Summary: Chapter 1
The cornfields of Oklahoma shrivel and fade in a long summer drought. Thick clouds of dust fill the skies, and the farmers tie handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. At night, the dust blocks out the stars and creeps in through cracks in the farmhouses. During the day the farmers have nothing to do but stare dazedly at their dying crops, wondering how their families will survive. Their wives and children watch them in turn, fearful that the disaster will break the men and leave the families destitute. They know that no misfortune will be too great to bear as long as their men remain “whole.”
Summary: Chapter 2
Into this desolate country enters Tom Joad, newly released from the McAlester State Penitentiary, where he served four years on a manslaughter conviction. Dressed in a cheap new suit, Tom hitches a ride with a trucker he meets at a roadside restaurant. The trucker’s vehicle carries a “No Riders” sign, but Tom asks the trucker to be a “good guy” even if “some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.” As they travel down the road, the driver asks Tom about himself, and Tom explains that he is returning to his father’s farm. The driver is surprised that the Joads have not been driven off their property by a “cat,” a large tractor sent by landowners and bankers to force poor farmers off the land. The driver reports that much has changed during Tom’s absence: great numbers of families have been “tractored out” of their small farms. The driver fears that Tom has taken offense at his questions and assures him that he’s not a man to stick his nose in other folks’ business. The loneliness of life on the road, he confides in Tom, can wear a man down. Tom senses the man looking him over, noticing his clothes, and admits that he has just been released from prison. The driver assures Tom that such news does not bother him. Tom laughs, telling the driver that he now has a story to tell “in every joint from here to Texola.” The truck comes to a stop at the road leading to the Joads’ farm, and Tom gets out.
Summary: Chapter 3
In the summer heat, a turtle plods across the baking highway. A woman careens her car aside to avoid hitting the turtle, but a young man veers his truck straight at the turtle, trying to run it over. He nicks the edge of the turtle’s shell, flipping it off the highway and onto its back. Legs jerking in the air, the turtle struggles to flip itself back over. Eventually it succeeds and continues trudging on its way.
Analysis: Chapters 1–3
The Grapes of Wrath derives its epic scope from the way that Steinbeck uses the story of the Joad family to portray the plight of thousands of Dust Bowl farmers. The structure of the novel reflects this dual commitment: Steinbeck tracks the Joad family with long narrative chapters but alternates these sections with short, lyrical vignettes, capturing the westward movement of migrant farmers in the 1930s as they flee drought and industry.
This structure enables Steinbeck to use many different writing styles. The short (usually odd-numbered) chapters use highly stylized, poetic language to explore the social, economic, and historical factors that forced the great migration. Steinbeck’s first description of the land is almost biblical in its simplicity, grandeur, and repetition: “The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.” The chapters devoted to the Joads’ story are noteworthy for their remarkably realistic evocation of life and language among Oklahoma sharecroppers. Here Steinbeck displays his talent for rich, naturalistic narration. (Naturalism is a school of writing favoring realistic representations of human life and natural, as opposed to supernatural or spiritual, explanations for social phenomena.) Expertly rendered details place the reader squarely and immediately in the book’s setting, quickly drawing us in after an interlude of more distanced poetics. Steinbeck also skillfully captures the colorful, rough dialogue of his folk heroes—“You had that big nose goin’ over me like a sheep in a vegetable patch,” Tom says to the truck driver in Chapter 2—thus bringing them to life. By employing a wide range of styles, Steinbeck achieves what he called a “symphony in composition, in movement, in tone and scope.”
The opening of the novel also establishes several of the novel’s dominant themes. Steinbeck dedicates the first and third chapters, respectively, to a historical and symbolic description of the Dust Bowl tragedy. While Chapter 1 paints an impressionistic picture of the Oklahoma farms as they wither and die, Chapter 3 presents a symbolic depiction of the farmers’ plights in the turtle that struggles to cross the road. Both chapters share a particularly dark vision of the world. As the relentless weather of Chapter 1 and the mean-spirited driver of Chapter 3 represent, the universe is full of obstacles that fill life with hardship and danger. Like the turtle that trudges across the road, the Joad family will be called upon, time and again, to fight the malicious forces—drought, industry, human jealousy and fear—that seek to overturn it.
THE CONCRETE HIGHWAY was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement.
The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall four inches high. As though they worked independently the hind legs pushed the shell against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the broad smooth plain of cement. Now the hands, braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs. And one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg. For a long moment the turtle lay still, and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement, and it was up. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.
Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.
And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground.And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.