The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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Chapters 17-21 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Floyd Knowles: a migrant having trouble finding work

Summary
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....

(The entire section is 2,680 words.)