Chapter Twenty-Seven: Those who want to pick cotton must first purchase a bag before they can make money. The men who weigh the cotton fix the scales to cheat the workers. On account of the growing industrialization of agriculture, the introduction of a cotton-picking machine seems inevitable.
Steinbeck here exposes several additional sources of fraud in the farming system. The owners who hire the cotton pickers seem intent on making sure that the pickers receive lower compensation than they deserve, and place these laborers in initial debt by making them pay for cotton bags beforehand. The system is made to maximize profit, no matter the cost to the worker. The only solution that the workers have is confrontation: they must stand up to the men who weigh the cotton and actively ensure that they are paid fairly.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Joads are now staying in a boxcar that stands beside a stream, a small home that proves better than any other residence, except for the quarters at the government camp. They are now picking cotton. Winfield tells Ma that Ruthie told got into an argument with some other kids and told them that her brother Tom was on the run for committing murder. Ruthie returns to Ma, crying that the kids stole her Cracker Jack -- the reason that she threatened them by telling about Tom -- but Ma tells Ruthie that it was her own fault for showing off her candy to others.
That night, in the pitch black, Ma Joad goes out into the woods and finds Tom, who has been hiding. She crawls close to him and wants to touch him to remember what he looks like. She also wants to give him seven dollars to take the bus and get away. He tells her that he has been thinking about Casy; Tom remembers that Casy went out into the woods searching for his soul, but only found that he had no individual soul, only part of a larger one. Tom has been wondering why people can't work together for their living, and vows to do what Casy had done. He leaves, but promises to return to the family when everything has blown over.
As she leaves Tom, Ma Joad does not cry. However, rain begins to fall. Upon her return to the boxcar, Ma meets Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright, who have come to talk to the Joads about their daughter, Aggie, who has been spending time with Al. The Wainwrights are worried that the two families will part and that they will then find out that Aggie is pregnant. Pa laments leaving Oklahoma, while Ma says that women can deal with change better than men, because women have their lives in their arms and men have theirs in their heads. For women, change is more acceptable because it seems inevitable.
Al and Aggie return to the boxcar, where they announce that they are getting married. They go out before dawn to pick cotton before everyone else and Rose of Sharon vows to go with them, even though she can barely move. When the Joads get to the place where the cotton is being picked, they discover that other families are already present. While the cotton picking continues, rain begins to fall, causing Rose of Sharon to fall ill. Everybody assumes that the young woman is about to deliver her child, but they discover instead that she is suffering from a chill. They take her back to the boxcar and start a fire to get her warm.
The Joads settle once again into a temporary home -- this time a boxcar -- but find their routine disrupted one more time when Ruthie reveals the secret about Tom. Significantly, the cause of Ruthie's fight with the other children is arrogance; by eating her candy out in the open, she offends the other children, who are starving. Tom's decision to leave the family is a bittersweet event, but entirely inevitable. By remaining with the family, he would place them in danger and make himself a burden, since he cannot contribute to their labor.
When Tom does decide to leave the Joad family, he does so with a new purpose that is a combination of political and spiritual belief. Tom accepts Casy's teaching that there is no individual soul, only a collective soul of which each person possesses only a part. With these new convictions in mind, he vows to continue Casy's struggle for better treatment of the workers. This is a turning point for Tom, who previously consigned himself to individualistic action for himself and his family but now wishes to work for the common good.
It is Ma Joad who bids farewell to Tom, proving herself once again to be the center of the Joad family. She also changes her own ideals in this chapter; she advises Tom to go alone, abandoning her earlier attempts to keep the family together at almost any cost. She has realized that family unity is insignificant without the greater social unity for which Tom will strive. Furthermore, even though Tom is the character for whom Ma has shown the most affection, she finds that she cannot weep over his departure. Rather, at the moment when she realizes she cannot cry, the rainfall begins -- a natural phenomenon that reflects her emotional state.
Steinbeck suggests in this chapter that women such as Ma Joad are better equipped to handle change and pain than men are. During the course of the novel, the men have often railed against their fates: Uncle John and Connie desert the family, while Grampa dies shortly after he is forced to leave Oklahoma. Ma Joad, in contrast, has accepted the changes she has faced. She explains that women can accept change because, for them, it is inevitable. They do not have the illusion that they control their own destinies, in evident contrast to men. Thus, they are less shaken when they are presented with hardship.
