As Tom plods along the dusty road, he notices a turtle. He picks it up, wraps it in his coat, and takes it with him. Continuing on, he notices a tattered man sitting under a tree. The man recognizes him and introduces himself as Jim Casy, the preacher in Tom’s church when Tom was a boy. Casy says that he baptized Tom, but Tom was too busy pulling a girl’s pigtails to have taken much interest in the event. Tom gives the old preacher a drink from his flask of liquor, and Casy tells Tom how he decided to stop preaching. He admits that he had a habit of taking girls “out in the grass” after prayer meetings and tells Tom that he was conflicted for some time, not knowing how to reconcile his sexual appetite with his responsibility for these young women’s souls. Eventually, however, he came to the decision that “[t]here ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.” No longer convinced that human pleasures run counter to a divine plan, Casy believes that the human spirit is the Holy Spirit.
Casy asks Tom about his father, and Tom replies that he hasn’t seen or heard from him in years. Tom divulges the crime that landed him in prison, explaining that he and another man, both drunk, got into a fight; the man stabbed Tom, and Tom killed him with a nearby shovel. He describes life in prison, where he received regular meals and baths. Despite this good treatment, however, he notes that the lack of women made life hard. As Tom prepares to continue toward his home, Casy asks if he can come along. Tom welcomes him, and comments that the Joads always thought highly of their preacher. They walk to the farm, but upon arriving at the site, they realize it has been deserted.
The landowners and the banks, unable to make high profits from tenant farming, evict the farmers from the land. (Tenant farming is an agricultural system in which farmers rent farmland from a land owner.) Some of the property owners are cruel, some are kind, but they all deliver the same news: the farmers must leave. The farmers protest, complaining that they have nowhere to go. The owners suggest they go to California, where there is work to be done. Tractors arrive on the land, with orders to plow the property, crushing anything in their paths—including, if necessary, the farmhouse. The tractors are often driven by the farmers’ neighbors, who explain that their own families have nothing to eat and that the banks pay several dollars a day. Livid, the displaced farmers yearn to fight back, but the banks are so faceless, impersonal, and inhuman that they cannot be fought against.
Tom and Casy find the Joad homestead strangely untouched, other than a section of the farmhouse that has been crushed. The presence of usable materials and tools on the premises, apparently unscavenged, signifies to Tom that the neighbors, too, must have deserted their farms. Tom and Casy see Muley Graves walking toward them. He reports that the Joads have moved in with Tom’s Uncle John. The entire family has gone to work picking cotton in hopes of earning enough money to buy a car and make the journey to California. Muley explains haltingly that a large company has bought all the land in the area and evicted the tenant farmers in order to cut labor costs. When Tom asks if he can stay at Muley’s place for the night, Muley explains that he, too, has lost his land and that his family has already departed for California. Hearing this, Casy criticizes Muley’s decision to stay behind: “You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.” Hungry, the men share the rabbits Muley caught hunting. After dinner, the headlights of a police car sweep across the land. Afraid that they will be arrested for trespassing, they hide, though Tom balks at the idea of hiding from the police on his own farm. Muley takes them to a cave where he sleeps. Tom sleeps in the open air outside the cave, but Casy says that he cannot sleep: his mind is too burdened with what the men have learned.
As the novel unfolds, the short, descriptive chapters emerge like a series of thesis statements on the conditions of life in the Dust Bowl. The chapters recounting the story of the Joad clan can be seen as illustrations of or evidence for the claims made in the shorter chapters. In Chapter 5, Steinbeck sets forth an argument strongly supportive of tenant farmers. Notably, however, he does not directly vilify the landowners and bank representatives as they turn the tenant farmers off their land. He asserts that the economic system makes everyone a victim—rich and poor, privileged and disenfranchised. All are caught “in something larger than themselves.” It is this larger monster that has created the divides between the victims, stratified them, and turned the upper strata against the lower. Still, Steinbeck does not portray in detail the personal difficulties of the men who evict the farmers, nor of the conflicted neighbors who plow down their farms. His sympathies clearly lie with the farmers, and his descriptive eye follows these sympathies. Correspondingly, it is with these families that the reader comes to identify.
The Grapes of Wrath openly and without apology declares its stance on the events it portrays. This sense of commitment and candor stems from Steinbeck’s method of characterization, as well as from his insistence on setting up the Joads and their clan as models of moral virtue. Although Tom Joad has spent four years in prison, he soon emerges as a kind of moral authority in the book. A straight-talking man, Tom begins his trek home by putting a nosy truck driver in his place—having served the lawful punishment for his crime, he owns up to his past without indulging in regret or shame. His deeply thoughtful disposition, truthful speech, and gestures of generosity endear him to the reader, as well as those around him. He will soon emerge as a leader among his people. His leadership ability stems also from his sense of confidence and sureness of purpose. Tom admits to Casy that if he found himself in a situation similar to the one that landed him in jail, he would behave no differently now. This statement does not convey pride or vanity but a capacity to know and be honest with himself, as well as a steady resolve.