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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 16

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 16 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 16 | Summary



The Joad and Wilson families travel across the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico, where "the land rolled like great stationary ground swells." Al drives the car, with Ma and Rose of Sharon seated next to him. Rose of Sharon talks about the dreams for a better life that she and Connie have. "We'll live in town an' go to [the] pitchers." Ma doesn't like the idea of her daughter and Connie leaving the family but senses that it's probably a pipe dream. Soon Al hears a rattle noise from the engine and pulls the car over. The Joad's truck also stops and backs up to the car. Al and Tom examine the car and realize the bearing is broken.

Tom comes up with a plan that involves him and Casy fixing the car while the rest of them continue on in the truck. Then Tom and Casy will catch up. Pa agrees, but Ma does not. She grabs a jack handle and angrily defies her husband's decision. She wants the family to stay together; in her view, they have nothing "lef' in the worl' ... but us." Pa gives in, and Tom reluctantly agrees to let his mother win. Tom and Casy remove the broken parts from the car while the Wilsons and the rest of the Joads drive to a nearby camp. Al then drives the truck back to the car. He tells Tom that Granma is very sick.

Casy stays with the car, and Al, accompanied by Tom, drives the truck to a wrecking yard. Here they meet a one-eyed worker who allows them to look for their needed parts in the yard. As Tom removes parts from a car, the worker complains about his boss and how difficult it is for a one-eyed man to get a good job. Tom tells him to quit feeling sorry for himself. Shaken momentarily from his self-pitying, the worker gives Tom and Al the necessary parts for a low price.

Al drives Tom back to the car. Tom uses the new parts to fix the car. Tom drives the car, and Al drives the truck to the camp where the Joads and Wilsons are staying. Tom argues with the camp proprietor about paying money for keeping the car at the camp even though his family has already paid for staying at the camp. Then a raggedy man tells Pa, Tom, Casy, and Al about the terrible conditions migrant workers face in California. The man has just come back from the state, where his wife and children died from hunger. They believe the man's story but decide not to tell Ma and the others about it. Tom says he'll drive the car to the side of the road so he won't have to pay the camp fee. There he'll wait for his family and the Wilsons to arrive in the truck.


In Chapter 16, Steinbeck develops the character of Ma. Ma is the center of the family, the force that unifies the family. However, Pa and Uncle John are the leaders. This dynamic changes when Ma defies her husband about breaking the family up. Ma's belief that the family must stay together is so strong that she grabs a jack handle and threatens her husband with a beating. Pa is stunned and says, "I never seen her so sassy." Through her defiance, Ma has overturned traditional family roles and has become the leader. Steinbeck writes, "She was the power. She had taken control." This incident shows that, for Steinbeck, the main goal is to keep the human community—or in this case, the Joad family—together.

Steinbeck also analyzes various aspects of Tom's personality. Tom wants to maintain a narrow vision, in contrast to Ma. While he removes bearings from the Wilson's car, Casy wonders if there is enough work in California. In response, Tom angrily states, "Goddamn it! How'd I know" I'm jus' puttin' one foot in front a the other." This statement recalls the land turtle steadily marching ahead on a determined course. Steinbeck even refers to land turtles as he describes the Joads and Wilson heading across Texas. These families, like thousands of others, are heading down a narrow, determined route. Even when the raggedy man tells Pa about the horrible conditions for migrants in California, the Joads continue to plow ahead to their destination.

Steinbeck adds a rationale to Tom's narrow vision. When he rides in the truck toward the wrecking yard, Al asks him about prison. After some prodding, Tom admits that the experience was pretty bad, calling prison "a way a drivin' a guy slowly nuts." To prevent himself from going crazy, Tom learns to focus on the events of each day and nothing else. This way of coping is bred from extreme confinement. Tom, though, still uses this coping mechanism in the outside world, which has the effect of confining him as a person.

Another element that Steinbeck explores is Tom's unwillingness to feel sorry for himself. This is shown through his interaction with the one-eyed worker. Tom sees through the worker's self-pitying and has no patience for it. He tells the worker to do things to get out of his rut, like buying a patch and cleaning himself up. Tom believes that a person has the ability to change his circumstances in life.

Finally, Steinbeck reinforces that Tom has the spirit of a rebel through his conflict with the camp proprietor. As Tom leaves the camp, the proprietor calls him a troublemaker. Tom replies, "Damn right ... I'm bolshevisky," a term for a Communist. He then laughs and throws a clod at the camp light, flustering the proprietor. Tom will not be pushed around and relishes being defiant.

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