The Grapes of Wrath: Novel Summary: Chapter 17

SummaryThe migrants traveling westward slowly get to know one another and when they stop at night, they cluster together creating small communities with their own set of rules and regulations. In the morning they again become separate entities and continue on their way.
Steinbeck again offers a “big picture” chapter, exploring the way in which the migrants create entire “worlds” along the road each night, only to dismantle them again each morning. Steinbeck is offering further information about the camp setting in which we have just seen the Joads and Wilsons in the previous chapter. By “worlds,” Steinbeck means all that the term implies: complete social realities where an individuals place is established, where social mores are set and adhered to, and so on. By picturing the migrants as “world builders,” Steinbeck rejects any notion that they might be merely passive victims of the Depression. Far from it: they are actively taking their life and their destiny into their own hands. And one of the central marks of this self-determination is the remarkable fact-Steinbeck, in fact, calls it “a strange thing”-that all of the migrant families, “which had been units of which the boundaries were a house at night, a farm by day, changed their boundaries.”
Again, this change in social living raises questions that the novel as a whole explores. Where is the boundary between “our folk” and all folk, and how flexible is it? Steinbeck closes the chapter by presenting what we may take as a typical night in one of the camps, one of the newly-created worlds: children playing, sing-alongs with a guitar, and, of course, the sharing of hopes and dreams about the new land to which the migrants are journeying.