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Tom and Ma Joad discuss California. Ma worries about what they will find there but trusts that the handbill she read that advertised work was accurate and that California will be a wonderful place. Grampa agrees, boasting that when he arrives there he will fill his mouth with grapes and let the juices run down his chin. Pa Joad has gone to town to sell off some of the family’s possessions. Now he returns discouraged, having earned a mere eighteen dollars. The Joads hold a council during which it is decided that Casy may travel with them to California; then they set about packing to leave. Casy helps Ma Joad salt the meat. Despite her protests that salting is women’s work, Casy convinces her that the amount of work facing them renders such preoccupations invalid. Rose of Sharon and Connie arrive, and the family piles onto the truck. When the time comes to leave, Muley Graves bids the family good-bye, but Grampa suddenly wants to stay. He claims that he aims to live off the land like Muley and continues to protest loudly until the Joads lace his coffee with sleeping medicine. Once the old man is asleep, the family loads him onto the truck and begins the long journey west.
When the farmers leave their land, the land becomes vacant. The narrator explains that even though men continue to work the land, these men have no real connection to their work. Possessed of little knowledge or skill, these corporate farm workers come to the farm during the day, drive a tractor over it, and leave to go home. Such a separation between work and life causes men to lose wonder for their work and for the land. The farmer’s “deep understanding” of the land and his relationship to it cease to be. The empty farmhouses are quickly invaded by animals and begin to crumble in the dust and the wind.
Long lines of cars creep down Highway 66, full of tenant farmers making their way to California. The narrator again assumes the voices of typical farmers, expressing their worries about their vehicles and the dangers of the journey. When the farmers stop to buy parts for their cars, salesmen try to cheat them. The farmers struggle to make it from service station to service station, fleeing from the desolation they have left behind. They are met with hostility and suspicion. People inquire about their journey, claiming that the country is not large enough to support everybody’s needs and suggesting that they go back to where they came from. Still, one finds rare instances of hope and beauty, such as the stranded family that possesses only a trailer—no motor to pull it—and waits by the side of the road for lifts. They make it to California “in two jumps,” proving that “strange things happen . . . some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that faith is refired forever.”
In these chapters, Steinbeck continues to develop his picture of the farmers’ world, with flashes of the desolate farms they flee, as well as of the many adverse circumstances that await them. Steinbeck suggests that the hardships the families face stem from more than harsh weather conditions or simple misfortune. Human beings, acting with calculated greed, are responsible for much of their sorrow. Such selfishness separates people from one another, disabling the kind of unity and brotherhood that Casy deems holy. It creates an ugly animosity that pits man against man, as is clear in Chapter 12, when a gas station attendant suggests that California is becoming overcrowded with migrants. When a farmer notes that surely California is a large enough state to support everyone, the attendant cynically replies, “There ain’t room enough for you an’ me, for your kind an’ my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country.”
Read more about the multiplying effects of selfishness and altruism as a theme.
This factionalism not only divides men from their brethren, it also divides men from the land. Steinbeck identifies greed and covetousness as the central cause of the tenant farmers’ dislocation from the ground they have always known. The corporate farmers who replace the old families possess the same acquisitive mind-set as their employers. Interested only in getting their work done quickly and leaving with a paycheck, they treat the land with hostility, as an affliction rather than a home, and put heavy machinery between themselves and the fields.
Both Muley Graves and Grampa Joad represent the human reluctance to be separated from one’s land. Both men locate their roots in the Oklahoma soil and both are willing to abandon their families in order to maintain this connection. Neither Muley nor Grampa Joad can imagine who he would be beyond the boundaries that, until now, have shaped and defined him. In their scheme to prevent Grampa from staying, the Joads engage in blatant dishonesty, yet their intentions are good. For the Joads mean to sever one kind of connection in favor of another, abandoning the land to keep the family together. They believe in the ability of human connections to sustain their grandfather’s life and spirit.
As the Joads depart, their interactions speak further to their common belief in the importance of family and the family structure. Men lead—even if, as in Grampa’s case, their guidance is merely ceremonial—whereas women follow. It is important to note this structure now, for once the family is on the road, this traditional power dynamic shifts. This process is prefigured in Casy’s insistence that he help Ma Joad salt the meat. Faced with dauntingly difficult work, the group can no longer cling to gender-based divisions of labor.
Read more about improvised leadership structures as a motif.
Thus, while economic adversity may frequently drive divisions between people, it can also serve to erase divisions, to emphasize everyone’s common humanity. Steinbeck’s text insists that the hardships of the road, while often creating ugliness, can also yield unexpected beauty. A single instance of charity or kindness emerges as an oasis of moral nobility, both testifying to and renewing the strength of the human spirit. Although the Joads declare the family’s goal to be their arrival in California, it is these rare and serendipitous places along the road—in which hope is confirmed despite life’s atrocities—that constitute the Joads’ true destination.
Read more about the saving power of family and fellowship as a theme.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Grapes of Wrath!