You will probably remember the ending to this book for the rest of your life. The image of Rose of Sharon nursing the half-starved man with her breast milk is perhaps one of the most startling and moving images in all of literature. But what does it all mean? Well, we don't know about you, but this ending makes us think about new life, second chances, and the innate kindness that lies within all people.
Even though having another mouth to feed would have been totally problematic for the Joads, everyone is excited for Rose of Sharon's baby. Babies represent new life, a fresh start, a blank slate, and they usually are really good a bringing families together. The fact that Rose of Sharon's baby does not survive reveals just how gloomy, just how unbearable conditions are in California. A pregnant woman like Rose of Sharon who doesn't have enough to eat and who is constantly on the move cannot bring forth a healthy baby. But wait, there are thousands of other women who are living just like Rose of Sharon. The baby's death confirms once and for all that things are bleak for migrant families in California, and that they have little chance of surviving or of finding happiness.
Steinbeck could have ended the novel with Rose of Sharon giving birth amidst the rising floodwaters, but he did not. He wanted to leave us with one last thought, one last image, and it's arguable if this last image is a sign of hope or of desperation. You'll have to chew on that question. We do know that we are shocked by the way in which the Joads continue to be able to reach out and try to help others, even when things in their own life are so horrible. They kind of inspire us, and we are left wondering at how awesome and selfless people can be.
No doubt, this last image is a moving one, and one that will spark lots of debate. We readers desperately want to know how the Joads turn out in the end. We never find out, but there's something about the mysterious smile that creeps across Rose of Sharon's face that makes us feel a little bit better. But you might disagree. So, we leave it up to you, Shmoopers. Pull apart this scene, dissect it, observe, and discuss with your fellow scholars. Why do you think Steinbeck ends the novel with this image?