The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 15 | Summary

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Summary

Along Highway 66, plenty of eateries are found filled with nickel phonographs, flashy ads, pies, oranges, and cold cereals. In one diner, a middle-aged waitress named Mae works the counter, and Al cooks on a griddle. Mae flirts with the truck drivers because they provide most of the business. All kind of cars rush past on the highway. In big cars, ladies who use a ton of cosmetics sit next to "pot-bellied" husbands who work for businesses and worry about financial security. A couple like this stops at Mae's café and buys only a soda. Mae doesn't like these kind of people; they never buy much.

Two truck drivers enter the restaurant. Mae talks with them about the kind of pie they want and listens to dirty jokes. One of the drivers describes an accident involving a big car and a truck loaded with a migrant family and their belongings. A migrant child was killed. The truckers and Mae wonder where all the migrants are coming from and where they're going.

Then a sedan with migrants pulls up to the restaurant. A man and his two sons get out. The man asks if he can get water from a hose. Mae allows him. Then the man asks about buying a loaf of bread for 10 cents. Mae says that they don't sell loaves and use bread only to make sandwiches. The man says he has to make his money go as far as possible and asks her to make an exception. Al tells Mae to sell them the loaf. At first hesitant, Mae eventually agrees. As the man buys the loaf, the sons ogle peppermint sticks. The man asks if the candy is a penny per stick. Mae says that it sells for a penny for two sticks. The man buys the candy and each boy takes a stick. The migrant man and his sons leave. A trucker says that the candy was really a nickel each. Mae replies defensively. The truckers leave much more money than the cost of their pie and coffee. Mae reverently says, "Truck drivers." Al then plays a slot machine because it's ready to pay off. He hits the jackpot and puts the money in his cash register. More truckers enter the café.

Analysis

Steinbeck describes in detail the eating places found along Highway 66, including the type of people who run these cafés. During this description, Steinbeck gives the impression that the cafés are successful because they cater to their main customers—truck drivers. Everything is geared to satisfying these customers. The waitress, Mae, shamelessly flirts with the truckers, such as fixing her hair "so that her breasts will lift with her raised arms." The cafés offer food that the truckers enjoy, like greasy hamburgers, good coffee, and a wide selection of pies. The cook, Al, silently and efficiently does his job. In addition, he makes extra money by keeping track of when the restaurant's slot machines will pay off. When a slot machine is due, Al plays it, gets the jackpot, and puts the money in his cash register.

Cafés such as this seem like efficient little businesses in that are concerned with making money, even if it means cheating with the slot machines. In a way, they do not seem too dissimilar to the large land companies that are concerned only with making profits. However, Steinbeck shows that there is a difference with these small businesses. By showing this difference, he develops the theme of kindness. These cafés are owned by people who interact face-to-face with their customers. Al and Mae know the truck drivers by name. They share stories and tell jokes. Because of this type of interaction, Mae comes in direct contact with a migrant and his two sons. They are no longer abstract people who are continually driving past in overloaded trucks. She sees the boys wearing "ragged, patched overalls." She notices the man's dark-blue shirt with sweat on the back. So when the migrant man asks to buy a loaf of bread, Mae is interacting with a person, not an abstract entity. This interaction allows Mae and Al to feel sympathy for the migrants. With Al's prodding, Mae sells the man a 15-cent loaf for only 10 cents. Added to this, she allows the man to buy two candy sticks for a penny. They really cost a nickel each. The truckers realize this and leave a huge tip. For Steinbeck, kindness leads to more kindness. When people show sympathy for others, they encourage more people to show sympathy. It becomes infectious.

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