The Grapes of Wrath

by: John Steinbeck

Chapters 19–21

Chapter 20 finds the Joads in Hooverville, where harsh reality further intrudes upon their idealistic vision of solidarity. The Joads have already encountered fellow migrants who do not share their desire to cooperate. The men who have failed to make a living in California, for example, show little interest in joining forces with the family. Disillusioned by their experiences, these men openly doubt and even mock the Joads’ optimism. This unfriendliness, combined with an intensifying scarcity of resources, makes it increasingly difficult for the Joads to honor bonds other than those of kinship. The scene in which Ma Joad prepares her stew offers a powerful illustration of this. Here, the scarcity of food forces her to walk a thin line between selfish interest in her own family and generosity toward the larger community. Yet, while Ma looks to the needs of her family first, she does manage to do what she can to alleviate some of the hunger of the onlooking children. Her compassion toward these strangers, whom she nonetheless considers her people, elevates her above the bleak and hateful circumstances that surround her.

While Ma expresses her devotion to community by sharing her stew with her fellow migrants’ children, Tom and Casy begin to express this devotion in more overtly political ways and with a sense of often violent outrage. The incident surrounding Floyd Knowles and the fruit-picking contractor signifies the beginning of the two men’s involvement in the burgeoning movement to organize migrant labor, to protect workers against unfair treatment and unlivable wages. Although the men have always possessed a sense for injustice, they do not act on their convictions until they witness Floyd Knowles’s impassioned speech against unfair labor practices. While the hardships facing the family serve to kindle devotions in some, they serve to rupture loyalties in others. Connie’s decision to abandon his wife and unborn child affects Rose of Sharon deeply and constitutes a turning point for her. His departure disabuses the girl of all notions of a charmed life in the big city and forces her to come to terms with the conditions in which she lives.