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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 20

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 20 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 20 | Summary



The Joads arrange with a coroner to have Granma buried. They are ashamed about not being able to have a proper funeral, but they can't afford it. The Joads drive into a Hooverville to set up camp. The makeshift settlement is filthy and dilapidated. As Pa and Uncle John unload the truck, Tom talks to a young man who is working on his car. The young man explains that too many people are looking for work, which allows owners to pay less. Also, after the owners use the workers, they don't want the workers hanging around. Tom gets angry about this system and says something should be done about it. The young man says that migrants who make trouble are blacklisted.

Ma starts to cook dinner. Casy tells Tom that a restlessness is building in the migrant people. Tom senses an uneasiness in the Hooverville that seems about to bust loose. Connie complains to Rose of Sharon about the rundown living conditions. She gets worried that her husband might not live up to his promises to get a good job. Hungry children from the camp stare at Ma as she cooks stew. A girl mentions that there is a government camp nearby that is supposed to be nice. Meanwhile, Al makes friends with a young man whose name is Floyd. Ma tells the hungry kids to each get a stick to scrape up the leftovers in the pot. The children obey with a "deadly, silent swiftness." As the Joads eat their meal from plates, they hear "the children digging into the pot."

After the meal, Floyd gives Al and Tom a tip that there is work about 200 miles north. As they talk, trucks come by with disconsolate migrants unable to find work locally. A contractor arrives in a shiny Chevrolet. Tom, Casy, Floyd, and others gather around. The contractor tells the migrants that he is hiring workers for a job up north. Floyd insists that the contractor show a license proving he is allowed to hire workers. The contractor gets angry. A deputy sheriff tries to arrest Floyd, but he punches the sheriff and runs away. The sheriff shoots at Floyd and then runs after him. Tom trips the sheriff, and Casy kicks him, knocking the man unconscious. The contractor drives away. Casy says he'll take the rap and tells Tom to hide. Tom reluctantly does so. Soon the police arrive and arrest Casy.

Upset about Casy getting arrested, Uncle John goes to a nearby store and buys liquor to get drunk. Al and Tom notice Connie walking away from the camp. Floyd tells Tom and Al that he expects people from town to come tonight and burn out the Hooverville. Tom tells his family about this and says they have to leave now. As they hurriedly load the truck, Tom finds Uncle John drunk. He knocks him unconscious and carries him to the truck. Rose of Sharon wants to stay and wait for Connie, but her family convinces her to leave. The Joads drive out of the Hooverville and meet a mob on the road. When Tom pretends he wants to go north for work, the mob tells him he's headed in the wrong direction. Tom turns the truck around, heads north, and then pulls off on a side road and waits. He sees flames coming from the Hooverville and hears screams. Tom then drives south toward the government camp.


In Chapter 20, Steinbeck further develops the themes of Selfishness versus Kindness and Meekness versus Wrath. The selfishness of the landowners places the migrants in a trap. Floyd explains the system to Tom. Owners might have 3,000 jobs available but attract 6,000 starving workers. This enables the owner to pay a low wage, like 15 cents an hour. The workers will fight for this work because they are desperate. Once the work is done, the owner chases them away, using the police to break up Hoovervilles. Tom says, "That's stinkin." The author shows how this trap has a negative effect on specific families in the Hooverville. For example, a bearded man is disoriented and perhaps insane because he and his family have been pushed around so much by police telling him to move. When Tom asks about him, Floyd replies, "He's jus' nuts like you an' me."

The selfishness of the landowners has created a system that benefits them but is contradictory for the migrants. If a person gets caught up in it long enough, it can make him or her crazy. When the bearded man finds out that the Hooverville is going to be burned, he decides to stay. He asks Pa if his family is going to leave any stuff. Pa says no and asks why the man is staying. The man, who has "bewildered eyes," can give no explanation. The man has come to accept the insanity, even though he and his family could be killed. Also, this contradictory system breeds wrath. The system has brought Floyd to the end of his rope. He is agitated and angry, causing him to lash out at the policeman.

Steinbeck develops Tom's character by showing that he is becoming a leader. When Floyd explains the system, Tom says migrants should unite and fight it. His immediate reaction, which reflects his developing leadership potential, is a good idea that could be effective. Later, he decides that the family is going to the government camp, another leadership decision. In addition, Tom responds to the unfair system and the people who support it with defiance and anger. He trips the deputy sheriff when he begins to chase Floyd. However, Tom still has a tendency to let his anger get out of control. When the mob stops the Joad truck, Tom comes close to attacking them.

Also, Steinbeck begins to show Jim Casy as a Christ figure. In earlier chapters, Casy is depicted as an unusual preacher who wants to help common people by uniting them and empathizing with their suffering. In Chapter 20, Casy shows that he is willing to help people to the point of sacrificing himself to authority figures. Therefore, like Christ, Casy establishes a radical mission, which involves unifying and motivating people, experiencing their hardships, and sacrificing himself. Steinbeck underscores Casy's connection to Christ by having them share the same initials.

In addition, Steinbeck continues to show the breakup of the Joad family. Connie seems distraught about the harshness of life out in California. It's not what he expected. Then Tom and Al notice Connie walking away from the camp. Perhaps Connie has decided he doesn't want to deal with the difficulties of migrant life and figures he might do better on his own. Also, Casy is arrested and taken away, thereby leaving the family circle. The strain of migrant life continues to pull the family apart.

Also, Steinbeck invites the reader to make an ironic comparison. In Chapter 17, the author describes how law is used in the makeshift communities. In this chapter, he describes how law is used in the Hoovervilles. With the makeshift communities, migrants make up rules and codes of conduct that are needed for these communities to function. These unofficial laws work well, serving the mutual good. In contrast, in the Hoovervilles, contractors and owners use police to intimidate and harass the migrants. These actions are done under the guise of maintaining "law and order" for the good of the community. In reality, the police are used to support the power structure of the owners by repressing the migrants. Thus, the laws of the makeshift communities are fair and effective, while the laws and their enforcement in the Hoovervilles are neither of these things.

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