Summary and Analysis
Pa and Uncle John, realizing that the rising water will eventually flood the cars, ask the other boxcar dwellers to work together to build an embankment to stem the water. They know it will take the strength of all the men working together. If some refuse, all will have to leave. With the support of the Wainwrights, the men leave to talk to the other campers.
Although she is not due yet, Rosasharn begins to have labor pains. When Pa returns, Ma tells him Rose of Sharon's time is come. He is spurred to action, telling the men that the bank must be put up because his girl is having her baby. The men work feverishly in the downpour. As their labor continues through the night, they can hear screams coming from the Joad's car. Soon after the screams abate, a large cottonwood tree, uprooted by the flooding, topples onto the bank, ripping a hole that allows the water to pour through. Al and the others race to their cars, but are unable to start them before the automobiles are surrounded by water.
Utterly dejected, the men return to the car to find that Rosasharn's baby is born dead, shriveled and blue from lack of food. It is only a matter of time before the car floods, so Al suggests building a platform to keep their belongings dry. They spend the night huddled on the platform.
In the morning, Ma insists they leave to find higher ground. Al stays with Aggie and the Wainwrights. Carrying Rosasharn, Winfield, and Ruthie, Ma, Pa, and Uncle John set out along the flooded road. Drenched by a cloudburst, they decide to take shelter in an old barn. Once inside, they realize that they are not alone — a boy is kneeling next to the body of his father.
The boy tells Ma that his father is starving. The weakened man cannot keep down anything solid, but must have some nourishing liquid like soup or milk. Ma looks to Rose of Sharon, and as their eyes meet, there is silent agreement. Ma takes the rest of the family out of the barn, while Rose of Sharon sits next to the father. Loosening the blanket that covers her body, she offers her full breast of milk to the dying man. As he drinks, a mysterious smile appears on her lips.
Rosasharn's gesture in the closing lines of the novel can be considered a completion of the life cycle, an act that reaffirms the themes of re-birth and survival. In giving a part of herself to a stranger, she experiences a spiritual movement that extends beyond herself and unifies her with the vast human family. This act also recalls the Christian ritual of Holy Communion in which the body and blood of Christ is shared among believers. More strongly, it illustrates the culmination of what Peter Lisca has called the "education of the heart": The development from a inward focus on nourishment and self-sacrifice for the protection of the family to an awareness that we are all part of a larger community in which life-giving resources are shared.
A loss of immediate family seems to be a prerequisite to understanding one's place as part of a global community in which all persons are a part of one great soul. Casy, the first to consciously understand this concept, was never part of a family unit. He begins by wondering "what they is for a fella so lonely?" and finds the answer in joining together with all men and all women. Likewise, Tom reaches this understanding when he is permanently isolated from his family. He tells Ma that even if he cannot regain contact with his own family, he will survive because he is now part of the large family of humanity. Just as the truck, a symbol of the vitality of the family throughout the narrative, is flooded and rendered useless, by the end of the novel, there is virtually nothing left of the Joad family. Yet it is at this moment that they will be forced to put into action Ma's accepting statement that their responsibility extends beyond immediate relations, "Use'ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do." Rose of Sharon's gesture, expressed to a man who reminds us of Granpa, unifies the Joad family as they initiate their membership in the vast human family.
levee an embankment built alongside a river to prevent high water from flooding bordering land.
eddied moved with a circular motion against the main current.
cottonwood a rapidly growing lowland tree.
fetid having a bad smell, as of decay.
intermittent stopping and starting at intervals.
gaunt thin and bony.