The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 15 Summary

Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will summarize chapter 15 of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' Chapter 15 is one of the intercalary chapters, describing the goings-on in a roadside diner on Route 66.

A Break From the Narrative

Chapter 15 is another of the intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. As such, it shifts the perspective from the more conventional narrative of the Joad family to focus instead on more general events and a variety of people. The purpose of such chapters is to provide commentary and give historical context to the novel. In Chapter 15, the reader gets a glimpse into a typical day in a roadside diner along Route 66 during the Great Depression.

Setting the Stage

The chapter begins with evocative descriptions that give the reader a real sense of time and place. A row of diners with names like 'Al & Susy's Place' and 'Will's Eats' line the path along Route 66. They all look similar: gas pumps outside, a bar with bar stools and slot machines inside, and always a 'nickel phonograph' waiting to play the latest tunes from Bing Crosby or Benny Goodman. Pictures of pinup girls holding Coca-Cola dot the walls, and shiny urns of steaming coffee sit behind the counter. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes practically leap off the page and the reader is transported into this world.

Zooming In

Now the chapter shifts from the general to the specific and takes one particular diner as its subject. Here, the waitress is Mae, and the cook is Al. Mae puts on her best smile for the truck drivers, who are 'the backbone of the joint.' Mae has to make a good impression on them to keep their business, which is desperately important given the economic realities of the time.

While Mae is the 'contact' point between the patrons and the business, Al keeps to himself and just does the cooking. He stays quiet and works at the griddle all day. All of this business in the diner takes place against the backdrop of Route 66 outside, where cars continuously zoom by, most of them heading west.

Checking in with the One-Percenters

Although we have spent much of our time thus far with the poor and dispossessed, this chapter reminds us that the well-to-do are still around. The bigger, fancier cars on the highway contain rich women and their 'little pot-bellied' business-man husbands. These men wear pins bearing 'the insignia of lodges and service clubs', places where these men can go to 'reassure themselves that business is noble and not the curious ritualized thievery they know it is.'

Here is a particular couple of this variety. They stop in the diner despite worries about its cleanliness. They are on their way to California, not out of desperation, but just for a stay at a fancy hotel. Mae is annoyed by the likes of these people; she knows what to expect from them. They'll complain about the soda and drop napkins on the floor. The husband will 'choke' and try to blame Mae. The wife will act vaguely disgusted with the whole place. Mae has a colorful nickname for such people--we'll let you discover it for yourself when you read chapter 15!


Mae is much more partial to the truck drivers. She has several repeat customers with whom she has an easy rapport. Why, look who's just walked in! It's 'Big Bill the Rat!' Mae is delighted to see him and his new partner, who puts on a Bing Crosby song. The two order some pie and coffee and Bill shares a dirty joke that cracks Mae up and even gets a smile out of Al. The truckers chat with Mae as they eat. They tell her of all the people they have seen going west, and describe a grim car-wreck involving a migrant family and a dead child. They wonder where all these people are coming from, and where they plan to go.

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