Spring is beautiful in California, but, like the migrants, many small local farmers stand to be ruined by large landowners, who monopolize the industry. Unable to compete with these magnates, small farmers watch their crops wither and their debts rise. The wine in the vineyards’ vats goes bad, and anger and resentment spread throughout the land. The narrator comments, “In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
After nearly a month in the government camp, the Joads find their supplies running low and work scarce. Ma Joad convinces the others that they must leave the camp the next day. They make preparations and say good-bye to their friends. The truck has a flat tire, and as they are fixing it, a man in a suit and heavy jewelry pulls up in a roadster with news of employment: the Joads can go to work picking peaches only thirty-five miles away. When they arrive at the peach farm, they find cars backed up on the roads leading to it, and angry mobs of people shouting from the roadside. The family learns that they will be paid only five cents a box for picking peaches; desperate for food, they take the job. At the end of the day, even with everyone in the family working, they have earned only one dollar. They must spend their entire day’s wages on their meal that night, and afterward they remain hungry.
That evening, Al goes looking for girls, and Tom, curious about the trouble on the roadside, goes to investigate. Guards turn him away at the orchard gate, but Tom sneaks under the gate and starts down the road. He comes upon a tent and discovers that one of the men inside is Jim Casy. Jim tells Tom about his experience in prison and reports that he now works to organize the migrant farmers. He explains that the owner of the peach orchards cut wages to two-and-a-half cents a box, so the men went on strike. Now the owner has hired a new group of men in hopes of breaking the strike. Casy predicts that by tomorrow, even the strike-breakers will be making only two-and-a-half cents per box. Tom and Casy see flashlight beams, and two policemen approach them, recognizing Casy as the workers’ leader and referring to him as a communist. As Casy protests that the men are only helping to starve children, one of them crushes his skull with a pick handle. Tom flies into a rage and wields the pick handle on Casy’s murderer, killing him before receiving a blow to his own head. He manages to run away and makes it back to his family. In the morning, when they discover his wounds and hear his story, Tom offers to leave so as not to bring any trouble to them. Ma, however, insists that he stay. They leave the peach farm and head off to find work picking cotton. Tom hides in a culvert close to the plantation—his crushed nose and bruised face would bring suspicion upon him—and the family sneaks food to him.
Signs appear everywhere advertising work in the cotton fields. Wages are decent, but workers without cotton-picking sacks are forced to buy them on credit. There are so many workers that some are unable to do enough work even to pay for their sacks. Some of the owners are crooked and rig the scales used to weigh the cotton. To counter this practice, the migrants often load stones in their sacks.
In the short, expository chapters that intersperse the story of the Joads, Steinbeck employs a range of prose styles and tones. He ranges from overt symbolism (as with the turtle in Chapter 3), to heated sermonizing (as with his indictment of corrupt businessmen in Chapter 7), to the didactic tone of a parable (as with the story of Mae the waitress in Chapter 15). In this part of the book, Steinbeck turns to the rough, native language of the people to convey a day on a cotton farm (Chapter 27): the effect is an intimate, lively, and moving portrayal of the daily life of the migrants. In Chapter 25, the phrasing and word choice evokes biblical language: simple and declarative, yet highly stylized and symbolic. Steinbeck portrays the rotten state of the economic system by describing the literal decay that results from this system’s agricultural mismanagement. Depictions of the putrefying crops symbolize the people’s darkening, festering anger. The rotting vines and spoiled vintage in particular, both a source and an emblem of the workers’ rage, become a central image and provide the novel with its title.
The Joads’ dream of a golden life in California, like the season’s wine, has gone sour. After a month in the government camp with little work, the family’s resources are dangerously low. The few days of charmed living have passed. Desperate and discouraged, Ma announces that the family needs to move on; her seizure of authority rocks the traditional family structure. Pa is upset that Ma has assumed the task of decision-making, a responsibility that typically belongs to the male head of the household. When he threatens to put her back in her “proper place,” Ma responds by saying, “[Y]ou ain’t a-doin’ your job. . . . If you was, why, you could use your stick, an’ women folks’d sniffle their nose and creep-mouse aroun’. ” The family structure has undergone a revolution, in which the female figure, traditionally powerless, has taken control, while the male figure, traditionally in the leadership role, has retreated.
In this section, the stakes of the conflict established in previous chapters are made clear: the contest between rich and poor, between landowners and migrants, is one that will—and perhaps must—be fought to the death. As the end of Chapter 25 states, the people’s anger is ripening, “growing heavy for the vintage.” In other words, their anger must soon be released in a burst of violence. When that happens, lives will be lost. Casy’s death stands as a sober reminder of the price that must be paid for equality.