The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Summary and Analysis of Chapters 18-21

Chapter Eighteen: When the Joads reach Arizona, a border guard stops them and nearly turns them back, but finally lets them continue. They eventually reach the desert of California. The terrain here is barren and desolate. While washing themselves during a stop, the Joads encounter migrant workers who want to turn back; during this encounter, the Joads are informed that the Californians hate the migrant workers. A good deal of the land is owned by the Land and Cattle Company, which leaves the land largely untouched. Sheriffs push around migrant workers and derisively call them "Okies."

Noah tells Tom that he is going to leave everyone, for they don't care about him. Although Tom protests, Noah does depart. Granma remains ill, suffering from delusions. She believes that she sees Grampa. A Jehovite woman visits the Joads' tent to help Granma, and tells Ma that Granma will die soon. The woman also wants to organize a prayer meeting, but Ma orders the woman not to. Nevertheless, soon Ma can hear distant chanting and singing, which eventually descends into crying. Eventually, Granma Joad falls asleep.

Deputies come to the tent and tell Ma that the Joads cannot stay and that the authorities don't want any Okies around. Tom returns to the tent after the police leave, and feels glad that he wasn't there; he admits that he would have hit the cops. He then tells Ma about Noah. The Wilsons decide to remain even if they face arrest, since Sairy is sick and needs more time to recuperate. Sairy asks Casy to say a prayer for her. The Joads move on, and at a stop a boy remarks that Okies are hard-looking and less-than-human. Uncle John, who fears that he brings bad luck, speaks with Casy about this belief. Yet again the Joads are pulled over for inspection, but Ma Joad insists that the family must continue because Granma needs medical attention. The next morning, when the Joads reach the orange groves, Ma tells the rest of her family that Granma is dead. She had 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 offer a genuine solution to the Joads' problems. The migrant workers are loathed, and there is no way to avoid the difficult conditions created by wealthy corporate interests. The rich owners are characterized as paranoid, vindictive, and cowardly. Steinbeck even creates an 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 Joad family loses yet another member once it reaches California, when Noah decides to leave. However, this loss is voluntary, since Noah, Tom's frequently-ignored brother, simply decides that he will stay near a river and support himself by fishing. This loss emphasizes 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 on the brink of death at the beginning of this chapter, she temporarily pulls through. Once again Ma takes charge, ordering the Jehovites to leave her family alone. She even confronts the deputies who threaten her, effectively intimidating them. The deputies are the first major manifestation of the contempt toward "Okies" that was mentioned earlier in the chapter. Hatred of Okies 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 Casy 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 expecting that, as a former preacher, he will be a source of certainty.

Perhaps the most dramatic event in this chapter, the death of Granma Joad is significant because it demonstrates just how much Ma Joad can bear -- and how relentless she can be. The event forces her to confront and intimidate several police officers and to 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 Americans poured in and took over the land. As the Americans gained control, farming became a systematic industry. The Americans imported Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Filipino workers, who essentially served as slaves. The owners of the farms ceased to be farmers and became businessmen; they hated the Okies because they could not profit from this set of arrivals. Other laborers hated the Okies because they pushed down wages. While the native Californians had aspirations to social success and luxury, the barbarous Okies only wanted land and food. Hoovervilles arose at the edges of towns all over the state. And dislike of the Okies took other forms: deputies overreacted to the Okies, spurred by stories that an eleven year-old Okie had shot a deputy. With all this history of tension, the great owners realize 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 as the sorry history of California, fraught with indignity and oppression. Americans took the land from the Mexicans, placed Asian workers into virtual slavery, and finally condemned the Okies to build shantytowns. Yet Steinbeck predicts that the conclusion of this history will be the overthrow of the capitalist owner class. To some extent, 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 the population to such a degree that the people will have no choice but to revolt.

