Fear, Hostility, and Exploitation in Chapter 21 of The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck's intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath have nothing to do with the Joads or other characters of the novel, but help describe the story in different terms. They are similar to poems, offering different viewpoints of the migration, and clarifying parts of the story that the reader might not understand. An excellent example of this use can be seen in chapter 21, where an examination of the attitudes of migrant Okies and the residents of California reveals the changing nature of land ownership among the changing population of California and gives greater meaning to the fierce hostility that the Joads meet in California.
The first section of chapter 21 explores the plight of the Okies, who are simple people forced to leave their homes when industrial change complicates their lives. Steinbeck writes, "Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of the industrial life. And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways." This statement relates the beginning of the novel, with particular emphasis on the death of Grampa and Granma. When industrial farming hits the agrarian midwest, the Joads are forced off their land and driven to migration, deserting the house in which they have lived for so long. Before long, Grampa dies of stroke. His life is tied to the land and cannot keep up with such rapid change, and when he dies Granma is sure to follow. The paragraph continues:
"The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants."
Steinbeck emphasizes the anguish which characterizes change in the Okies, particularly Jim Casy and Tom Joad, who will eventually form workers' unions to rebel against landowners in California. They suffer the anguish of losing their farms and their homes, of being forced to move endlessly and painfully in search of work on someone else's land. The anguish caused by sudden change in land ownership is a major aspect of the novel.
The next section of chapter 21 offers an explanation of the hostility that the migrants meet upon arrival in California. Steinbeck describes:
"Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights."
The mild people of California find in the Okies what they have yet to experience - fear and desperation. Sensing the extent to which the migrants are willing to work, the locals begin to fear for their own...