Summary: Chapter 7
The narrator assumes the voice of a used-car salesman explaining to his employees how to cheat the departing families. The great westward exodus has created a huge demand for automobiles, and dusty used-car lots spring up throughout the area. Crooked salesmen sell the departing families whatever broken-down vehicles they can find. The salesmen fill engines with sawdust to conceal noisy transmissions and replace good batteries with cracked ones before they deliver the cars. The tenant farmers, desperate to move and with little knowledge of cars, willingly pay the skyrocketing prices, much to the salesmen’s delight.
Summary: Chapter 8
[W]hen they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang . . . that’s holy.
See Important Quotations Explained
As the men travel to Uncle John’s, Tom relates a story about his curious uncle. Years ago, John dismissed his wife’s complaints of a stomach ache and refused to hire a doctor for her. When she subsequently died, John was unable to deal with the loss. Tom describes his constant acts of generosity, handing out candy to children or delivering a sack of meal to a neighbor, as if trying to make up for his one fatal instance of stinginess. Despite his efforts, John remains unable to console himself.
At Uncle John’s house, Tom is reunited with his family. He comes upon his father, Pa Joad, piling the family’s belongings outside. Neither Pa nor Ma Joad recognizes Tom at first, and, until he explains that he has been paroled from prison, both fear that he has broken out illegally. They tell him that they are about to leave for California. Ma Joad worries that life in prison may have driven Tom insane: she knew the mother of a gangster, “Purty Boy Floyd,” who went “mean-mad” in prison. Tom assures his mother that he lacks the stubborn pride of those who find prison a devastating insult. “I let stuff run off’n me,” he says. Tom also reunites with fiery old Grampa and Granma Joad, and with his withdrawn and slow-moving brother Noah.
At breakfast, Granma, who is devoutly religious, insists that Casy say a prayer, even though he tells them he no longer preaches. Instead of a traditional prayer, he shares his realization that mankind is holy in itself. The Joads do not begin the meal, however, until he follows the speech with an “amen.” Pa Joad shows Tom the truck he has bought for the family and says that Tom’s younger brother Al, who knows a bit about cars, helped him pick it out. When sixteen-year-old Al arrives at the house, his admiration and respect for Tom is clear. Tom learns that his two youngest siblings, Ruthie and Winfield, are in town with Uncle John. Rose of Sharon, another sister, has married Connie, a boy from a neighboring farm, and is expecting a child.
Summary: Chapter 9
The narrator shifts focus from the Joads to describe how the tenant farmers in general prepare for the journey to California. For much of the chapter, the narrator assumes the voice of typical tenant farmers, expressing what their possessions and memories of their homes mean to them. The farmers are forced to pawn most of their belongings, both to raise money for the trip and simply because they cannot take them on the road. In the frenzied buying and selling that follows, the farmers have no choice but to deal with brokers who pay outrageously low prices, knowing that the farmers are in no position to bargain. Disappointed, the farmers return to their wives and report that they have sold most of their property for a pocketful of change. The wives linger over objects with sentimental value, but everything must be sold or destroyed before the families can leave for California.
Analysis: Chapters 7–9
Chapter 8 introduces us to the Joad family. Steinbeck sketches a good number of memorable characters in the space of a single chapter. Pa appears as a competent, fair-minded, and good-hearted head of the family, leading the Joads in their journeys, while Ma emerges as the family’s “citadel,” anchoring them and keeping them safe. Steinbeck does not render the Joads as particularly complex characters. Instead, each family member tends to possess one or two exaggerated, distinguishing characteristics. Grampa, for instance, is mischievous and ornery; Granma is excessively pious; Al, a typically cocky teenage boy, is obsessed with cars and girls.
Read more about the Joad family and the kind of reaction Steinbeck hopes to elicit toward the Dust Bowl farmer.
Some readers find fault with Steinbeck’s method of characterization, which they criticize as unsophisticated and sentimental, but this criticism may be unfair. It is true that the Joads are not shown as having the kind of complex psychological lives that mark many great literary characters. Their desires are simple and clearly stated, and the obstacles to their desires are plainly identified by both the novel and themselves. However, it is in the nature of an epic to portray heroic, boldly drawn figures—figures who embody national ideals or universal struggles. Steinbeck succeeds in crafting the Joads into heroes worthy of an epic. Their goodness, conviction, and moral certainty stand in sharp contrast to their material circumstances.
The short chapters that bookend the introduction of the Joad family develop one of the book’s major themes. The narrative’s indictment of the crooked car salesmen and pawnbrokers illustrates man’s inhumanity to man, a force against which the Joads struggle. Time and again, those in positions of power seek to take advantage of those below them. Even when giving up a portion of land might save a family, the privileged refuse to imperil their wealth. Later in the novel, there is nothing that the California landowners fear as much as relinquishing their precious land to the needy farmers. This behavior contradicts Jim Casy’s belief that men must act for the good of all men. In The Grapes of Wrath, moral order depends upon this kind of selflessness and charity. Without these virtues, the text suggests, there is no hope for a livable world. As one farmer warns the corrupt pawnbroker who robs him of his possessions: “[Y]ou cut us down, and soon you will be cut down and there’ll be none of us to save you.”
Read more about the theme of man’s inhumanity towards man.