Chapter Fourteen: The Western States are nervous about several new factors, including widening government influence, growing labor unity, and strikes. However, these states do not realize that these factors are results of change and not causes of it. The true cause is the hunger of the multitude. The danger that established powers face is that the people's perspective on social problems has moved from "I" to "we."
This chapter makes an explicit political statement concerning the migration to the west coast. The owners and controlling powers fear the changes that are imminent and that threaten their interests. However, the owners are the cause of such changes. By forcing the farmers from their land, business interests have created the hunger that afflicts the farmers.
Steinbeck once again considers the definition and function of a man. According to him, a man is defined by what he creates, what work he does, and -- most importantly -- his ability for improvement. The narration warns against the prospect of mankind ceasing to struggle for improvement, even though that struggle leads to sacrifice. This chapter is an attempt to create a larger perspective on mankind as something greater than the collective interest of individuals. According to Steinbeck, mankind is distinguished because men's actions can go beyond the individual man.
This chapter also pinpoints the adversarial relationship between the owners and the working classes. The owners exploit individual interests in order to thwart the collective good. By forcing men to consider only self-interest, the owners prevent the possibility that collective interest may form and foment revolution.
Chapter Fifteen: This chapter begins with a description of the hamburger stands and diners on Route 66. The typical diner is run by an often-irritated woman, who nevertheless becomes friendly when truck drivers -- consistent customers who can always pay -- enter. The more wealthy travelers drop names and buy vanity products. The owners of the diners complain about the migrating workers, who can't pay and often steal. A family comes into a designated diner, wanting to buy a loaf of bread. The one owner, Mae, tells them that her business is not a grocery store, but Al, the other, is more receptive. For her part, Mae eventually sells the family candy for reduced prices. Mae and Al wonder what such families will do once they reach California.
Instead of depicting the plight of the migrant families from the perspective of the Joads, this chapter gives another, somewhat unsympathetic perspective on the migrants' situation. For the people who own the diners and other small businesses along Route 66, the migrant workers are little more than a burden, since the migrants ask these people, who are simply attempting to make a living, for handouts and charity. The men and women who work at the diners on Route 66 view the migrant families with a conflicted sense of loathing and compassion. They see these travelers as shiftless and threatening, yet do take pity on them. Mae and Al sell one group of migrants a loaf of bread and Mae even sells the children candy for a much-reduced price. Yet part of this compassion stems from impatience. It is easier to give the migrant families what they want and send them on their way.
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 Connie can get a job in a store or a factory. He also wants to study at home, possibly taking a radio correspondence course. Then there is a rattling in the Wilson's car, so Al is forced to pull over; it turns out that there are problems with the motor.
Sairy Wilson tells the Joads that they should go ahead without the Wilsons, but Ma Joad refuses, telling them that they are like family now and that the group won't desert its members. Tom says that he and Casy will stay with the truck if everyone else goes on ahead; they'll fix the car and then move on. However, Ma objects. She refuses to go, for the only thing that the migrants have left is each other and she will not break up the family even momentarily. When everyone else objects to her argument, she picks up a jack handle and threatens them.
Tom and Casy try to fix the car, and Casy remarks that 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 the bulk of the family leaves, Al tells Tom that Ma is worried that he will do something that might break his parole. And this is not the only cause for concern: 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 locate a replacement part for the broken con-rod in the Wilsons' 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. Soon enough, Tom, Casy, and Al rejoin the rest of the family at a campground not far away. Yet to stay at the campground, the three are required 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.
The Joads also learn more about their California prospects. 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, declares that the handbills are fraudulent: the handbills demand eight hundred people, but attract 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.
Rose of Sharon offers 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 the Joads' future; she believes in the possibility of living a decent life with her husband and eventual child. While the other characters expect little more from California than meager survival, 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 possess 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 as the center of the Joad family when she demands that the Joads 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 of disadvantaged people such as the Joads depends on unity.
Steinbeck makes it quite clear by the end of the chapter that the Joads might not find work in California. 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 deceptions, that the handbills have induced too many workers in order to drive down wages. The ragged man even suggests that the Joads will face a worse fate in California than they did in Oklahoma. For revealing this information, the ragged man is automatically pegged as a labor agitator -- a derisive label consistently given to those who expose social injustices in Steinbeck's novel.
The one-eyed man provides yet another slant on the American experience. He is garish and grotesque, and his introduction is a break from the thorough realism of the novel. The one-eyed man reveals his life story almost immediately -- a device that is far from credibly realistic but serves to give him some psychological 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 occupy central roles in The Grapes of Wrath. The episode with the one-eyed man also demonstrates once again that Tom Joad 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 still prove dangerous.
Chapter Seventeen: An important pattern of behavior emerges among the migrant laborers. During the day, as they travel, their cars are separate and lonely, yet in the evening a strange thing happens: at the campgrounds where they stay the twenty or so families become one. Their losses and their concerns become communal. The families are at first timid, but they gradually build small societies within the campgrounds, with codes of behavior and rights that must be observed. For transgressions, there are only two punishments: violence and ostracism. Leaders emerge, generally the wise elders. The various families find 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 that determine polite behavior and that enable the various, disparate families to find common interests. In essence, Steinbeck uses the campground life to depict a utopian order in which ostentatious displays of wealth are shunned, equality reigns, and no real ruling class emerges. The closest approximation to a ruling class is the group of elders, who rule from wisdom and experience.