Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

Start Free Trial

Chapters 17-21 Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated May 17, 2023.

Chapter 17
Every day, the migrants traveled towards the west on the road and gathered at spots with water and other people every night. Every campsite turned into a brief community where "twenty families became one family." They developed a system of self-rule based on their reverence for laws and order from their past homes. They established their own codes of behavior and rights, which gradually evolved into official laws.

Anyone who broke these regulations was kicked out of the community. They used their evenings to socialize and discuss their residences and ambitions, occasionally engaging in singing, but primarily relaxing to prepare for the upcoming journey. "But along the highway the cars of the migrant people crawled out like bugs, and the narrow concrete miles stretched ahead."

Chapter 18
At the Arizona border, a guard inquires about the Joads' destination and the duration of their stay in Arizona. The guard advises them to continue their journey. The Joads drive on and reach the California border, just across the Colorado River. Their first encounter in California warns them that a police officer will inspect them soon. Given the upcoming desert journey, they decide to take a break and rest.

The group of men head towards the river and enjoy its refreshing coolness. Later, a man and a boy join them. The man reveals that they are returning because he cannot sustain himself in California. Pa inquires about job opportunities in the state, but the man shares that the working conditions are poor. He further adds that a considerable amount of good land is left uncultivated because the owners are unwilling to farm it. Moreover, he states that the Californians are apprehensive of the migrant workers, who are known to be starving and hopeless. It is during this conversation that the term "Okie" is introduced to Pa and his companions, which the locals use to refer to these migrants in a derogatory manner.

They opt to traverse the desert during the nighttime when the temperature is lower. While near the river, Noah informs Tom that he plans to remain by the river and catch fish, as he believes it's impossible for someone to go hungry beside a beautiful river. Despite Tom's attempts to persuade him to stay with the rest of the family, Noah remains determined and walks away, wandering down the river.

Granma seems to be in a state of confusion and is talking to Grampa. A woman organizes a religious gathering for Ma, despite her declining the offer. A police officer warns Ma that they should leave soon. When Ma confronts him with anger, he reveals his dislike for "Okies" settling down. Tom later explains to Ma the meaning of the term "Okie" used by the cop. Ma feels that the family is disintegrating after learning about Noah.

The group prepares to leave, but Ivy Wilson informs them that his wife is unable to continue. Even though a police officer warns them to leave before morning, Ma considers waiting until they can all leave together. However, Wilson insists that they must continue and asks Jim Casy to attend to Mrs. Wilson. She requests a prayer, but Casy is unable to comply.

Mrs. Wilson is aware that she is dying of cancer, but she does not want her husband to know. Despite Mr. Wilson's objections, the Joads leave them some meat and two dollars before departing to cross the desert.

At a checkpoint, a customs officer begins to thoroughly search the items in a truck. Ma informs him that there is an extremely ill elderly woman in the truck who needs urgent medical attention. As a result, the officer allows them to proceed. But upon arriving at the next town, Ma confesses that Granma does not actually require medical attention.

After driving all night through the desert, they reach the final mountains before their destination. Ma reveals that Granma had actually passed away before they even reached the checkpoint, and she had lied because it was necessary for the family to cross the desert. 

As they drive down into a beautiful valley with the sun behind them:  Ma shook her head slowly from side to side. "It’s purty," she said. “I wisht they could of saw it."

Chapter 19
The California landowners were the descendents of Americans who had seized the land from its original Mexican owners. Initially, they were unauthorized occupants who derived their livelihood from the land and eventually came to regard it as their own. With the gradual accumulation of land, they transformed farming into a business, employed supervisors and brought in foreign workers to perform the actual labor.

As the massive movement of people from the dust bowl started, the owners of the land grew apprehensive that the migrants, if permitted to settle down, would attempt to seize control of the property. To prevent this, they endeavored to keep wages at a minimum and employed security personnel to safeguard their assets. Despite these efforts, the migrants continued to arrive, carrying their aspirations for a more prosperous existence.

Chapter 20
Once again, the Joads are unable to pay for a decent funeral for Granma, so they leave her body with a coroner in the area to handle the burial. They then discover a camping spot on the outskirts of town, and when they approach a man there, he responds in confusion. Another man clarifies that the first man has been mistreated by the police too many times, and as a result, he has become mentally challenged.

The man repeats several times that more people than required by the handbills show up to work, and their wages have been reduced. However, there are several people with hungry children who are willing to work for the low pay. When Tom inquires why the migrants do not form an organization, the man responds that anyone who suggests organizing is apprehended as a problem-causer. The man tells Tom that the camp they are in is called a "Hooverville."

