Summary and Analysis
As the cars of the migrant families travel west, they begin to create their own communities with rules, laws, punishments, and social expectations. A community begins with one family camping alongside the road. Eventually, one family turns into 20 families. As the families camp together, it becomes clear that each person has certain rights, such as the right to food and to privacy. Likewise, other things are unacceptable, such as being noisy when the camp is quiet or eating food while another goes hungry. These things are punishable by fighting or ostracism. In the morning, the families pack up just like a traveling circus and continue out on the road to California.
Chapter 17 provides an abstract illustration of the re-formulating concept of community, a generalized vision of people governing themselves by adhering to a philosophy of living not unlike Casy's theory of love and the Oversoul. We are all part of one being; therefore, if we all follow laws (or rights) that arise out of common sense, experience, and respect for others, it is possible to govern ourselves. This idea of self-governing migratory camps will be solidified in the government camp at Weedpatch. These pockets of self-government are in sharp contrast to the laws enforced by those in power — laws designed to keep weaker persons at a disadvantage. It is this injustice that Tom is fighting against when he later rages against cops and other formal figures of authority.
The theme of survival by pragmatism is illuminated by the inhabitants of these transitory, self-governing camps. Those people who are able to be flexible, to adapt to new circumstances, are the ones who will survive, and adaptability is gained through group action. People isolated into "I" thinking are static, while those who join together to create a "we" community are always shifting, always changing. We should remember that Steinbeck's novel is not just a social tract for its time — the solutions he offers are neither radical, nor one-sided, but universal. Although he strikes a sympathetic cord in his heartfelt description of injustice, he also asserts that it is not enough for the economic powers to "play fair." In order for society as a whole to survive, fair industrial practices must be met by changes in the moving forces of people.
Dutch-oven a metal container for roasting meats, with an open side placed so that it is toward the fire.
migrant a farm laborer who moves from place to place to harvest seasonal crops.