The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 17

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 17 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 17 | Summary



The cars of the migrant people, such as the Joads, drive along the main highway. During the night, the cars cluster together and the people set up a camp. In these camps, many families join together to become one family. The camps are little worlds with their own rights, unofficial laws, and codes of conduct. Leaders emerge to help run the camps. They even have a type of need-based insurance, with those who can do so helping one another, as with a man who has food feeding another man who lacks it. People build the camps near water and on fairly flat land. In the morning, families develop a routine of how to break down a camp and where to store items in vehicles. Each family member has a role in this process.

Men begin to think of themselves not as farmers concerned with crops but as migrants concerned with maintaining their vehicles. In the camps, people forge friendships and discover relatives. Children from different families play together. The campers talk about the land getting spoiled, their homes, their tragedies, and the future. "Wonder what it's like out there?" they ask. A person often plays a guitar and the people gather around and sing songs. At dawn, people talk about the dangers that lie ahead, like the desert.


In Chapter 17, Steinbeck develops the theme of community by showing people forming a community as a natural process. It is a process based on need, mutual understanding, and sympathy. "They shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for." During the setting up of a camp, families join to become one living unit. Such a unit serves the mutual advantage of all the members. For example, a sick child becomes the concern of all the families in the camp.

For this makeshift community to function well, the migrants must ensure that the good of the group is upheld. Because of this, they set up rights, such as "the right of the hungry to be fed." They create unofficial laws, such as not fouling water near camp. By looking at the formation of these little worlds, readers get a glimpse into how and why humankind first formed societies in early history.

Steinbeck also presents the reoccurring motif of music in this chapter. Guitar playing and singing in the camps stirs the people's souls. All of the people look inward; "their minds [play] in other times, and their sadness [is] like rest." Music, therefore, forms a bond between the people, allowing them to share and soothe their suffering. By doing this, music welds people into one thing, thereby creating a sense of community, cooperation, and unity.

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