The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck Summary and Analysis Chapter 16

Summary

For two days, the Wilsons and the Joads are in flight across the Panhandle, leaving Oklahoma and crossing Texas. Eventually, they became accustomed to their traveling way of life. As they drive through New Mexico, Rosasharn tells her mother about her and Connie's plans once they reach California. They want to live in town, with Connie taking correspondence courses and getting a job in a factory or store. Ma voices her concern that she doesn't want the family to split up, but realizes that it is just a dream.

A rattle in the engine causes Al to pull the car over and discover a broken connecting rod bearing. They anticipate a time-consuming repair, and Tom suggests the family go ahead to California to find work. He and Casy will stay behind, fix the car, and then catch-up with the others in California. The others reluctantly agree with the plan, but Ma refuses to leave. She picks up a jack handle and says she will beat anyone who makes her split up the family. Faced with her immovability, the others give in.

Al takes the family up the road to a camp, while Tom and Casy remove the connecting rod. Tom and Al find a junkyard and retrieve a matching con-rod from a wrecked car. They are able to get the car fixed that night and meet up with the family at the camp. The roadside camp charges a 50-cent fee to spend the night. Tom refuses to pay, preferring to sleep outside on the road. He parks the car outside the gate and walks in to talk to his family. Pa is sharing the family hope for work in California with a group of men when a stranger emerges from the shadows to tell his own sad story. Unable to find work in California, the stranger's wife and two children had starved to death. Pa is worried and asks the preacher if that is the truth. Casy answers that it's the truth for him, but he doesn't know what the truth for the Joads will be. Tom and Casy speak briefly with Ma and plan to meet up later in the morning. Tom, Uncle John, and Casy go out to sleep on the road.

Analysis

In this chapter, we see how the deterioration of the Joad family parallels the downward spiral of their economic fortunes. Granpa, unable to tear himself from the land, died the moment they left the farm. Without Granpa, Granma's health also fails rapidly, and Rosasharn shares that once they get to California, she and Connie want to branch out on their own. Ma sees her family crumbling and begins to fight desperately to keep them together. Her desperation to keep the family together is so great that she responds to any immediate threat with drastic measures. When the broken-down car prompts Tom to suggest that the family split up for a short time, Ma reacts with violence, grabbing the jack handle and demanding the family remain intact. She realizes that outside forces are tearing them apart; without their home, nothing is left to bind them together. With this recognition, Ma again restates the theme of survival through group unity, "All we got is the family unbroken. Like a bunch of cows, when the lobos are ranging, stick all together."

With Ma's revolt comes a shift in familial power. Although she had deferred to the men in the group, Ma had always been a reckoning force in the family structure. Recall that at the truck-side family conference she had roamed the perimeter of the men's circle, but decisions were not made without her input. Yet it must be noted that Ma was not an early feminist. Quite clear about her traditional role as comforter, nurturer, and protector of the family, she also realizes that something of Pa's strength was taken when he lost the ability to provide for his family. For the sake of family unity, she must temporarily take control.

Tom's anger toward the camp proprietor for capitalizing on the misfortune of the migrant families echoes Steinbeck's attitude concerning the crimes of profit-hunters. Humans must not work for independent benefit, but for the good of all, a concept that recalls the tractor driver in Chapter 5, who chose to put other families off their farms in order to earn three dollars a day to feed his own family. The owner recognizes this attitude in Tom, calling him a "troublemaker," but Tom, like Steinbeck, is not really advocating communism in the strict sense. Much more important is the theme of humanism, of helping out others who are trapped by hard times, the personal expression of the theory of love expounded by Jim Casy. At the same time, Steinbeck is not suggesting that everyone should receive a free ride because they encounter unfortunate circumstances. Earlier in the chapter, Tom had taken to task the one-eyed man in the wrecking yard because he was feeling sorry for himself. Hard work is important, and Steinbeck goes to great pains to reiterate the desire of men to work, to sweat, and as Casy says, "Fling their muscles around and get tired."

This chapter also provides a somewhat critical crossroads in Tom's spiritual conversion, which critic Warren French has called his "education of the heart." While fixing the car, Casy begins to share with Tom observations that recall the prophetic images of the previous intercalary chapter: "[Them people] ain't thinkin' where they're goin' — but they're layin' 'em down the same direction, just the same.… They's gonna come a thing that's gonna change the whole country." These reflections frustrate Tom as they force him to consider larger social issues and his own part in them. He's not ready to do that, preferring to think only of his own immediate future. It's clear, however, that Casy's teachings are beginning to tug at his innate compassion. Upon reaching the roadside camp, he stands up against the profiteering proprietor, subconsciously shifting from, "If I pay…I ain't a vagrant," to "We ain't asked ya for nothing." Like Muley and Ma before him, Tom is beginning to learn he has no other choice but to become involved.

Glossary

panhandle a strip of land projecting like the handle of a pan. Here refers to the western extension of Oklahoma.

con-rod bearing a reciprocating rod connecting two or more moving parts of a machine, as the crankshaft and a piston of an automobile.

babbitt a soft white metal of tin, lead, copper, and antimony in various proportions, used to reduce friction as in bearings.

shim a thin, usually wedge-shaped piece of wood, metal, or stone used for filling space, leveling, and so on, as in masonry.

jack [old slang] money.

proprietor one who owns and operates a business establishment.

Bolshevicky here refers a member of the Bolshevik party, a majority faction (Bolsheviki) of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, which formed the Communist Party after seizing power in the 1917 Revolution.

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