Chapter 2 Summary
Chapter 2 begins in a mythical, dream-like tone and continues Steinbeck's give-and-take theme. "The word is a symbol," Steinbeck says. Words are of course only symbolic. The word "tree" is not a tree; the word "factory" holds nothing more than the sum of its letters. But "things" have to have names; they must have a "word" to communicate. Words and things are separate but intertwined.
In the same way, people are more than one thing. The author asks that Lee Chong be considered as "more than a Chinese grocer." He is "spinning in orbit," connecting worlds, his own and his past. As readers, we observe another Lee Chong, a man who goes to China Point in California, digs up the dried and yellowed bones of one of his ancestors. The skull of his dead grandfather still had remnants of its queue, the hairstyle made mandatory for men by the Manchu dynasty. Lee Chong, in his new home in the American West, boxed up the remains and sent them back to his homeland in the East.
Mack and the boys are also "spinning in their orbit" and their gravitational pull has its own special function. Here Steinbeck gives them attributes that seem incongruent but will be proven as the narrative unfolds. He calls the first, "The Virtues." In Platonic mythology, reverence and justice are the virtues Zeus distributes to all people. Secondly, Steinbeck calls Mack and the boys "The Graces." The Graces are of Greek mythological origin, and they are women. As with most of the narrative in the novel, the attributes of both men and women are frequently undifferentiated and here, Steinbeck gives The Graces gifts of beauty, joy, and charm to the boys. It is not a typical beauty, and their charms and joys are not typical either. However, this band of brothers embodies these qualities just as much as their mythological counterparts. The third trait bestowed on Mack and the boys is "The Beauties." Outwardly, the ragtag, unemployed group may not seem beautiful, but as the story progresses, they develop beauty in their own spinning orbit.
Mack and they boys are beautiful in that they have managed to escape the traps of modern society. They do not need "certain" food. All food is welcomed. They do not develop ulcers due to their work; they do not have jobs. They manage to avoid all the poisons and pitfalls of consumerism by refusing to be traditional consumers. They live in nature and survive by their wit and ingenuity. Laziness becomes not a derogatory way of being, but a way of reserving energy when life can truly be lived.