A Chapters 1-11: Leaving Oklahoma
The Grapes of Wrath follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they leave the dust bowl of Oklahoma for a better life in California. The narrative begins with Tom Joad hitchhiking across the Oklahoma panhandle to his parents’ forty-acre farm. Tom has just been paroled after serving four years in prison for manslaughter. He meets ex-preacher Jim Casy, who is alone and singing by the side of the road. Casy recounts his own fall, his doubts about the saving grace of religion, and his growing sense of a collective human spirit. When the two men arrive at the Joad farm, they find it abandoned. A neighbor, Muley Graves, explains how the banks have repossessed the family farms, forcing people to leave. The smell of their dinner brings the sheriff, and the men have to hide in the fields.
At the house of Tom’s Uncle John, Tom and Casy meet up with the Joads: Granma; Grampa; Ma; Pa; Noah, the eldest son, is slightly crazy; Al, sixteen, is a “tomcat” and a mechanic; Rose of Sharon is four months pregnant and married to Connie Rivers; and Ruthie and Winfield are Tom’s younger sister and brother. The Joads have seen handbills announcing work in California and are preparing for their departure by selling their possessions, slaughtering their pigs, and loading a secondhand car. Casy asks to go along and is accepted into the family. When the time comes to leave, Grampa refuses to go. He has lived his whole life in Oklahoma and he can’t imagine starting over. At Tom’s suggestion, they get him drunk and load him on the truck with the rest of the family.
B Chapters 12-21: Into California
Once they leave Oklahoma, Tom becomes a fugitive for breaking the terms of his parole. The Joad family meets the Wilsons, another family traveling west. They camp together, and Grampa dies of a stroke in the Wilsons’ tent. The Wilsons and Joads drive west on Route 66 until a rod in the Wilsons’ car breaks. Ma refuses to let the families split up, so they wait while the young men search for a wrecking yard and a replacement part. At the California border, the families ready themselves for a night crossing of the Mojave desert. A man and his son, heading east, warn the group about the dire conditions facing migrants in California. Upon crossing the Colorado River into California, things take a turn for the worse. Noah vows to stay and wanders off along the river. The Wilsons decide not to go any farther. As the Joads make their night crossing, Granma dies. Ma, who is lying next to her, refuses to say a word for fear that they will stop.
They leave Granma’s body with the local coroner and make their way to Hooverville, a camp where the migrant workers live. The rumors they have heard are true. There is little or no work. The basic necessities are hard to come by and the residents of the state do not want “Okies” around. A contractor drives up looking for produce pickers. It is a trick. A sheriff’s deputy is with the contractor and plans to arrest the “Okies” and clean out the camp. In the ensuing altercation, the deputy is knocked unconscious by Tom. Casy takes the blame and tells Tom to escape so that he will not be returned to Oklahoma. Upon hearing about Casy’s sacrifice, Uncle John gets drunk to drown his feeling of worthlessness. The family hears a rumor that Hooverville will be burned to the ground by townspeople who are angry at the migrants. Tom leaves a message at the store for Connie, who has suddenly disappeared, abandoning Rose of Sharon for dreams of a three-dollar-a-day job driving corporate tractors in Oklahoma. As they leave, an angry mob warns them not to return. Tom drives the truck south in search of the government camp, with the glow of Hooverville burning in the night behind them.
C Chapters 22-30: The Reality of California
The Joads are lucky to arrive at the government camp just as a site has opened up. In the morning, neighbors share their breakfast with Tom and together they go to work for a small grower who is forced by the Farmers Association and Bank of the West to offer low wages. The grower warns them about a plot to shut down the government camp that Saturday night. Ma enjoys a tour of the facilities given by the camp’s governing committee. Rose of Sharon, abandoned and vulnerable, has two frightening encounters with an evangelist. Pa, John, and Al search for work without luck.
That Saturday night, three outsiders try to start a fight at the dance but their attempt is quickly thwarted. At the same moment, the deputies try to enter the camp under the pretext of restoring law and order. They, too, are turned back.
Although the conditions in the government camp are the best the Joads have encountered, they cannot find work. They pack the car and drive north. A man tells them about work picking peaches. When they arrive, they are escorted by the police into the orchard. They soon realize they have been brought in as strikebreakers. That night, Tom slips under the fence surrounding the orchard and discovers Casy leading the strike. They are ambushed by an agent of the growers and Casy is killed. Tom avenges his friend by killing the agent. He sneaks back to camp and has to hide since the cut on his face will give him away.
With Casy’s death, the strike is broken and the pickers’ pay is cut in half. The Joads drive north, eventually commandeering half of an abandoned boxcar. Tom hides in the marsh. Ruthie gets in a fight and boasts that her brother has killed two men. Ma goes to the marsh to send her son away. When she expresses her concern for his safety, he soothes her with what he has learned from Casy.
The next day, a torrential rain falls and floodwaters rise. Rose of Sharon’s sudden labor prevents the Joads from leaving the boxcar for higher ground. Several families stay to help Pa dig a dike. A giant tree topples, spins slowly through the water, and destroys the dike. The waters quickly rise, eliminating any chance for immediate escape. Rose of Sharon delivers a stillborn child. Eventually, the family is able to leave the boxcar. Al stays behind with his new bride-to-be. The family wades through the flood until they find a barn on higher ground. Inside are a boy and his father who is near death. As they settle in, Ma and Rose of Sharon exchange a look, and the novel ends with Rose of Sharon suckling the starving man with her breast milk.
Inserted into this narrative are sixteen chapters of varying prose styles and subjects. Although they do not directly involve members of the Joad family, these chapters introduce topics that are thematically or symbolically relevant to the main narrative. The first and last interchapters, for example, address the weather and climate: the first announcing the dust and its impact on the land, the last speaking to the California rain and floods. The second interchapter follows a turtle as it patiently makes way over the land. Other chapters critique ownership, capitalism, and consumerism, or address the social impact of technology, cars and tractors. One provides a history of California that highlights how settlers stole the land from the Mexicans. Another explores how the Oklahomans killed the Indians for their land. Several interchapters follow the great westward movement of 200,000 people over Route 66 and chart their social evolution from farmers to migrants and their new relationships to canneries, land owners, and banks.