The Grapes of Wrath: Novel Summary: Chapter 16

SummaryAs the Joads and Wilsons make their way west together, Rose of Sharon tells Ma that she (Rose) and Connie plan to live in a city when they arrive in California. Ma worries that this move will break up the family: “It aint good for folks to break up.” Her tensions ease, however, when she realizes that the young couple is simply dreaming, hoping for a fate which quite likely will never come to pass.
The Wilsons car, being driven by Al, develops a mechanical problem. Al secretly worries that his driving has caused the breakdown, although Ma attempts to assure him that he hasnt. Mr. Wilson suggests that the Joads go on, leaving them to fend for themselves. Pa will hear none of it: “We aint a-gonna do it. We got almost a kin bond.” Instead, Tom and Al plan to backtrack in search of the needed car part. If need be, they can rejoin the family at Bakersfield, California. Tom reasons that the others can be earning money during the time it takes him and Casy to complete their errand. Ma, however, vehemently objects: “I aint a-gonna go . . . . What we got lef in the worl? Nothin but us”-that is, the united family. “All we got is the family unbroke.” Significantly, she indicates that she will not protest if either Casy or the Wilsons wish to leave, but she will not abide her “own folks” breaking up, even temporarily. She even threatens Pa with a jack handle. At last, Tom relents: “Jesus Christ, one person with their mind made up can shove a lot of folks aroun!” He recognizes that, at this moment, Ma holds the power in the family.
As Tom and Casy work on the car, in preparation for the later repair, Casy tells Tom that he has counted “hunderds a families like us all a-goin west.” He wonders what will happen if these families-and, by implication, the family he and the Joads and Wilsons have formed on the road-are unable to find work. Almost angrily, Tom admits he does not know: “Im jus puttin one foot in front a the other.” Given the presence of the preacher character, and the number of other biblical allusions in the novel, Steinbeck may be alluding to Jesus words in Matthew 6:34. The day-by-day, problem-by-problem approach to life which Tom advocates in this scene is his key to survival: first in McAlester prison, and now on the outside, where he thought life would be different. For his part, however, Casy is unable to focus only on the present moment. He honors Toms philosophy of “layin one foot down in front of the other,” but he also senses something deeper and, potentially, more powerful beneath the mass migration. Casy prophesies, “Theys gonna come a thing thats gonna change the whole country.”
Leaving Casy behind to watch the car lest it be stripped for parts while they are gone, Al and Tom head back in search of the needed car part. The brothers arrive at a wrecking yard where a small, thin, one-eyed man cant tell them whether or not the yard has the necessary con-rod. What the one-eyed man can tell them about is his hatred of his employer. He says he will kill the boss one day, because the boss is always taunting him with his (the boss) nice life of wife and home and leisure. Recognizing the one-eyed mans anger as a falsehood, Tom turns on him. He demands to know why the man doesnt simply move on with his life. When the man offers his loss of an eye as a justification for doing nothing, Tom rejects the excuse. “Course ya cant get no woman with that empty eye flappin aroun. Put somepin over it an wash ya face.” Tom even gives the man hope that he, too, might find work in California. Although the one-eyed man bids the brothers farewell after selling them what they need, readers see him returning to his bed after the Joads depart, weeping, “and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness.” Are we to infer that he will continue to allow his injury to define him, rather than taking the initiative to define himself?
Encouraged by their stroke of luck in finding the part they need in such short time, the Joad brothers return to Casy. The three of them fix the car. They find the rest of the family at a roadside camp, whose proprietor demands that they pay a rental fee. When Tom challenges this demand, the proprietor says, “Well, we all got to make a livin.” “Yeah,” Tom replies, adding, “I wisht they was some way to make her thout takin her away from somebody else.” The exchange thus reinforces the novels theme of the essential unity of humankind.
In the roadside camp, Pa is discussing his plight with other men-former sharecroppers who, like the Joads, have been tractored off of their land. But when Pa tells the men of his dreams of finding work in California, he is greeted with scornful laughter. One man, described as “ragged,” says that he has been to California. At first he will say no more, not wanting to “fret” anyone; at length, however, he reports that the employers who put out the fancy handbills promising good work and good wages will actually pay as little as they can. “The more fellas he can get,” the ragged man explains, “an the hungrier, less hes gonna pay.” Pa will not believe him. The ragged man says, resignedly, “I tried to tell you folks . . . But I cant tell you. I should of knew that. Nobody couldnt tell me, neither.”
This chapter again underscores the need for unity that is felt by the Wilsons and the Joads and the need to keep the family together as it is expressed by Ma Joad. It also exposes the Joads to the working conditions that exist in California as it recounted to them by someone who has been there – the ragged looking man.