Chapters 17-21 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2680

New Character Floyd Knowles: a migrant having trouble finding work

SummaryChapter 17 Day by day the migrants moved westward along the highway, clustering each night where there was water and company. Each camp became a temporary world for the night and “twenty families became one family.” A form of...

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New Character
Floyd Knowles: a migrant having trouble finding work

Chapter 17
Day by day the migrants moved westward along the highway, clustering each night where there was water and company. Each camp became a temporary world for the night and “twenty families became one family.” A form of self-government grew up. Out of the respect for law and order they brought from their old homes, the migrants established rules of conduct and of rights among themselves, and the rules became laws. Any violator of these laws was expelled from the group. Evenings were spent in making friends and talking about their homes and their future. There might even be some singing, but mainly they rested to be ready for the next day’s travel.

Chapter 18
At the Arizona border a guard asks the Joads where they are going and how long they will be in Arizona, and he tells them they had better keep moving. They drive on and stop just across the Colorado River, the California border. The first person they talk to warns them a cop will be down to “look them over.” They decide they need some rest before crossing the desert ahead.

The men go to the river and sit in its coolness. A man and boy join them. The man says they are on their way back because he can’t make a living in California. When Pa asks about work there, the man describes poor conditions. He remarks that a lot of good land is not farmed because the owners don’t want to farm it. He also says the people of California are afraid of the migrant workers who they know are hungry and desperate. From him they first hear the term “Okie,” by which the local people mean a “dirty son-of-a-bitch.”

They decide to cross the desert in the cool of the night. Down by the river, Noah tells Tom he is going to stay by the river and catch fish. He says a fellow can’t starve beside a nice river. When Tom cannot change his mind and convince him to stay with the family, Noah wanders off down the river.

Granma appears to be delirious, talking to Grampa. A woman holds a religious meeting for her despite Ma’s refusal of her offer. A policeman tells Ma they had better not be there another day. When she confronts him angrily, he tells her he does not want any “goddamn Okies settling down.” Later Tom tells Ma what the word “Okie” means to the cop. When he tells her about Noah, Ma feels the “family’s fallin’ apart.”

They get ready to depart and Ivy Wilson tells them his wife can go no farther. Despite the cop’s warning to be gone by morning, Ma thinks about waiting until they can all go together. Wilson says they must go on and asks Jim Casy to see Mrs. Wilson. She asks Casy to say a prayer, but he cannot. She knows she is dying of cancer but doesn’t want her husband to know. Over Mr. Wilson’s protest the Joads leave him two dollars and some meat and they start out to cross the desert.

At a border control station an officer starts to inspect all the contents of the truck. Ma tells him there is a very sick old woman inside who must get to a doctor quickly and he lets them pass. However, when they get to the next town Ma says Granma does not need a doctor. After an all night drive across the desert they reach the last mountains before their destination. Ma tells them Granma was dead before they reached the control station, and she lied because the family had to get across the desert.

Chapter 19
The landowners in California were descended from Americans who had taken the land away from the Mexicans who owned it. Starting as squatters, they made their living from the land and began to consider it theirs. As they acquired more and more land they turned farming into an industry, hired overseers and imported foreign laborers to do the actual work.

When the great migration from the dust bowl began, the owners became frightened that, if allowed to become squatters, the migrants would try to take over ownership of the land. So they tried to keep wages low and hired guards to protect their property. But the migrants kept coming, bringing their dreams of a better life with them.

Chapter 20
The Joads, once again unable to afford a proper funeral, leave Granma’s body with a local coroner for burial. They find a camping place at the edge of town. The first man they speak to answers incoherently. Another man explains the first has been pushed around by too many cops and is now “bull-simple.”

The man tells them three or four times as many people as the handbills say are needed show up for work and the wages were cut. Yet there are many with hungry children who will work for the low wages. When Tom asks why the migrants don’t organize, the man says that anyone who talks about organizing is arrested as a troublemaker. Tom is disgusted by this. The man tells Tom the cops expect Okies to act “bull-simple” and cautions him to do so to avoid trouble.

Casy and Tom talk and Casy wonders how he can repay the Joads and what he can do to make life better for all of the migrant people.

Rose of Sharon tells Connie she is sick and they must have a house before the baby is born. Connie says they should have stayed in Oklahoma where he could have learned to operate a tractor. He leaves the tent and walks away.

Ma cooks a stew with the first meat the family has had in days. Several children gather around and watch her hungrily. One offers to keep the fire going, and tells Ma about a government camp for migrants that is better than this one. Ma doesn’t know what to do about the hungry children because she hasn’t enough food for her own family. However, she leaves a little stew in the pot and tells the children they can each have one taste. She hurries into the tent so she won’t see them digging in the pot with sticks. The mother of one of the children tells Ma she is causing trouble by giving them the stew, but Ma replies that even though she didn’t have enough for her own family, because of the way the children looked at her, she couldn’t keep it from them.

Floyd Knowles, the man who earlier spoke with Tom, tells Al the men in the camp have scanned the area for any type of work but there is none to be had. Floyd tells Al and Tom there is supposed to be work hundreds of miles further north. A man drives into the camp and says he needs workers in Tulare, and when Floyd asks how much it pays, the man says it depends. When Floyd wants a contract stating the wage before he will come, the labor contractor calls a deputy. Floyd says if the contractor were “on the level” he wouldn’t need a deputy. The deputy arrests Floyd, accusing him of breaking into a used car lot. When Tom speaks up the deputy threatens to arrest him too. He then warns them he will have the camp burned down if they don’t go to Tulare. Floyd runs, the deputy starts after him, and Tom trips the deputy. Casy kicks the deputy in the neck. He reminds Tom about his parole and tells him to hide. He takes the blame when more deputies arrive. The first one is not sure Casy is the right man, but he is arrested and taken away.

