Summary and Analysis
The family moves westward through Arizona and arrives weary in California at dawn. At mid-morning, they camp along the banks of the Colorado River, where Tom and the men bathe and decide whether or not to cross the desert that night. Granma is ill, but Pa, worried about the money, wants to get work as soon as possible. While bathing, they speak with a man and his son returning from California. They explain the hardships that await the Joads: fertile ground lying unplanted, job scarcity, and corrupt owners who cheat the workers. Hardest to bear is the hostility of the natives who have derogatorily labeled the newcomers "Okies." Although the Joads are frightened, they have no choice but to go on. They finish their bathing and decide to nap on the shore before continuing their journey that evening. Noah follows Tom into the brush and tells him that he won't be going on to California with the family. He's going to follow the river and fish. He asks Tom to tell Ma.
In the tent, Ma and Rosasharn sit with Granma, whose health continues to deteriorate. A large woman offers to hold a Jehovite holy meeting for Granma, but Ma refuses, insisting that Granma is just worn out from the heat and travel. Ma and Rose of Sharon rest for the night's trip, but are awoken by a local authority who warns them to be gone by morning, because the town doesn't want any "Okies" settling down there. Ma, angry at being spoken to so disrespectfully, threatens him with a skillet. After he leaves, Ma sits and tries to compose herself.
To avoid trouble, the family decides to move on immediately. Knowing that the trip across the desert will kill Sairy, the Wilsons decide to stay. The Joads go on by themselves, leaving the Wilsons some food and a few dollars. During the night drive across the desert, Ma continues to lie with Granma and comfort her. Midway through the trip, agricultural inspectors want to inspect the truck for produce, but Ma begs hysterically to be able to continue. She explains that Granma is very ill and must see a doctor. The inspector allows them to go on.
They drive through Barstow and up over the mountains. As the truck descends into Tehachapi, the family is struck by the beauty of the valley below. Al stops the truck, and the family piles out to look at California. Ma tells everyone that Granma has died, has been dead, in fact, since before the agricultural inspectors stopped them. She couldn't help Granma because she knew the family had to get across the desert. The family is awestruck by the strength of her love.
As her family continues to crumble, Ma's strength, drawn intuitively from love, continues to grow, making her a physical symbol of the humanism strand of Steinbeck's social theory. The family is disintegrating as the Joads are forced to leave the Wilsons behind, Noah refuses to leave the water at the Colorado River, and Granma dies. Ma fights against this destruction, defending her clan against mounting intrusions and circumstances.
When the religious woman at the camp offers to pray over the ill Granma, Ma sends her on her way, preferring to keep the privacy of her family. She is stung by the venomous intrusion of the sheriff who warns her that they don't want any "Okies" settling down and she responds physically, threatening him with a skillet. Unable to defend Granma against death, she chooses to put the needs of the living ahead of those who have passed. Keeping quiet about Granma's death, she allows the family to get across the desert. Casy's response when he learns about her heroism stands as a definition of Ma's character, "There's a woman so great with love — she scares me."
With each strike against the family, Ma's strength is doubled, but her desperate desire to maintain the family will be thwarted the longer they stay in California. Although she is considered a symbol of human love, it is a love of family above all others that she practices. As the family's economic plight worsens, Ma can do nothing to keep them together. She will be forced to replace her immediate family with a world family, one that includes the entire community.
shuck to remove a shell, pod, or husk.
fallow land plowed but not seeded for one or more growing seasons, to kill weeds, make the soil richer, and so on.
Okie a migratory agricultural worker, forced to migrate from Oklahoma or other areas of the Great Plains because of drought and farm foreclosure in the 1930s.
Jehovites members of a proselytizing Christian sect founded by Charles T. Russell (1852-1916).
exhortation a plea or sermon urging or warning people to do what is required.
feral untamed; wild.
Sam Browne belt a military officer's belt with a diagonal strap across the right shoulder, designed to carry the weight of a pistol or sword.
epaulets shoulder ornaments for certain uniforms, especially military uniforms.
Tehachapi mountain just east of Bakersfield.
heliograph a permanent image formed on a glass plate by an early photographic process.