Tom Joad, as a representative of all migrant workers, is the protagonist
of the novel. He is the rootless man, the individual who must learn responsibility
for what capitalism has done to people and to the earth. Along with Tom,
the Joads and the other migrants are sent on the road on a quest to rethink
their relationship with both humanity and the land itself. This process
has been called "education of the heart." By the end of the
novel, Tom relinquishes his self-absorption and embraces Casy's mixture
of Emersonian idealism and a particular form of American communalism.
He plans to translate Casy's dream of organizing people to improve their
living conditions into action.
Poverty is the antagonist of Tom Joad and all migrant workers. Poverty
throws people into an intense relationship with nature and its contingencies.
Steinbeck, a naturalist, believed that people were the helpless victims
of an indifferent environment. The Oklahoma land companies and the Californian
landowners are the forces that inflict the poverty in the context of the
The climax occurs in Chapter 26 when Casy is murdered, and Tom avenges
his death and goes into hiding. These events cause Tom to mature and accept
the philosophies of Casy. He realizes that the only way to fight the poverty
and poor treatment is to take unified action.
The novel outwardly ends in tragedy. The Joads, like all the migrant workers, are continually plagued and threatened from the start of their journey to California. Their lives progressively deteriorate until the novel's ending when the family is considerably reduced in number, and Rose of Sharon's stillborn child is seen floating downstream. They have no money or no food for the winter, and have no idea how they will make it. Tom Joad, the protagonist, fully shares in the family's suffering from intense poverty.
In addition, Tom lives in fear of being discovered as a murderer. The only
bright spot in a bleak ending to the novel is Tom Joad's new insight about
life. He becomes aware that he has to be concerned not only for his own
family's welfare, but also for the welfare of all families. It is only
through a united effort that the migrant workers can rise above their
extremely low level of poverty. Ma, the pillar of strength, who has cared
mainly for her own family, also embraces this philosophy, and Rose of
Sharon is seen nursing a dying man in the last scene of the novel. These
are also small signs of hope.
The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the experiences of the Joad family
from the time of their eviction from a farm near Sallisaw, Oklahoma to
their first winter in California. The novel has little plot in the ordinary
sense. It has thirty chapters, fourteen of which deal with the Joad story.
The other sixteen chapters, called interchapters, are not part of the
narrative about the Joads. They are, instead, essays dealing with the
larger significance of the situation in which the Joads find themselves.
These chapters utilize the material that Steinbeck had found in his visits
to the migrant camps and his observations of the general situation of
drought and depression.
The novel is divided into three major sections: the drought in
Oklahoma (chapters 1-11), the journey (chapters 12-18), and California
The opening chapter deals with the drought in Oklahoma and describes
the dust storm and its effect on the people. In chapter two, Tom Joad
hitchhikes home with a talkative truck driver. He has just spent four
years in McAlester, an Oklahoma state prison, for killing a man in a drunken
brawl. Chapter three describes a box turtle crossing a highway with great
difficulty. In the fourth chapter, Tom meets Jim Casy, an ex-preacher.
They discuss his loss of faith and the problems that have reduced the
homesteaders to sharecroppers. Chapter five describes the landowners and
tractors forcing the sharecroppers off the land. Casy and Tom reach the
Joad farm in chapter six, but find it deserted and damaged. Muley Graves,
a neighbor, explains that the Joad family was evicted by the landowners,
and is now living at Uncle John's place as they prepare to move to California.
Chapter seven describes second-hand car dealers and reproduces the monologue
of a dealer who sells second-hand cars to the migrant families. Tom is
reunited with his family in chapter eight and learns of the plans to leave
for California. The ninth chapter describes the migrants, in general,
selling everything that could be sold and burning the rest of their belongings
in preparation for the journey to California. In chapter ten, the Joads
make their own preparations for the journey to California. They slaughter
and salt down pigs in order to have food along the way. They decide to
take Casy along with them. They drug Grampa, who refuses to leave the
farm. Finally, they depart for California. Chapter eleven describes the
deserted houses of the sharecroppers.
