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The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 9 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.

In chapter nine of John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'', those heading west pawn their goods in an attempt to recoup some of the monetary value from them rather than throw them away. They end up selling a part of themselves in the process.

Fire Sale

When the economy goes bad, it severely affects families. During the Great Depression, it drove people to ruin. Steinbeck describes such a situation when the bank determines that those sharing land to farm is not profitable and evicts them. They are left homeless with no way to earn any income. With no place to stay, the tenants decide to pack up what belongings they can and move their families further west. Most of these individuals have tools and farming equipment that they cannot take with them, so they attempt to sell what they can.

The chapter begins with the tenants sorting their farming tools and instruments in order to sell them. These items include plows, harnesses, and carts. Unfortunately, because of their dire situation, having to leave this place and find someplace new, those bidding know of their situation and bid well below the actual value of the equipment. The tenants are at a disadvantage; they can accept the paltry sum being offered, or they can cart the equipment back home. Since most have no room or means to take it back, they sell the items.

A Man and His Horses

Steinbeck emphasizes the desperate situation of the tenants when one of the tenants attempts to sell two of his horses. He makes a good show of it, emphasizing the attributes of the horses and explaining the type of work to which they are accustomed. He even throws in a personal anecdote about how his daughter would braid the hair of their manes. This simple anecdote sheds light on what these tenants are giving up. They are giving up more than simple possessions. They are giving up a part of who they are and who they have become.

Although the man ends up selling both horses and a wagon, it pains him to do so, and emphasizes the emotional toll this experience has on the tenants. The tenant doesn't want to sell them for ten dollars since he would rather 'shoot 'em for dog feed first'. But what else can he do? He has no power in this negotiation, and he knows it. He can keep the horses, but they will likely end up dead on the trek west, and he will have gained nothing. Selling them allows him to have a few dollars in his pocket, though he has lost more. He tells the buyer he is buying 'years of work, toil in the sun; you're buying a sorrow that can't talk.' The tenant hasn't just sold horses and a wagon; he has sold memories of his daughter, and a part of himself.

Despair and Shame

The whole affair of selling their goods and accepting far less than what the items are worth leaves the men dejected and ashamed. They return to their families 'hands in their pockets, hats pulled down', dejected over their desperate situation. The men know they were in a bad position, and that they were taken advantage of because of it. They feel ashamed for having to take what was offered, knowing full well the other party was stealing from them. They have mouths to feed, so what other choice is there?

This particular action occupies only a few sentences in the chapter, but it has a powerful effect on what the men are going through as they head back 'kicking the red dust up.' The image of the dust will hang in the air until the very end of the chapter. It is a reminder that this is all that will be left when they leave. As they head back to their wives and children, they are demoralized. They have been humiliated for being forced to sell at unreasonable prices. Now they have to gather what little remains and prepare to leave.

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