Una Hamilton, one of Sam’s daughters, marries a man who becomes obsessed with developing color photography. He succeeds, but along the way Una is poisoned (it is believed accidentally) by his chemicals, and she dies. Her death has an immense impact on Sam, who cannot think of death taking any part of his flesh. The other children are thriving, except for Tom, who keeps returning to the ranch. He and his father have deep and philosophical discussions about how to find meaning in the world.
Time rolls on: Una dies, a harsh and unpleasant reminder of mortality. What’s more, she is killed by chemicals being used to develop new technology, which also draws our attention to the fast-paced change taking place in the American Technological landscape over time. Sam and Tom’s minds are heavily weighed upon by these realities.
The narrator recalls that his sister Mary wanted desperately to be a boy. She was always athletic, and once when Uncle Tom came to visit, they begged him to tell them how to make Mary into a boy. When he did not have an answer for them, they grew disappointed—Tom was obviously disappointed in himself, too. He hated to let them down.
Mary is another example of Steinbeck’s desire to break down gender stereotypes, to examine what we traditionally conceive of as feminine or masculine. Mary believes she is too strong and competitive to be a girl, and wishes desperately that things were different.
The difference between Sam and Tom is that Sam is able to find his way out of complex trains of thought unscathed. He does not get trapped by ideas. But Tom “tunneled like a mole among the thoughts” and cannot read a book without making something of a mess in his mind. Of all his family, Tom loves Dessie best, for she is so lighthearted that she balances out his seriousness. The dress shop she owns in town is a sanctuary for women, who, like men, need spaces where they can be not women, but human. At Dessie’s shop the women they burp, fart, laugh, and shout.
Dessie’s dress shop is also a pointed commentary about the role proscribed to women in 20th-century American society. A woman is feminine before she is human. Where men are allowed to be both men and be simply human, women are often denied this fundamental kind of expression. This is why Dessie’s dress shop is so popular—it provides a vital outlet for women who are constrained by societal standards.
One day, however, Dessie falls in love. The narrator only knows that the affair is gray and terrible, and it leaved a hole in Dessie—the laughter never fully returns.
Once again we see that love can be a highly destructive force—it can even bring down someone as full of life as Dessie Hamilton.
On Thanksgiving in 1911, all of the Hamilton family gathers at the ranch. We learn the name of the narrator’s father: Earnest Steinbeck. All the Hamilton children notice one thing immediately: that their father has grown old. They can hardly stand to think of a world without Sam in it, and Tom is the most upset of all. They agree that Sam’s life on the ranch is too hard, and they devise a plan to allow Sam to live his life out in peace. They will each invite him to stay with them in succession, and this way they will keep him away from the ranch for his final months. Tom agrees to take over for his father and run the ranch.
This passage finally reveals that the narrator’s last name is “Steinbeck.” As the line between fictional narrator and historical author suddenly becomes less clear, we are forced to remember that we are reading a story. This scene also includes the unhappy realization that Sam Hamilton does not have much time left—even a man as full of life as Sam is still capable of growing old and dying—this is a fact especially hard for his children to accept.
When Sam receives an invitation from Olive a week later he knows immediately what is going on. He calls Tom in, and Tom admits the plan to him. Sam is soberly good humored about it—he tells Tom he knows where he is going, and he is content.
Sam has accepted his fate, however—he knows he cannot defeat time. His graceful acceptance of death is yet another heroic attribute of his character.