Chapter Twenty: The Joads take Granma to the Bakersfield coroner's office, but find that they can't afford a funeral for her. They go to a camp to ask about work; they ask a bearded man if he owns the camp and whether they can stay, and he replies to them with the same question. A younger man tells them that the bearded, crazy old man is called the Mayor. According to this younger man, the Mayor has apparently been pushed around by the police so much that he's been made bull-simple (or crazy). The police don't want Okies to settle down, for then they could draw relief, organize, and vote. The younger man tells the Joads about the handbill fraud, affirming earlier suspicions, and Tom suggests that everybody organize so that they can guarantee higher wages. Upon hearing this, the young man warns Tom about the blacklist. If Tom is labeled an agitator, he will be prevented from getting work from anybody. Tom talks to Casy, who has recently been relatively quiet. Casy says that the people without organization are like an army without a harness. Ultimately, Casy says that he isn't helping the family out and should go off by himself. Tom tries to convince him to stay, at least until the next day, and Casy relents. However, there are other notes of discontent: 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, a place where the cops cannot push people around and where there is good drinking water. Al goes around looking for girls, and brags about how Tom killed a man. Al also meets a man named Floyd Knowles, who tells the Joads that there is no steady work. Al brings Floyd back to the family, and Floyd says that there will be work up north, around Santa Clara Valley. He tells the Joads to leave quietly, because everyone else will follow after in search of the work. Al wants to go with Floyd no matter what.

A little later, a man in a business suit arrives in a Chevrolet coupe. He tells the migrants about work picking fruit around Tulare County. Floyd tells the man to show his license; this (appearing without a license) is one of the tricks that the contractors use. Floyd then points out even more 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 the camp. However, Floyd punches the cop and runs off. Tom aids in the escape by tripping the deputy. The deputy raises his gun to shoot Floyd and fires indiscriminately, shooting a woman in the hand. Suddenly, Casy kicks the deputy in the back of the neck, knocking him unconscious. Casy tells Tom to hide, since 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.

After this scene of chaos, the family takes stock of its situation. Rose of Sharon wonders where Connie has gone. She has not seen him recently. Uncle John, for his part, admits that he has five dollars, which he wants to spend on drink. Yet Uncle John now gives the family the five in exchange for two, which is enough money for him. Al tells Rose of Sharon that he saw Connie leaving the area. 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 at night, the Joads are forced to leave. Tom goes to find Uncle John, who has gone off to get drunk, and locates him singing morosely beside a river. He claims that he wants to die; because of Uncle John's difficult state, Tom has to hit him to make him come along. Together, the Joads leave the camp, heading north toward the government camp.


The cruelty of the California police is prominent in this chapter, beginning with the introduction of the Mayor. This character has been subjected to continuous torture by the police, a process which has driven him insane. The reason for this torture is simple: such torture is an attempt by the police to prevent the migrant workers from settling in California. If the migrants were to settle down, they could vote and exercise political power. If they have no permanent residence, they cannot organize and threaten the ruling business elites. Yet anybody who opposes the designs of big business is automatically labeled a labor agitator and placed on the blacklist, so that he is prevented from working anywhere. The police can even murder migrant workers, for these laborers 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 attain a middle-class lifestyle. Ma Joad, in contrast, remains the center of authority, generous and just. She gives away some food to starving children even when her family must budget its own food carefully, 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. Uncle John has also remained somewhat aloof from the family, keeping five dollars for himself in order to get drunk. However, even when he wishes to behave selfishly, he still makes a sacrifice for the good of the Joads, giving up more than half of his money. Unlike Connie's actions, his behavior is spurred by a heavy sense of guilt rather than a lack of concern for the others.

Nonetheless, there are indications of hope for the Joad family. The government camps are safe terrain for them, since they cannot be bothered or intimidated by police officers and can expect some comforts.

The sudden outbreak of violence is not really 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 not as dramatic as one might predict: 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.

Chapter Twenty-One: The hostility that the migrant workers have faced has changed them. They are now united as targets of hostility, and this unity makes the little Hooverville towns more capable of defending themselves. The larger tensions, however, have not disappeared: there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. The California residents fear them, thinking them dirty, ignorant degenerates and sexual maniacs. Because the number of migrant workers has caused the wages to go down, the owners invent a new economic method: the great owners buy canneries, where they keep the price of fruit down to force smaller farmers out. Yet the owners do not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin one.


This chapter returns to previously-articulated themes, explaining some of the tactics that the great owners use in order to make profits at the expense of working class farmers. Steinbeck also makes it clear that the result of such tactics will be a working class uprising, the product of perpetual poverty and oppression.