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Free Study Guide: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Free BookNotes

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH: ONLINE SUMMARY / NOTES

CHAPTER 19

Summary

California had once belonged to Mexico. The Americans, hungry for land, took California from the Mexicans, who were weak and could not resist the frantic efforts against them. With the passage of time, the squatters in California became the landowners. As the Americans became prosperous, they stopped working on their land and employed cheap labor imported from places like China, Japan, and Mexico. Farming became an industry, with the small farms being bought up by the larger ones, which specialized in particular crops. Although they owned the farm on paper, the new farmers lost all contact with the life-nourishing earth. Many of the owners had never even seen the farms they owned.

Migrants from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arkansas begin to arrive in California in greater and greater numbers. The owners hate the migrants because they are hungry and fierce; they realize their own vulnerability and feel that the newcomers threaten their security. As a result, the landowners lower wages more in order to earn extra money to pay guards that can protect their property.

The migrants settle in Hoovervilles and look for work. Sometimes a lone migrant would secretly cultivate a fallow field, believing that a "crop raised--why, that makes ownership." A deputy would discover their crops and destroy them. The landowners are determined never to give up any of their land. In so doing, they ignore three lessons from history: when property accumulates in too few hands, it is taken away; when a majority of the people are cold, hungry, and homeless, they will take by force what they need; and repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. Foolishly, the owners only consider the means to destroy revolt while the causes of revolt continue unabated. This leads to their ultimate downfall.

Notes

In this interchapter, Steinbeck uses the newsreel technique of John Dos Passos and provides a historical account of the pattern of land ownership in California. Over the years, the larger ones, creating huge farming industries have purchased the smaller farms; these large concerns have always used cheap migrant labor for the hard work on the farms. The owners cut the wages of the migrants whenever possible and spend the extra money on hiring guards to keep the migrants in line. The landowners fail to realize that repression does not curb revolt; instead, it strengthens it. Thus, this chapter foreshadows the potential social and political upheaval hidden in the misery of the migrants.

The chapter forms a group with chapters 21 and 25; all three have the thematic concern of land ownership in California. These chapters provide the background information and place the individual plight of the Joads in the larger context.


CHAPTER 20

Summary


The Joads take Granma's body to the coroner's office in Bakersfield. Ma is unhappy because she knows that Granma would have liked a nice funeral, but they cannot afford one. Next, they go to find a Hooverville where they can stay. They are depressed by what they see; there is no order in the camp, and little gray tents and cars are scattered about at random. They ask a man whether the camp is owned by anybody and whether it costs money to stay there. When the man incoherently repeats Pa's every question, he almost explodes with anger. Then a young man, Floyd Knowles, tells Pa that they can camp anywhere. He also tells Tom that the earlier man is "bull-simple"; he has lost his mental balance because the cops have been pushing him around too much. The police keep the migrants always on the move so that they cannot vote, cannot avail themselves of relief, and most importantly cannot get organized. Floyd tells Tom about the lack of work and the low wages. He explains that when an owner needs men, he sends out an unreasonable number of handbills, and four times the number of men actually required show up for work. This enables the owner to reduce the wages. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of migrants who would kill each other to work for a little food for their starving children. Tom wonders why the people do not get organized and refuse to do work until they raise the wages. Floyd explains that people who try to organize the migrants are arrested quickly. Tom starts walking away in disgust when Floyd advises him to act dumb, "bull simple," with the cops.

Tom discusses the situation with Casy who is sitting alone, wisely regarding one bare foot and thinking. Casy says that he will find a steady job and repay the Joads for their kindness. Tom asks him to stick around until tomorrow since he senses that something bad is about to happen.

Inside the tent, Rose of Sharon tells Connie how sick and tired she is. She knows that she should help Ma, but she throws up every time she moves. Connie tells Rose of Sharon that he regrets coming. They should have stayed at home, where he could have studied at night about tractors and earned three dollars a day as a driver. Rose of Sharon tells him that they must have a house before the baby is born. Connie half-heartedly agrees and goes out of the tent.

