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The Joad and Wilson families travel for two days. On the third day, they settle into a new routine whereby “the highway became their home and movement their medium of expression.” Rose of Sharon declares that when they arrive in California, she and Connie plan to live in town, where Connie can study at night in preparation for managing his own store. This worries Ma Joad, who balks at any idea of splitting up the family. The Wilsons’ car breaks down again. Tom and Casy offer to stay behind to repair it, but Ma refuses to go on without them. Instead, the whole group waits while Al and Tom go into town to find parts at a local car lot. The brothers find the needed part, and spend some time talking to the bitter, one-eyed attendant. The man complains tearfully of the injustices of his job. Tom urges him to pull himself together. At the crowded camp that night, Pa Joad tells a man that he is traveling to look for work in California. The man laughs at him, saying that there is no work in California, despite what the handbills promise. Wealthy farmers, the man reports, may need 800 workers, but they print 5,000 handbills, which are seen by 20,000 people. The man says that his wife and children starved to death because he took them to find work in California. This worries Pa, but Casy tells him that the Joads may have a different experience than this man did.
As masses of cars travel together and camp along the highway, little communities spring up among the migrant farmers: “twenty families became one family.” The communities create their own rules of conduct and their own means of enforcement. The lives of the farmers change drastically. They are no longer farmers but “migrant men.”
After traveling through the mountains of New Mexico and the Arizona desert, the Joads and Wilsons arrive in California. They still face a great obstacle, however, as the desert lies between them and the lush valleys they have been expecting. The men find a river and go bathing. There, they meet a father and son who are returning from California because they have been unable to make a living. The man cautions the Joads about what awaits them there: the open hostility of people who derisively call them “Okies” and the wastefulness of ranchers with “a million acres.”
Despite these warnings, the Joads decide to continue on, and to finish the journey that night. Noah decides to stay behind, saying he will live off fish from the river. He claims that his absence will not really hurt the family, for although his parents treat him with kindness, they really do not love him deeply. Tom tries in vain to convince him otherwise. Granma, whose health has deteriorated since Grampa’s death, lies on a mattress hallucinating. A large woman enters the Joads’ tent to pray for Granma’s soul, but Ma sends the woman away, claiming that the old woman is too tired for such an ordeal.
Soon afterward, a policeman enters the tent and rudely informs Ma that the family will have to move on. When Tom returns to camp and reports that Noah has run off, Ma laments that the family is falling apart. The Joads must pack up and are forced to leave the Wilsons behind: Sairy’s health is failing, and Ivy insists that the Joads move on without them. During the night, police stop the truck for a routine agricultural inspection. Ma pleads with the officer to let them go, saying that Granma is in desperate need of medical attention. When they cross into the valley, Ma reports that Granma has been dead since before the inspection. Ma lay with the body all night in the back of the truck.
The Joads’ dreams about life in California stand in bold relief against the realities that they face. Rose of Sharon believes that Connie will study at night and make a life for her in town, but this fantasy rings rather hollow against the backdrop of Grampa’s and now Granma’s death. Coming after two sets of dire warnings from ruined migrant workers, Granma’s death bodes especially ill for the Joads. They now seem fated to live out the cautionary tales of the men they have met in Chapters 16 and 18, who now seem like a Greek chorus presaging impending tragedy. Before the Joads even set foot on its soil, California proves to be a land of vicious hostility rather than of opportunity. The cold manner of the police officers and border guards seems to testify to the harsh reception that awaits the family.
Read an in-depth analysis of Rose of Sharon.
The sense of foreboding in this section is heightened as we witness the fulfillment of Ma Joad’s greatest fear—the unraveling of the family. In addition to the grandparents’ deaths, the reclusive Noah decides to remain alone on the river. Family is the foundation of the Joads’ will to survive, for, as Chapter 17 makes clear, migrant families were able to endure the harsh circumstances of life on the road by uniting with other families. Collectively, they share a responsibility that would be too great for one family to bear alone. Moreover, whereas to share a burden is to lighten it, to share a dream is to intensify and concentrate it, making that dream more vivid. Thus “[t]he loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” Interestingly, Steinbeck sandwiches these observations between two chapters in which the Joad family not only suffers a decrease in number but also meets with neighbors who have no interest in cooperating with them. Increasingly, then, these statements about the importance of togetherness serve not so much as an affirmation of the Joads’ circumstances as an indication of what they are in the process of losing. The grandparents’ deaths and Noah’s departure are tragedies for the Joads.
Read an in-depth analysis of Ma Joad.
Faced with these losses, Ma Joad demonstrates her strength as never before. Met by the deputy who evicts her from the camp and disdainfully calls her an “Okie,” Ma chases the man away with a cast-iron skillet. Similarly, she suffers privately with the knowledge of Granma’s death so that the family can successfully cross the desert. These occurrences do take their toll on her: when Tom attempts to comfort her, she warns him not to touch her lest she fall apart. Still, her ability to endure adversity proves remarkable, as does her commitment to delivering her family, or as much of it as she can keep together, into a more prosperous life.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Grapes of Wrath!