessarily mean that the Joads' problems will be solved or that they will be in even a marginally better situation than faced them in Oklahoma.
The Joads continue on their travels. Al remarks that they may have trouble getting over mountains in their car, which can barely support the weight of the family and its belongings. Grampa Joad wakes up and insists that he's not going with the rest of the Joads. They stop at a gas station where the owner automatically assumes they are broke and tells them that people often stop, begging for gas.
The owner claims that fifty cars per day go west, but wonders what the Joads expect to find when they reach their destination. He tells that one family traded their daughter's doll for some gas. Casy wonders what the nation is coming to, since people seem unable to make a decent living; he says that he once had used his energy to fight the devil, believing that the devil was the enemy. However, now he believes that there's something worse.
The Joad's dog wanders away from the car and is run over in the road. The family members continue on their journey and begin to worry when they reach the state line. However, Tom reassures them that he is only in danger if he commits a crime. Otherwise, nobody will know that he has broken his parole by leaving his home state. On their next stop for the night, the Joads meet the Wilsons, a family from Kansas that is going to California. Grampa complains of illness and weeps, causing the rest of the family to fear that he will suffer a stroke. Granma tells Casy to pray for Grampa, even if he is no longer a preacher. Suddenly Grampa starts twitching and slumps; he dies abruptly. The Joads now face a choice: they can pay fifty dollars for a proper burial for Grampa or have him buried as a pauper. They decide to bury Grampa themselves and leave a note so that people don't assume that he was murdered. In a show of solidarity, the Wilsons help the Joads to bury Grampa. A verse from scripture is included in the note on his grave.
After burying Grampa, the Joads have Casy say a few words. Overall, the reactions to the death are varied. Rose of Sharon comforts Granma, while Uncle John is curiously unmoved by the turn of events. Casy admits that he knew Grampa was dying, but didn't say anything because he couldn't have helped. He blames separation from the land for Grampa's death. Yet the Joads are given assistance during this difficult time: the Joads and the Wilsons decide to help each other by distributing weight between their two cars so that both families will make it to California.
The first stop that the Joads make reinforces the idea that they may not find work when they reach California because of a glutted labor market. But even when confronted with a dire situation, the Joads are nevertheless better off than some travelers; at the very least, the Joads are able to pay for gas.
Casy reiterates the idea that the nation faces a nearly unconquerable enemy. Although he does not explicitly identify this enemy, its characteristics indicate that it is the capitalist system that was vilified earlier in the novel. Casy depicts the enemy as a system that prevents normal people from making a decent living. For Casy, this evil is too powerful to effectively combat -- more daunting and more difficult to oppose than even the devil.
Early in the journey the Joads suffer a fateful loss, if one less significant than the loss of an actual family member -- the death of the family dog. Its early demise, which occurs before the Joads even reach the Oklahoma border, foreshadows the further losses that the family may suffer. Steinbeck further anticipates the problems that the Joads may face when Tom mentions parole violations. He is only in danger if he commits another crime, yet his difficult temperament keeps that danger alive.
The death of the dog is followed by the death of an actual family member. Despite his tough veneer of anger and bitterness, Grampa is in fact sensitive to the family's uprooting. Since he was the one family member most adamantly opposed to leaving home, it is likely the separation that hastened his demise. Casy makes a direct correlation between Grampa's death and the Joads' journey, reinforcing the idea that these people have a significant personal connection the the land they farmed.
Throughout the novel, Casy frequently must perform the duties of a preacher. Although he maintains that he no longer believes in preaching, he is forced to perform his old role, whether praying for Grampa during the stroke or saying a few parting words after Grampa's burial. This seems to indicate that Casy is ideally suited for the role of preacher, despite his disenchantment with religion. In his parting words for Grampa Joad, Casy does reiterate his belief that people are the source of holiness.
The agreement between the Joads and the Wilsons to aid each other on the way to California is a significant plot development, for it is in collective action that these families find their strength. This cooperation is the first building block in a collectivist scheme that Steinbeck seems to support -- a scheme in which working class people come together to improve their mutual lot in life.