Tom finds this behavior repulsive. The man advises Tom that law enforcement expects Okies to behave in a straightforward and unsophisticated manner, and he warns Tom to do the same to prevent any issues.

Casy and Tom are discussing how Casy can show his gratitude to the Joads and improve the lives of migrant workers in general. Meanwhile, Rose of Sharon informs Connie that she's feeling unwell and insists on having a house before the baby arrives. Connie regrets leaving Oklahoma where he could have learned to operate a tractor, and he leaves the tent and walks away.

Ma prepares a stew using the only meat her family has had in several days, while a group of hungry children gather around to watch. One child offers to maintain the fire and tells Ma about a better government camp for migrants. Ma is uncertain about how to help the hungry children since she doesn't have enough food for her own family. Nonetheless, she reserves a small amount of stew in the pot and permits the children to taste it once.

Ma rushes inside the tent in order to avoid witnessing the sight of children using sticks to dig into the pot. One of the children's mothers accuses Ma of creating problems by serving them stew, but Ma defends herself by saying that even though she didn't have enough food for her own family, she couldn't resist the pleading looks on the children's faces and had to share with them.

Floyd Knowles informs Al that the men in the camp have thoroughly searched the area for job opportunities but to no avail. However, Floyd shares with Al and Tom that there might be work available several hundred miles north. Later, a man arrives at the camp and mentions the requirement for laborers in Tulare. When Floyd inquires about the wage rate, the man responds that it varies.

Floyd insists on having a contract specifying his wage before he agrees to work, causing the labor contractor to call for assistance from a deputy. Floyd expresses doubt about the contractor's honesty, believing that a deputy wouldn't be necessary if the contractor was trustworthy. However, the deputy accuses Floyd of trespassing on a used car lot and arrests him.

Tom speaks up in defense of Floyd, but the deputy threatens to arrest him as well. The deputy then warns both of them that if they do not comply with his orders to go to Tulare, he will have their camp burned down.

Floyd starts running and the deputy pursues him, but Tom trips the deputy. Then, Casy strikes the deputy in the neck. Casy warns Tom about his probation and advises him to conceal himself. Casy volunteers to take responsibility when additional deputies arrive on the scene. The initial deputy is uncertain whether Casy is the correct person, but Casy is detained and taken away.

Uncle John expresses his desire to get drunk, and Pa gives him some money. The family prepares to leave and packs their things while Tom emerges from his hiding spot. Rose of Sharon inquires about Connie's whereabouts and Tom informs her that he witnessed Connie leaving the camp. Tom sets out to locate Uncle John, who is found lying in a depression and unwilling to budge. Tom renders Uncle John unconscious and carries him back to the vehicle.

As they prepare to leave, Ma warns Tom to be cautious because she anticipates problems. Tom responds by expressing his frustration that the police seem to be intentionally causing trouble for them, aiming to undermine their moral standards. Ma advises him to avoid any risky situations, and he agrees to do his best, but he also argues that the police are the ones acting unlawfully.

As they get closer to a town, they encounter a group of people blocking the road. An officer instructs Tom to go back because they don't want any Okies in their town. Although frustrated, Tom manages to hold back his anger and turn the truck around. However, he soon drives off the road and continues circling the town in the direction they intended to go. He tells Ma that they can still reach their destination even if they have to struggle for it, "We still go where we want, even if we got to crawl for the right."

Chapter 21
Those who had spent their entire lives on only 40 acres of land were forced to become migrants. Their experiences with highways, temporary camps, food scarcity, and the constant need to move had a profound impact on them.

Additionally, the negative treatment they received from other people on their journey also affected them. As they traveled, the people in the areas they entered became afraid and unwelcoming towards them. In response, the locals armed themselves to protect their territory against the perceived threat of these newcomers.

Individuals who had never experienced hunger or poverty before witnessed it in the eyes of the migrants and joined forces to protect themselves and their possessions. These groups armed themselves and convinced themselves that they were the righteous ones, while the migrants were the ones invading their territory.

The members of these armed groups, who were often clerks and storekeepers with no land ownership, feared losing their jobs to the hungry migrants. Meanwhile, the migrants fought amongst themselves for any available work, often settling for lower wages than others just to secure a job which could feed them and their children.

The wealthy landowners devised a fresh approach to maintain low wages and high prices. They achieved this by selling their fruit to their personal canneries at prices lower than production costs and then keeping the canned fruit prices high.

Consequently, the small farmers lost their lands to the wealthy owners and banks, and they had to become migrant workers who struggled to feed themselves. The wealthy corporations failed to realize that there was only a small gap between starvation and anger, and they persisted in utilizing their wealth to purchase weapons and suppressive measures instead of paying their workers better wages.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter 12-16 Summary


Chapters 22-26 Summary