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The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 19 | Summary

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Summary

When California belonged to Mexico, Americans wanted land in the region and stole it from the Mexicans. Now the descendants of the American landowners have lost their hunger for the land. They treat their land like shopkeepers do their shops, viewing their crops only in term of dollars. Farming has become an industry; the landowners "[farm] on paper; and they [forget] the land." The landowners import workers to harvest crops for low wages. When migrant workers are paid, they use their wages to buy food from the farm stores, thereby giving the money back to the landowners.

Forced off their land, thousands of migrants, such as the Joads, flock from the Midwest to California in search of work, food, and land. These people are fierce because they desperately need food to survive. The California residents hate these migrants for various reasons. Owners are afraid they will steal their land, storekeepers know they have no money to spend, and laboring people realize they will work cheaply, thereby lowering the overall wage.

Migrants see the land and food as one. They see acres of land lying fallow and are tempted to take a little of it to plant a garden and feed their families. The migrants stay in makeshift towns called Hoovervilles with "paper houses" and junk piles. From these bases, they scour the area desperately looking for work at the big farms. The owners use police to repress the migrants, driving squatters off their land. Police raid the Hoovervilles, chasing the migrants out and burning the remaining shacks. The owners increase their repression of the migrants, forming associations for protection and devising various ways to intimidate the homeless workers.

Analysis

In Chapter 19, Steinbeck develops the theme of Wrath versus Meekness. In previous chapters, Tom has an underlying anger toward authority figures, which is being prodded on his journey west by bullying police and selfish proprietors. Ma also shows anger toward people using their authority in an unjust and callous manner.

However, in this chapter, Steinbeck continues to expand this unrest from the Joad family to the migrants in general. Enticed by the promise of good work and pay, thousands of migrants stream to California. When they arrive, they find hostility from the residents and unfair labor practices from the landowners. They are like the Greek mythological figure of Tantalus. As a punishment for his crimes, Tantalus is doomed to forever have a bunch of grapes seemingly within reach, only to have them pulled away when he tries to pick one. Likewise, plenty surrounds the migrants—land with orange trees, walnut trees, and lettuce. What is even worse, they see acres lying fallow. But they are prohibited from farming this unused land because it is part of a huge farm, and when they try to plant secret gardens, they are chased away. This constant temptation breeds unrest and anger, leading to conflict. For example, when one squatter is evicted, the squatter's son shoots the policeman with a rifle. The migrants constantly talk about the unfair situation and what to do about it.

Steinbeck also explores the dynamic between landowners and migrants. When the migrants arrive in California, they find themselves in a torturous push-pull situation. The owners and other residents are antagonistic toward migrants because they fear that the migrants will steal from them. However, the owners also want to exploit migrant labor. Both antagonism and exploitation breed discontent and wrath among the migrants. In this way, the author uses the relations between landowners and migrants to develop the theme of Wrath versus Meekness.

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