The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

"Highway 66 is the main migrant road," the narrator begins, elaborating that "66 is the mother road, the road of flight." It is the road that many side roads feed into through the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. It is the road that transverses high mountains and the great plateau in Arizona and a terrible desert in California. And it is the road that leads to a beautiful valley in California.

Migrant people like the Joads stream onto 66, riding in overloaded trucks and cars and fearing that some vehicle noise means a mechanical breakdown. Tires wear out and need to be replaced or patched up. Migrants buy tires from people who are annoyed by the migrants and try to cheat them. These people say too many migrants are going to California, and the police in this state are turning people away who can't buy real estate. The migrants get angry about being cheated. They think that business is just a legal way to cheat and steal.

As the migrants travel 66, they become desperate: "Food's gettin' low ... money's gettin' low. When we can't buy no more gas—what then?" The author states that more than 250,000 migrants travel across 66. Once, he said, a migrant family built a trailer and loaded it with possessions and waited at the side of a road. Soon a sedan picked them up and towed the trailer all the way to California, and the driver even fed them. The narrator concludes the story by saying that the migrants' initial action was a great act of faith.

Analysis

In Chapter 12, Steinbeck relates the overall experience of migrant families traveling on Highway 66 to California. He describes this highway as the "mother road." This name has stuck. Even though Route 66, as it was later called, was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is still referred to as the Mother Road.

The details that Steinbeck presents in the chapter stress the precariousness and difficulty of the migrants' journey on 66. They must worry about every noise, which might signal a major problem that could derail their desperate journey. When something does go wrong, they are cheated into paying exorbitant prices. The constant worry about food and money grinds them down. Steinbeck uses the litany of cares to build sympathy for the migrants.

In addition, Steinbeck develops the theme of selfishness and kindness. The salesmen selling tires act selfishly by cheating the migrant travelers. For example, one tries to sell tires that have a bad casing. The migrants get angry, fueling their growing wrath. In contrast, the story of the sedan driver who towed one family's trailer and fed the family shows great kindness. Some cruel things happen to migrant families that fuel their anger. Other things happen to them that are "so beautiful that the faith is refired forever."

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