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The narrator describes how California once belonged to Mexico but was taken away by hungry American squatters who believed that they owned the land because they farmed it. The descendants of these squatters are the wealthy farmers who defend their land with security guards and protect their wealth by paying their laborers extremely low wages. They resent the droves of “Okies” flooding into the state because they know that hungry and impoverished people are a danger to the stability of land ownership. For their part, the Okies want only a decent wage and freedom from the threat of starvation. Settling in workers’ camps, they try their best to look for work. Sometimes one of the them tries to grow a secret garden in a fallow field, but the deputies find it and destroy it.
Because they do not have enough money for a proper burial, Ma and Pa Joad leave Granma’s body in a coroner’s office. They rejoin the family at Hooverville, a large, crowded, and dirty camp full of hungry families unable to find work. One young man, Floyd Knowles, tells Tom that when he encounters police, he must act “bull-simple”: he must speak ramblingly and incoherently in order to convince the policeman that he is an unthreatening idiot. Floyd says that there are no jobs. Tom wonders why the men do not organize against the landowners, but Floyd says that anyone who discusses such possibilities will be labeled “red” and dragged off by the police. Men who attempt to organize are put on a “blacklist,” which ensures that they will never find work. Casy discusses the injustice of the situation with Tom and wonders what he can do to help the suffering people. Connie tells Rose of Sharon that they should have stayed in Oklahoma, where he could have learned about tractors. She reminds him that he intends to study radios and that she “ain’t gonna have this baby in no tent.” Ma cooks a stew that attracts a bevy of hungry children. After feeding her family, she hands over the meager leftovers, which the children devour ravenously.
A contractor arrives in a new Chevrolet coupe to recruit workers for a fruit-picking job in Tulare County. When Knowles demands a contract and a set wage for the fruit pickers, the man summons a police deputy, who arrests Knowles on a bogus charge and then begins threatening the others. A scuffle ensues. Knowles runs off, and the deputy shoots at him recklessly, piercing a woman through the hand. Tom trips the deputy, and Casy, coming from behind, knocks him unconscious. Knowing that someone will need to be held accountable, Casy volunteers, reminding Tom that he has broken parole by leaving Oklahoma. Backup officers arrive and arrest Casy. The sheriff announces that the whole camp will now be burned.
Uncle John is distraught by Casy’s sacrifice. Uncle John had spoken with Casy about the nature of sin, and now that the former preacher is gone, John’s wife’s tragic death lies heavy upon him. He tells the family that he must get drunk or he will not be able to bear his sorrow. They allow him to go buy alcohol. Rose of Sharon asks if anyone has seen Connie, and Al says that he saw him walking south along the river. Pa insists that Connie was always a good-for-nothing, but Rose of Sharon is beside herself with grief at his absence. Meanwhile, convinced that his family needs to leave the camp before further trouble erupts, Tom rounds up Uncle John, knocking the man unconscious in order to get him on the truck. The Joads depart, leaving word at the camp store for Connie in case he returns. Coming upon a nearby town, the family is turned away by a crowd of pick-handle and shotgun wielding men, who have stationed themselves by the road to keep Okies out. Tom is enraged, but Ma Joad reminds him that a “different time’s comin’.”
The hostility directed toward the migrants changes them and brings them together. Property owners are terrified of “the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants.” California locals form armed bands to terrorize the “Okies” and keep them in their place. The owners of large farms drive the smaller farmers out of business, making more and more people destitute and unable to feed themselves or their children.
Chapters 19 and 21 act like a refrain in their repetition of the novel’s social criticism. Both present history—especially California’s history—as a battle between the rich and the poor. Founded by squatters who stole the land from Mexicans, California has been the setting for a series of desperate measures taken by “frantic hungry men.” The landowners fear that history will repeat itself, and that the migrant farmers, who crave land and sustenance, will take their livelihood from them. The migrants, however, seeing acre upon acre of unused land, dream of tending just enough of it to support their families. The migrants’ simple desire to produce, and the landowners’ resistance, receives particularly poignant illustration in the tale of the man who plants a few carrots and turnips in a fallow field.
Read more about how Steinbeck points to the fact that the migrants’ great suffering is caused by their fellow human beings.
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.
Read more about how Steinbeck constantly emphasizes self-interest and altruism as equal and opposite powers.
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.
Read more about Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy as a symbol.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Grapes of Wrath!