Chris Sun AP English 8/14/11 Summer Close Reading Essay The Joad Family as a Land Turtle Just over half of the thirty chapters of The Grapes of Wrath are intercalary chapters, chapters deviating from the main narrative of the Joads that focus on a broader picture of the landscape and history of the Joad era. The Grapes of Wrath is as much historical record and social commentary as it is a narrative of one family’s odyssey through the Great Depression West. While criticized by some as distracting from the Joad narrative, the intercalary chapters cannot be ignored as fluff attached to the novel.
The intercalary chapters buttress the main story by interweaving details among the chapters and bringing a specific situation into a larger historical picture. These chapters are not merely common literary techniques such as metaphors and symbols. Along with historical context and social commentary, these chapters reach out to prior events and foreshadow future events, while bringing these events to a universal level. At a base level, Chapter Three is an account of the movement of a land turtle and it struggles across the Oklahoman land.
In less than three pages, John Steinbeck uses the techniques of the intercalary chapters to represent the turtle as a symbol of the Joad family and their struggle, along with the trials of other migrant families, and as an inspiring message for the human race as a whole. In historical and social context, the struggle of the land turtle represents the utter harshness and tribulations of life during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, and the natural and human forces that caused this.
The opening words of the chapter describe a “concrete highway edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass,” (Steinbeck 20) and various objects that could injure passing animals and humans. This descriptive paragraph describes the harshness of the American Midwest, pounded for months by dust storms and unrelenting droughts. The Dust Bowl is affecting wildlife as well as humans, and the land is rife with marks of this period. Along with the difficult natural conditions, the turtle faces the risk of humans and cars on the highway.
Steinbeck uses the actions of humans encountered by the turtle to illustrate the people encountered by the Joads and other migrant families. Some people would help fellow migrants, while others oppressed the migrants, sometimes even driving them to death. The turtle faces two vehicles. The first car swerves to avoid the turtle, symbolizing sympathy with the plight of the turtle. The second vehicle attempts to deliberately run over the turtle. Just like the era, the migrants face two distinct groups of people, those willing to help, and those indifferent and even willing to destroy them.
As already referenced, the turtle and its struggle to cross a highway is a metaphor for the struggle of the Joads. Its arduous journey across the heat-raped Oklahoma land represents the Joads’ trek across almost half the nation to reach California. The turtle is traveling southwest, the same direction at the Joads are heading. Like the migrant families, the turtle moves along earnestly, using effort to work its way up the highway embankment. In the second paragraph, Steinbeck uses such words as “scraped,” “strained” and “slipped. This was on an embankment that grew “steeper and steeper. ” (Steinbeck 21) Similar to this turtle’s journey, the journey for migrant families only grew harsher, as money and food ran out, cars broke down and the environment became more arduous to cross. Note that the turtle’s greatest obstacles are automobiles and machines that could easily end its life. Like how sharecropping families and small families fear large tractors and modern farm technology, the turtle will be threatened by cars.
Cars will literally kill the turtle, while tractors and businesses spiritually kill farming families in a way by driving them off their land. To big businesses and corporations, a small farming family is negligible. The attempt by the truck driver to kill the turtle is symbolic as corporations and banks callously pushing small farmers aside. The Joads and other migrant families just want to survive, but like the turtle, are gruffly pushed aside. The turtle is willing to overcome any obstacle, no matter how difficult.
This same turtle was picked up by Tom in Chapter Four. Upon freeing the turtle, it continued on its original southwest direction. The will of the turtle represents the will of the migrant spirit. Although the turtle’s exhausting and difficult journey is the focus of the chapter, it is the will of the turtle to succeed that relates most to the overall human spirit of the migrant families. As the turtle treks, it inadvertently carries an oat beard on its back.
This oat beard is ready to reproduce, and when the turtle reached the other side of the highway, the beard was covered by dirt and would soon produce again. Steinbeck symbolizes that the human spirit will not die and the human life force lives on in spite of hardships and struggles. This theme reappears in Chapter Fourteen with the description of the starving migrants. The oat beard survives and reproduces, such as humans, who, as described in Chapter Fourteen, grow beyond their work and accomplishments, and consistently moves forward, taking full steps ahead but never full steps back.
In the broadest picture, the turtle is not merely the migrant families. The turtle represents a positive way of life, and salvation for humans in a sense. Despite the trials of the land and threats by cold-hearted humans, the turtle survives and continues on its journey, while providing life to new oat beards. Similar to the biblical idea of the righteous and faithful succeeded in the end, the migrant families, symbolized by the turtle, will overcome the challenges posed by the banks and large farms seeking to destroy them.
The bitter grapes of the oppressive banks and farmers will end up in God’s wrath. The slow journey of a turtle in Chapter Three of The Grapes of Wrath actually represents the trials and tribulations of migrant families and the life force driving them, as well as right overcoming wrong. The turtle crosses the vicious environment used by the migrants, and repeatedly faced natural obstacles and the cruel minds of humans that threatened it. As the turtle struggles on land, migrants struggle in worthless cars.
As trucks attempt to kill the truck, banks and corporations and tractors push Oklahomans off their land, severing the life cord connected them to the only land, the only home they knew. But as much as the turtle is disheartened, the stronger its will to succeed on its journey. The turtle has the will to survive, and this will is what encourages the migrant families to continue moving. Eventually, migrants will overcome the pressures and obstacles they face, and their spirit will pass on down.