The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 18 Summary

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Chapter 18 from John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' describes the journey of the Joad family as they travel across the Arizona desert. This brief journey finds them learning more about themselves, and how they are perceived.


As the Joad family continues their journey from Oklahoma to California, they experience several incidents that would be labeled as class discrimination today. They have been travelling a long time and are dirty and tired. As they stop at the border between New Mexico and Arizona, a border guard asks about any plants they might have and where they are headed. Satisfied with their answers, he waives them through with the warning to 'better keep movin'.' In other words, the people of Arizona don't want them making Arizona their home.

Daytime temperatures in Arizona can be brutal, especially during the summer. To avoid travelling in this heat, they decide to stop and rest near a river. The men head toward the river, while the women rest in the tents. As the men are bathing and relaxing in the water, two other men approach and ask to join. They strike up a conversation, and the Joads learn that California may not have the opportunities they are hoping for. In fact, the strangers tell them that they are not kind to 'Okies.'

None of the Joad men have heard this term before. It is a slang term meaning people from Oklahoma, but also, as the stranger mentions, it has acquired a derogatory meaning. The stranger explains that Okie doesn't 'mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it.' Californians see Okies as trying to take their jobs and bringing their desperation with them. According to the stranger, they are better off turning around and going back to where they started. Tom and Pa Joad say California is their destination, and that's where they're going. They'll find a way to make the best of it.

Better Than You

While the men are off in the river, Ma and Rose of Sharon care for Granma, hoping that sleep will help what ails her. Ma starts a conversation with her daughter, but they are interrupted by a Jehovah's Witness. Somehow this woman knows that Granma is near death. She comes asking Ma for permission to hold a meeting. Ma attempts to be polite in declining the invitation, but the more the woman indicates that Granma will be in God's embrace, the more upset Ma becomes. The woman leaves and holds the meeting elsewhere. Ma and Rose of Sharon hear the prayer service and notice that Granma has finally fallen asleep.

The two women take this opportunity to get some sleep as well. Ma, however, is woken by a sound in the tent. It is an officer wondering who they are and why they are here. When he learns that they are from Oklahoma, he tells them to get moving, because if they are 'here tomorrow this time, I'll run you in. We don't want none of you settlin' down here.' Ma becomes incensed at his implication and threatens him with an iron skillet. He leaves, but Ma has now experienced both sides of judgment.

Ma does not want the woman from the Jehovah's Witnesses there holding a meeting because she believes them to be 'howlers an' jumpers.' She passes judgment on them with no cause. However, the officer turns the tables on Ma when he tells her he doesn't want 'goddamn Okies settlin' down.' Just as she turned away the Jehovah's Witness, now she is being turned away, albeit in a more forceful and discriminatory manner. This experience will stay with Ma.

Going to California

When the men get back, Ma explains what happened with the officer. Tom, her eldest son, gets everyone together and tells them to pack up; they are leaving now for California. Tom also tells Ma that her son Noah will not be coming with them. He has decided to remain by the river and live his life just fishing here. Upset at this news, the Joads head out in their beat-up truck to make the journey across the desert into California.

The trek is slow, as the truck needs to be handled gently so as not to overheat. When they reach the California border, they encounter one last problem. The guards want to inspect their truck to make sure they don't have any plants or other vegetation. Ma screams out that Granma is sick and they need to get her to a doctor immediately. This takes the guard by surprise. He looks at Granma's withered features and passes them on through. Only Ma knows the truth at this point: Granma is dead.

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