The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck Summary and Analysis Chapter 20

Summary

The family takes Granma's body to the coroner in Bakersfield but can only spare five dollars for her burial. The family stops at the first tent camp they see on the outskirts of town, a settlement of tents, each with a vehicle parked next to it. As the family sets up camp, they meet Floyd Knowles, a young man in the neighboring tent who explains the harsh harassment tactics of the police. If they think that anyone is heading up a group of workers, they will put that man in jail, and anyone who speaks out against the injustice of the law is killed. No one cares because the victim will simply be listed as a "vagrant found dead."

Tom takes his leave of Floyd and returns to his family's camp where Ma, surrounded by a group of ragged children, prepares a stew. Casy tells Tom that he will move on so as not to burden the Joads any longer. He promises to repay their hospitality. Tom asks him to stay at least one more day because he has an uneasy feeling trouble is brewing. In the tent, Connie is sullen, telling Rosasharn he should have stayed in Oklahoma and studied about tractors. He will leave, never to return. Ma learns that none of the children standing around have had any breakfast. Ma dishes out the stew to her family, but leaves what's left in the pot for the children.

After dinner, Tom and Al return to help Floyd. As they talk, groups of men drive into the camp, discouraged and tired from not finding work. A few minutes later, a shiny car drives up. The driver emerges and offers the men jobs picking fruit in Tulare. Floyd responds that when he writes down what the wage will be, signs it, and shows the men his contractor's license, they will sign up for the work. Angry, the contractor and his companion, a deputy, accuse Floyd of breaking into a used car lot and try to arrest him. Floyd strikes the cop and flees the camp. The deputy shoots at him, wounding a nearby woman, and is tripped by Tom. He continues to shoot and is kicked in the neck by Casy, rendering him unconscious. Tom cannot afford to get in trouble with the law because of his parole, so Casy offers to take the blame. Tom hides near the river when the cops return. Casy turns himself in.

As the sun lowers, Al goes in search of Tom, and Ma begins supper. Uncle John tells Ma and Pa that he has sinned by withholding five dollars to get drunk with, but they tell him that this is not a sin since the money is his. Rumor has it that the Hooverville will be burned that night, a common ploy of the local authorities to halt any organizing. When Tom returns from his hiding place, the family collects the drunken Uncle John and decides to go to the government camp at Weedpatch. As the truck leaves camp, they are stopped by cops who instruct them to go north to Tulare. Tom wants to resist, but is restrained by Ma. The strain of being servile is beginning to show on Tom who momentarily sobs. Reasoning that the cops can't tell a person where to go, Tom turns around, cuts through town, and continues south toward Weedpatch. They leave behind the crackling sounds of flames as the Hooverville is destroyed.

Analysis

Agrarian philosophy, a strong component of Steinbeck's social thought, is symbolized by the desire of people to be close to the land. In this chapter, Casy, like many of the novel's characters, facilitates his thinking by placing his feet in the dirt. This image is rampant throughout the narrative, from the small children of Chapter 1, who "draw figures in the dust with bare toes," to Tom Joad, whose first gesture on the road to home is to take off his shoes and wiggle his toes in the dirt.

Jim Casy is quite clearly understood to be a Christ-figure in the novel. Most obviously, his initials, J.C., are the same as Jesus Christ, but the symbolism is present in other forms. Like Christ, he goes into the wilderness to experience a spiritual rebirth, and in this chapter, he sacrifices himself for Tom. Through this sacrifice, this symbolic giving of his body, he will be opened to a full understanding of the group unity philosophy he has been working toward.

This chapter marks the moment Casy stops talking and begins acting. His giving up of himself for Tom is immediately foreshadowed when he tells Tom, "I ain't doin' nobody no good." Within hours, he will have the opportunity to begin doing good, carrying out his theoretical ideals by kicking the deputy and sacrificing himself for Tom. This move signals an active embracing of the pragmatic thought that is so integral to Steinbeck's social philosophy.

Casy's sacrifice marks a counter movement in Tom's conversion. Unlike Casy, who is moving from thought to action, Tom is working in the opposite direction: Unable to act (to get work or improve his family's situation), Tom is forced to observe and reflect. Up until this point, he hasn't paid much attention to Casy's ideas because they hadn't been relevant in day-to-day existence. Now, however, he begins to grasp Casy's ideals as well as his own social responsibility. This conversion from what scholar Peter Lisca calls a private, inner morality to an outward expression of morality will be finalized when Tom is forced to hide out in the cave, and he is shackled into complete inaction.

The movement toward a community unity builds in this chapter as the traditional family unit is replaced by a larger, world family unit. As the Joad's economic situation declines, the family unit suffers more loss. Casy, Granma, and Connie are now gone. The global family unit, however, is beginning to be forged by an outward extension of love, represented by the sacrifice of Jim Casy, the exchange of help between Al and Floyd Knowles, and Ma's feeding of the hungry children.

Glossary

coroner a public officer whose chief duty is to determine the causes of any deaths not obviously due to natural causes.

embalming the process of treating a dead body with various chemicals, usually after removing the viscera, to keep it from decaying rapidly.

"on-relief" aid in the form of goods or money given, as by a government agency, to persons unable to support themselves.

belligerently in a hostile or quarrelsome manner.

vagrant one who wanders from place to place without a regular job, supporting oneself by begging.

stir-bugs [slang] prison inmates.

coupe a closed, two-door automobile.

flagged sent (a message) by signaling.

self-abasement a humbling or abasement of oneself.

kerosene lamps lamps that burn kerosene, a thin oil distilled from petroleum or shale oil.

servile humbly yielding or submissive.

tunics short coats worn by soldiers, policemen, and so on.

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