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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 18

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 18 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 18 | Summary



The Joad and Wilson families move westward through the mountains of New Mexico and the dry, rocky country of Arizona. They arrive in California and camp near a river to bathe. As they enjoy the cool river water, two men join them. According to these men, there's no land left in California to claim, and the residents are hostile to the migrants. Also, the men mention that residents refer to migrants in a derogatory way as "Okies." The Joads and Casy are unfamiliar with this term. Tom and Noah rest in the willows, and Noah says he's staying by the river. Tom tries to talk him out of it, but Noah's mind is set, and he leaves.

In a tent, Ma and Rose of Sharon sit by Granma, who is sick and delirious. Rose of Sharon seems nervous, so Ma comforts her by saying she'll learn to share her hurt with others and then it won't seem so bad. When a Jehovite woman realizes that Granma is near death, she and other Jehovites hold a prayer meeting in a nearby tent. Their loud noises make Rose of Sharon even more nervous. Ma and Rose of Sharon try to sleep but are disturbed by a policeman, who tells them they have to leave by tomorrow. Ma gets angry and, holding a skillet, approaches the policeman. He backs off but repeats they have to leave, calling them Okies.

Tom tells a stunned Ma that Noah has left. The Joads decide to pack up and leave right away. Ivy Wilson, though, says that he and his wife aren't going because his wife is seriously ill. Casy visits Sairy in her tent and says a silent prayer for her. The Joads leave the Wilsons some money and then depart for the desert.

When the sun starts to set, Tom begins to drive across the desert, with Al and Pa seated next to him. The others lie in the back, with Ma lying next to Granma, who seems to be asleep. Rose of Sharon and Connie are anxious to sleep together, and Uncle John talks to Casy about sin. When the Joads stop at an inspection station, Ma tells the official that her mother is very sick and asks if they can go on without an inspection. The Joads swear they don't have any vegetables or seeds, so the official lets them go. After they cross the desert, they enter beautiful land with golden grain fields and "dark green patches of oranges." Ma tells the family that Granma died during the trip. Tom is amazed at Ma's strength, sitting next to her dead mother during the night, and decides to go to the coroner and get Granma buried decently.


In this chapter, Steinbeck explores how the strains of migrant life can tear at the fabric of a family. Several people leave the family circle. Noah decides to stay by the river, afraid of what lies ahead in California. The Wilsons stay behind because of Sairy's illness, which has worsened because she is unable to get proper medical attention. Granma dies during the crossing of the desert. The hardships of the migrant trip prove too much for Granma and her husband, as they were for many elderly people. This chapter, therefore, acts as a contrast with the previous one. In Chapter 19, Steinbeck describes how the migrant journey can draw people together. In this chapter, he shows how this journey can pull people and families apart.

However, the Joads respond to this challenge with an amazing flexibility. Sensing the danger to her family, Ma takes on the role of leader. In this chapter, she further solidifies this role by chasing the Jehovite woman away, standing up to the policeman, and fooling the inspection official. Later, the family finds out Ma stayed with her dead mother during the night. Steinbeck states, "The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength," amazed at her ability and accepting of her new familial role.

Also, Tom develops leadership skills in subtle ways. When Ma seems tired, Tom takes charge and organizes the packing of the truck and the preparation for crossing the desert. Tom, not Al, is the person who drives the truck across the precarious desert. Tom also shows wisdom when he says that his grandparents would never have really seen California, as their hearts were back in Oklahoma. Young kids like Ruthie and Winfield are the ones who can really appreciate California because they do not have as strong of a connection to Oklahoma. Pa replies, "Here's Tommy talkin' like a growed-up man, talkin' like a preacher almos'." This statement foreshadows the change that happens to Tom later in the novel.

Steinbeck also stresses how anger toward authority figures simmers in Tom. In Chapter 16, Tom shows anger toward the camp proprietor. In this chapter, Tom admits he would have probably hit the policeman if he had talked to Tom the way he talked to Ma. The theme of building wrath will be developed further in upcoming chapters.

In addition, Steinbeck develops the music motif. When Casy prays silently for Sairy, she thanks him and says, "I wanted to feel that clostness ... singin' an' prayin', jus' the same thing." Music unifies people in a deep, spiritual way.

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