The Grapes of Wrath: Novel Summary: Chapter 19

SummaryIn another “big picture” chapter, Steinbeck briefly recounts Californias history as land that Americans basically stole from the Mexicans: “They [the Mexicans] could not resist because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land.” He paints in broad strokes the process by which honest farming mutated into an economic form of slavery, an evil system in which “the owners [of the farm land] followed Rome, although they did not know it.” The systems evil nature is reflected even in such details as crop choices: rather than growing grain, which men may harvest while standing, the owners grew vegetables which workers had to stoop in order to gather-a further instance of dehumanization. In almost biblical cadences, Steinbeck reports, “And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper . . . .” This shift will no doubt remind readers of comments regarding the “monster” back in Oklahoma and surrounding states (see Chapter 5). In California, we in a sense see the monster being born all over again-in a different location, but with the same dehumanizing consequences.
Steinbeck tells of how the dispossessed peoples from the dust bowl are rejected, wrongly, as foreigners: “We aint foreign,” they protest. “Seven generations back Americans.” Yet they now find themselves strangers in their own land. “[T]hey had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred” (see the service station conversation in the previous chapter). The owners fear the “Okies” because they fear that the “Okies” are “fierce and hungry and armed.” Steinbeck compares and contrasts the “nebulous and undefined” wants of the Californians-status, creature comforts, and so on-with the concrete need for land of the “Okies.” On the one hand, the owners fears are not baseless-the “Okies” do want land-but, on the other hand, they do not want land for the same reason as the Californian owners. The “Okies” desire, not mere ownership, but a meaningful connection with that which helps them define their humanity. Even more, they feel the pressure of needing to survive. Thus, Steinbeck describes the land as an omnipresent “temptation”: “Theres thirty thousan acres, out west of here. Layin there. Jesus, what I could do with that, with five acres of that!” Steinbeck is here criticizing the unequal (and, arguably, unjust) distribution of resources in a capitalist society.
The chapter ends as Steinbeck describes how the “Okies” gather across the state in makeshift cities known as “Hoovervilles” (so named after President Herbert Hoover, whom many of the unemployed and dispossessed blamed for the Great Depression; see There they talk, bond with each other, and unite, further arousing the suspicion and fear of the Californian land owners. The “Okies” face constant threats from the government, being forced to move out of the Hoovervilles before the shantytowns are torched. The “great owners” wrongly believe that destroying the Hoovervilles destroys the perceived threat to their interests. Steinbeck sets their actions in perspective, proclaiming that the owners have forgotten the three cries of history: (1) “When property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away”; (2) “[W]hen a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force that what they need”; and (3) “[R]epression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
In recounting the history of California, Steinbeck forewarns that if the wealthy continue to oppress the poor, the consequences can only be a revolt. This follows the Marxist-Lenin philosophy.