Uncle John says he needs to get drunk and gets money from Pa. Tom comes out of hiding and the family packs its belongings. Rose of Sharon asks where Connie is and Tom tells her he saw Connie walking away from the camp. Then he goes after Uncle John and finds him in a ditch refusing to move. Tom knocks him out and carries him back to the truck.

Expecting trouble as they leave, Ma urges Tom to be careful. He replies he is getting mad because the cops are “tryin’ to break us.” He says, “They’re working on our decency.” Ma cautions him to stay out of trouble and he says he will try but that the cops’ actions are not legal.

As they approach a town, there is a mob blockading the road. A deputy tells Tom to turn around and go back. He says, “We ain’t gonna have no goddamn Okies in this town.” Restraining himself, Tom turns the truck around but soon drives off the road and circles the town continuing in the direction he wanted to go. He says to Ma, “We can still go where we want, even if we got to crawl for the right.” Ma says to have patience, that “us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone.”

Chapter 21
The people who had lived all their lives on just 40 acres were now migrants. The highway, the camps, the hunger and fear of hunger, and the endless moving changed them. And the hostility they met changed them. There was panic among the inhabitants of the land they entered, and they became hostile to the migrants. They armed to repel the invaders. People who had never known hunger or want now saw hunger and want in the eyes of the migrants and gathered to defend themselves and what was theirs. They formed armed units, convincing themselves that they were good and the invaders were bad. The men in these units, clerks and storekeepers, did not own land but feared competing for the jobs they had with hungry men. And the migrants fought for what work there was, working for less than the next man just to get something.

The great owners of the land created a new system to keep wages low and prices high. They controlled both by selling their fruit to their own canneries below cost and by keeping the cost of canned fruit high. The small farmers lost their land to the great owners and the banks and they joined the migrant hungry. The great companies did not recognize the thin line between hunger and anger and continued to use their money for guns and repressive measures instead of paying better wages.

Discussion and Analysis
The intercalary chapters in this unit are concerned with the sub-society the migrants established among themselves and the resistance to their coming by the larger society they were entering.

The migrants merged into groups larger than single families, with agreed upon rules of behavior which had the practical force of laws among them. They were a people with a heritage of order and of obeying laws they understood and respected.

They were entering a society controlled by a very few who owned most of the farming land and controlled those who owned only small farms. Migrant labor was not new to this society, but in the past it had consisted of Orientals and Mexicans. The new migrants were old-stock Americans who posed a threat by wanting to own part of the land as they had where they came from. Thus the large owners became frightened, kept wages low, and hired guards to protect their property as well as policemen to coerce and control the migrants. But they didn’t understand the real danger, which was the Okie’s strong faith in each other and their persistence to keep trying for better conditions.

The fright and resistance went beyond the large owners, corporations, and banks to the small farmers, shopkeepers, and working people. They were afraid of the competition for jobs from the increasing numbers of hungry people willing to work cheaply, and they organized and armed themselves to resist the ever-growing tide of Okies who they convinced themselves were bad.

This, then, is what the Joads find as they near the end of their long overland journey. The plot has again moved the action to a new scene and new conditions. Their conflict with the new social and economic environment will again determine their actions, even giving rise to some conflicts between themselves as to how to deal with this environment.

At the first stopping place in California, they are made aware of the hostile attitude of the established residents when they hear the word “Okie” and learn the derogatory manner in which it is applied to them. The attitude is implicit in the way the policeman speaks to Ma. She reacts angrily to this, as does Tom to the meaning of “Okie.”

In this unit Tom’s anger grows, and he takes a few first steps in the direction in which he eventually will go to fight back against the harshness of the treatment of the migrants. He resents and rebels against being told where to go and what to do by the cops and the local mob. From the loner who put down one foot at a time and avoided trouble, he is starting to think about the migrants organizing to combat the conditions. He is moving ever closer to being involved in the troubles and struggles of people other than himself.

The scene and conditions also cause Tom to take two direct responsive actions. He physically intervenes when Floyd Knowles is about to be falsely arrested for demanding better terms from the labor contractor. Later, he circumvents the roadblock he perceives as another illegal attack on the decency of the migrants.

At the river, the Joads hear again about the poor working and living conditions ahead of them and the attitude of the inhabitants. Rather than face further trials, Noah goes off by himself.

Ma realizes this is the beginning of the disintegration of the Joad family that she is so committed to keeping together. As they become more impoverished, more of the family will leave it. First, they have to abandon the Wilsons who have become part of the family, and then Granma dies. But even in Granma’s death Ma shows her own strength and devotion to the family by lying about Granma so the family can get across the desert to the land which they dream of reaching. Not only is the family disintegrating but its standards are also deteriorating. Once considering themselves independent and asking no charity, they now have to commit Granma to the pauper’s grave they so dreaded for Grampa.

Arriving in California represents the achievement of a dream for the Joads. But now they find the dream shattered, and the ugliness, filth, and disorder of the first camp they stop at represents the further deterioration in their lives. They learn the work they had been hoping for is not to be had. Connie deserts Rose of Sharon. Jim Casy is lost from the family when he steps forward and takes the blame for Tom’s trouble with the deputy and enables Tom to stay with them.

Thus, like Tom, Casy also takes action. Until now he has been merely a thinker trying to solve his own dilemmas and formulate a way to solve those of others. Now, he is a doer. He sees a way to repay the Joads for their kindness to him and does so by sacrificing himself for what he sees as their good. He is now on his way to devoting himself to action that will benefit all of the people of the whole human family he believes to be holy.

Ma again gives life to his principles by feeding the hungry children of her neighbors even when she doesn’t have enough food for her own smaller family. And later she expresses Casy’s faith in the people to go on in the face of adversity.

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