The immaturity that Al Joad has displayed throughout the novel takes a more dangerous edge in this chapter. Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright confront the Joads with the possibility that Al could get their daughter pregnant, leaving her with the burden of a child and little (or no) support. Even the announcement of Al and Aggie's engagement is not especially joyful news, since Steinbeck contrasts the engagement with the pregnancy of Rose of Sharon, who is ready to deliver her child without her husband or any other strong male influence to sustain her.
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The migrant families wonder how long the rain will last. The rain damages cars and penetrates tents. During the rain storms some people go to relief offices, but there are rules: one is required to live in California for a year before one can collect relief. The greatest terror has arrived -- no work available for a stretch of three months. Hungry men crowd the alleys to beg for bread; a number of people die. Anger festers, causing sheriffs to swear in new deputies. There will be no work and no food.
The migrant workers must face yet another hardship, this one perhaps the worst of all. With the coming of the rains comes the end of the harvest season. The migrant workers face starvation, yet cannot receive any government relief. For Steinbeck, the treatment of these workers is not merely inhumane; such treatment is below even the treatment of livestock. Steinbeck's narrative makes the point that no farm owner would leave his horse to starve when it was not used. However, the farm owners are allowing starvation to afflict the migrant labor force.
Chapter Thirty: After three days of rain, the Wainwrights decide that they must continue on their way. They fear that the creek will flood; however, Rose of Sharon goes into labor and the Joads, consequently, cannot leave. Even though Pa Joad and the rest of the men at the camp build up the embankment to prevent flooding, the water breaks through. Pa, Al, and Uncle John then rush toward the car, but it cannot start. They reach the boxcar and find that Rose of Sharon has delivered a stillborn baby.
The Joads realize that their car will eventually flood; Mr. Wainwright blames Pa Joad for asking the Wainwrights to stay and help, but Mrs. Wainwright offers the Joads her sympathy. She tells Ma Joad that it once was the case that family came first. Yet now the migrants have greater concerns. Uncle John places Rose of Sharon's dead baby in an apple box and floats it down the flooded stream as the other Joads build a platform on the top of the car. As the flood waters rise, the family remains on the platform. However, the family must eventually re-locate and finds a barn for refuge until the rain stops. In the corner of this barn are a starving man and a boy. Ma makes everybody leave the barn, while Rose of Sharon gives the severely weakend man her breast milk.
The Joads are caught in a dilemma in this chapter. They face the possibility that the nearby creek will flood, but cannot leave because Rose of Sharon goes into labor. The one solution to their dire situation depends on community action: the rest of the families must pitch in to build up the embankment, which will stop the flooding. Nonetheless, most of the families selfishly suggest departure, reasoning that they have no obligation to help Rose of Sharon. Because they are left without assistance, the Joads are forced to take shelter on top of their car when the stream floods.
Mrs. Wainwright's comment that there are now greater concerns than family highlights Steinbeck's collectivist stance in The Grapes of Wrath. It has taken overwhelming poverty and hardship for groups such as the Joads to realize that the small, isolated families must come together for united action.
In establishing this chapter's tone of urgency, the birth of Rose of Sharon's child carries significant symbolic meanings. For Rose of Sharon, the child has represented the possibilities for the future, yet the baby is stillborn. The event has clear parallels to the Joads' journey to California: they have faced incredible hardship and pain striving for a better future, yet their sacrifices have led to nothing. The fate of the baby is even a perverse reversal of religious imagery. Uncle John places the dead child in a box and sends it down the river, an obvious and darkly ironic allusion to Moses. Instead of a living savior, this vessel offers a dead omen.
Yet the final scene in The Grapes of Wrath is one meant to instill a modicum of hope. The debilitated Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the starving man in the barn to sustain him. She gives what was meant for her baby to a complete stranger, an example of selfless sacrifice for the sake of community instead of adherence to individual well-being. It took a deep personal loss, the delivery of a stillborn child, to enable Rose of Sharon to aid the man. She nonetheless cares for the anonymous man with a measure of the same love she might have shown her own child, eschewing her selfish concerns for a communal good.