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The Grapes of Wrath: Symbolism in the Turtle's Journey

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Sometimes the smallest event can give us a glimpse into the foreseeable future. A turtle climbing up a hill, over a wall, and onto a highway, only to get knocked off by an accelerating pickup truck, is one such event. In chapter three of John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the author provides us with a vivid description of a turtle’s struggle to climb up a grassy hill. On the one hand, Steinbeck did not have to include this in-depth description, especially since it seems to have very little to do with the story. However, on the other hand, the symbolism used throughout chapter three undoubtedly foreshadows the hardships the Joad family will have to endure during their arduous migration to California.

To begin, the turtle from chapter three is described as having humorous eyes and “…not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along” (Steinbeck 14)[1]. With this description we can infer that the turtle represents both the Joad family and their truck, which is stacked with all of their possessions and, unsurprisingly, moves at a slower pace than an automobile with less weight to haul.

Moving forward, the way Steinbeck described the grassy hill seemed to indicate a difficult journey ahead. The steepness of the hill, the dozens of wild oats throughout the grass, and the many insects living there only add to the turtle’s grueling climb up. For the reasons mentioned above, I the hill appears to represent the Joads’ challenging journey to California. In essence, Steinbeck’s description of that grassy hill is used to give us, the readers, a preview of what is to come - a journey filled with hardship and challenges that need to be overcome. Although the symbolism behind the turtle’s climb up foreshadows challenges in general, the four-inch wall facing him represents a specific obstacle ahead.

As the Joad family neared California, 'Granma' became very ill; she was in dire need of medical attention, but tending to her would have jeopardized the family’s unanimous goal of reaching California. Taking everything into consideration, 'Ma' quickly realized that this was the family’s last obstacle to overcome before reaching California, so she simply let 'Granma' be. This decision was arguably the hardest one she has ever had to make. To this extent, the wall the turtle had to climb before stepping foot on the highway (representation of California) is symbolic of Ma’s decision to simply let 'Granma' be (pass) in order to look after the greater good of the family. While the wall is associated with the decision to let 'Granma' pass, the pickup truck knocking the turtle down the hill and on its back can be associated with the Joads’ experience in California.

Shortly after arriving on the highway, the turtle dodges a car and gets hit by a pickup truck. Having been knocked down the hill the turtle is back where it started. This is an indication of the grueling conditions awaiting the Joads in California. With high unemployment, low wages fueled by competition among able workers, and a corrupt police force, the Joads will come to realize that California is not the oasis they expected to find. In a similarly unexpected fashion, the turtle's unintentional transporting and planting of a wild oat foreshadows a significant event that will occur towards the end of the novel.

Grapes of Wrath Turtle Chapter
“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” (Steinbeck 16)[1]. The planting of that wild oat is something the turtle did by accident; if the wild oat seed was planted intentionally, we might have assumed that it represents the birth of Rose of Sharon’s baby. However, this was not the case. The unintentional planting of a wild oat seed appears to signify that things are not as they appear. More specifically, Rose of Sharon’s baby, not a dying man, should consume her milk; but, as we learn later on, the opposite occurs. In other words, the unintentional planting of the wild oat seed by the turtle indicates a rebirth instead of a birth. It indicates the rebirth of one of their own - the rebirth of an 'Oakie' struggling to hang on.

Thus, the symbolism used in chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath foretells the Joad family’s difficult journey to California. The turtle’s difficult journey up the grassy hill symbolizes and foreshadows tragedy, hardship, and life-changing decisions that the Joads will have to both endure and live with. Without this chapter we are left to wonder how the story will develop. Although this is may be the case, a chapter about a turtle’s climb up an inconspicuous grassy hill is easy to overlook as being just that. In the end, it is up to us, the readers, to determine the true meaning of this seemingly out of place chapter.



Jul 4, 2014 2:38pm
I have seen the move, not read book yet.
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  1. John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

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