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.”
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.
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.
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.