Ma is preparing a stew, and the smell attracts children from the camp who surround her. One girl volunteers to keep the fire steady because she is hungry and wants food. She tells Ma about the government camp in Weedpatch, which has nice toilets, shower stalls, and drinking water. Soon Ma ladles the stew into tin plates. She is at a loss about what to do, because there isn't enough food to feed the family, but the hungry children are still surrounding her. After she serves the family, she leaves a little in the pot and tells the children to get spoons and have a taste. She sets the pot down on the ground and escapes inside the tent to avoid seeing them. The mother of one child comes and reproaches Ma for giving stew to the children. Ma explains that could not help giving them because of the way they looked at her.

Floyd tells Tom and Al of some work available about two hundred miles north. Al says that maybe he will go up north, but Tom tells him that Ma and Pa will never allow the family to break up. A labor contractor comes in a new Chevrolet coupe and offers the men work as fruit pickers in Tulare County. Floyd asks him about the wages, and the man evades the question by saying that it will be around thirty cents. Floyd requests a contract with the wage specified, and the contractor calls the Deputy Sheriff from his car and accuses Floyd of "talking red" and "agitating trouble." Floyd argues that if the contractor were "on the level," he would not have brought a cop along. The Deputy arrests Floyd on a false charge of breaking into a used car lot. Tom speaks up for Floyd, and the Deputy threatens to arrest him as well. The Deputy then warns the people that they will be attacked and the camp burned if they do not go to Tulare. Floyd suddenly breaks free and escapes. As the deputy starts running in pursuit of Floyd, Tom trips him. This makes the Deputy miss his target, and he hits a woman in the hand instead. Casy kicks the Deputy in the neck as he is about to fire again and knocks him unconscious. The contractor runs away for help. Casy implores Tom to run away, reminding him that he has broken parole and will get his whole family into trouble. When more Deputies arrive, Casy takes all the blame on himself. Although the Deputy thinks that Casy is the wrong person, he arrests him anyway. Casy's sacrifice strongly affects Uncle John, who goes off to drown his sorrows by getting drunk. He confesses that he has kept five dollars aside without telling anybody. He gives Pa the five dollars in exchange for two and goes off.

Things are not going well for the Joads. Connie has deserted Rose of Sharon, and Tom says that he has seen him walking down the road. Pa tells Rose of Sharon that Connie was never any good. Tom tells the family that they must leave. He goes to fetch Uncle John and finds him lying in a ditch. Tom has to knock him unconscious and carry him back to the camp. The Joads drive south. Tom tells the family that he is growing angry about their treatment. When Ma reproaches him for turning back on his promise to be peaceful, he says that the cops are "a-workin' away at our spirits." In truth, they are trying to break the migrants. Ma persuades Tom to keep out of trouble because the "family's breakin' up." The Joads are stopped at a road blockade and are forced to turn back. Tom controls his anger with great effort and obeys, but he pulls off the road and turns out the truck's lights. When the deputies leave, Tom turns around again and heads towards the government camp at Weedpatch.

Notes

The Joad family unit again shrinks in size due to Connie's departure and Casy's sacrifice. The smaller family must confront the reality of the migrant way of life in California. They cannot afford to have a proper funeral for Granma and have to depend on charity for many things. As the economic conditions of the family deteriorate so does its adherence to custom and tradition.

Casy's sacrifice has religious overtones. When he gives himself up for arrest to save Tom, he moves from being the contemplative person to being the person of action. In sacrificing himself for the good of the larger family, he becomes a symbol of Christ. His concerns are not for himself, but for humanity. Just like Christ, Casy has tried to teach his philosophy to those around him; as a result, in his absence his presence will still be felt. In fact, Ma moves towards a partial acceptance of Casy's views when she counsels patience and states her belief in the ability of the people to survive. She believes that the migrants are the chosen people who will strive against all odds and survive to people the land.


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