Chapter twelve depicts the movement of the migrants on Highway 66 as
they travel westwards to California. In Chapter thirteen, the Joads are
seen traveling on Route 66 and spending the first night of their journey.
Along the way, Grampa dies of a stroke and is buried by the roadside.
Tom and Al repair the Wilsons' car, and the two families agree to travel
together. Chapter fourteen outlines the potentiality for social change
inherent in the migrants' poignant situation. The next chapter focuses
on roadside cafes and truck drivers. In chapter sixteen the Wilsons' car
breaks down again, and Al and Tom repair it after buying the spare part
cheaply from a one-eyed wrecking yard assistant who hates his boss. At
the roadside camp, the Joads learn of the deplorable working conditions
and the scarcity of work available in California from a man who is returning
home after watching his wife and kids die from starvation. Chapter seventeen
describes the roadside camps established every night by the migrants and
the development of communal rules. In chapter eighteen, the Joads cross
Arizona and reach the Colorado River. Noah leaves the family after a baptismal
bath in the river. The Wilsons also discontinue their journey because
Sairy is too ill to travel any further. Thus, the Joads cross the dreaded
Mojave Desert alone. During the crossing, Granma dies; but Ma does not
reveal her death to anybody because she wants the family to get across
Chapter nineteen deals with the pattern of land ownership in California and contains Steinbeck's views on the strife between the landowners and the migrants. In chapter twenty, the Joads stop at Hooverville, a camp for migrants on the fringes of town, where hungry children surround Ma who is making a stew. The Joads are exposed to the reality of the pitiable conditions in California. A labor contractor and a Deputy Sheriff arrive and, when the deputy arrests Floyd Knowles on a false charge, Tom trips the deputy and Casy knocks him unconscious. Casy takes all the blame on himself, thus saving Tom. Uncle John is overwhelmed by Casy's sacrifice and gets drunk to drown his sorrows. Rose of Sharon is deserted by her husband. The Joads leave the camp on learning that angry mobs plan to burn it down during the night. Chapter twenty-one provides a generalizing comment on the resentment and repression of the migrants. In Chapter twenty-two, the Joads arrive at Weedpatch Camp and are happy to learn that it is managed by the migrants themselves. Tom finds work, but it lasts only for a few days. Mr. Thomas, the small farmer who employs him, tells him about some troublemakers who will disrupt the Saturday night dance so as to enable the police to interfere on grounds of rioting. Chapter twenty-three describes the migrants' leisure activities. In chapter twenty-four the committee governing the camp is successful in frustrating the attempt of the troublemakers to disrupt the camp.
In chapter twenty-five Steinbeck describes the scientific skill, which results
in abundant crops, which are then wasted. In chapter twenty-six the Joads
have to leave Weedpatch as they have run out of money, as well as food
and are without any work. They find work picking peaches at the Hooper
ranch. Here Tom meets Casy who tells him that the Joads are breaking the
strike to demand higher wages. Deputies disrupt their meeting, and Casy
is killed in a Christ-like manner. Tom kills Casy's murderer and is recognizably
wounded. Ma hides him in a cave of mattresses, and the family leaves the
camp to protect him. Chapter twenty-seven describes the work of cotton
picking. In chapter twenty-eight the family finds work picking cotton,
and Tom hides in a nearby cave. Ruthie reveals to a big girl that her
brother, who has killed two men, is hiding nearby. Tom tells Ma about
his plans to translate Casy's ideas into action. Chapter twenty-nine depicts
the migrants' despair during the long wet season when there is no work.
In the final chapter the rains flood the boxcar camp where the Joads have
been living while picking cotton. The Joads and the other families build
an embankment out of mud to prevent the water from flooding them. A fallen
tree breaks the embankment and water floods the camp. Rose of Sharon gives
birth to a stillborn child. Ma insists that the family find a dry shelter.
Al stays back with Agnes Wainwright. The Joads find a barn on high ground
in which to shelter. They find a boy and a starving man whom Rose of Sharon
nourishes with the milk intended for her baby.