The Grapes of Wrath Car Dealer Significance

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the car salesman's monologue from chapter 7 of 'The Grapes of Wrath.' We'll learn how this minor character sheds light on the main characters. Then, we'll explore Steinbeck's use of repetition, rhythm, and personification.

Come on Down to the Car Lot!

Looking to escape the Dust Bowl? We've got just the thing for you! Every jalopy on the lot is priced under $100. Come down now before somebody else drives it away!

While the price of a used car has certainly changed since the 1930s, the tactics of used car salesmen have not. John Steinbeck documents the underhanded, dubious, and exploitative practices of Depression-era used car salesmen in chapter 7 of The Grapes of Wrath. It's up to you, the reader, to decide whether the situation today has gotten better--or worse.

Car salesmen developed their manipulative tactics way back when automobiles were first getting out on the road. The first car Steinbeck mentions is the 1927 Model T Ford, the first affordable American car.

Model T Ford
model t ford

In this lesson, we'll explore the significance of chapter 7 in the context of the novel. Then, we'll learn about how John Steinbeck uses literary devices like repetition, rhythm, and personification to make his point.

Not-So-Side-Story

Why devote an entire chapter to a topic unrelated to the Joad's? Steinbeck breaks up his story of the Joads' cross-country journey with intercalary chapters, or short stories interspersed throughout the narrative. Each of these chapters documents a different character's journey, which then reflects back upon the main action of the plot.

In the first intercalary chapter, for example, Steinbeck narrates the journey of a turtle trying to cross the road. After being struck several times by unconcerned motorists, he's picked up by Tom Joad on the way back to the homestead. The turtle's struggle comes to symbolize the migrant farmers' plight.

Like the turtle, which strengthens the theme of the Joad's connection to nature, the car salesman reflects the greed associated with capitalism. Chapter 7 reads like a monologue of a used car salesman instructing his employees on how to rip off potential buyers. They're especially interested in the desperate migrants hoping to flee the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. With so many farmers and working class people heading west, the salesmen act like vultures profiting off of the suffering of others.

The monologue shows how the salesman takes advantage of the poor by inflating prices and rigging broken down vehicles to run for short spurts. The salesman in question specializes in the sale of jalopies, 1930s slang for an old beat-up car. Famed Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange documented the end of the journey for migrants, many of whom transformed their jalopies into homes when reaching California.

A broken down jalopy in a shanty town outside Sacramento, CA (1940)
jalopy

Playing with Words

Steinbeck weaves this scene with literary grace. He uses several tactics to breathe life into the corrupt setting of the used car lot:

Repetitive Words and Phrases

Steinbeck uses repetition, the repeated occurrence of words or phrases that function to drive home an idea or concept. The car salesman's spiel is full of catchphrases and sales slogans. It's so repetitive, it starts to feel redundant. Throughout the chapter, the salesman repeats important details:

  • Sales slogans: 'Good Used Cars'! 'No overhead.'
  • Names of cars, like '27 Ford, '26 Buick,'25 Dodge, Model T, etc.
  • Descriptions of the cars: rusty noses, flat tires, creaking wheel, worn bands...
  • Prices: 'What can you lose for a nickel?' 'We got to move that lemon for thirty-five dollars.'
  • Numbers: 'I don't want nothing for more'n twenty-five, thirty bucks. Sell 'em for fifty, seventy-five.' 'Tell 'im they got ten thousand in 'em, knock off a buck an' a half.'

This literary device conveys to readers the regularity of the salesman's practices. He isn't just selling one car to one person. Rather, it's a revolving door. He sells beat up cars that he hopes will break down so that the customer will come back to buy another. He finds a wealth of clientele among the hordes of migrants.

100 dollars will buy this car must have cash lost all on the stock market
car sales

Toe-Tapping Beats

Steinbeck also makes brilliant use of rhythm in this passage. Usually found in music and poetry, the rhythm of a phrase or monologue drives readers to make their way through a passage at a certain pace. Long, lyrical passages are best read slowly, like a lullaby. But short, quick rhythms flash by in a heartbeat.

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