The Grapes of Wrath Chapter 3 Summary

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Chapter Three of 'The Grapes of Wrath' focuses on a turtle as it climbs an embankment and crosses a street, overcoming various obstacles along the way. This is a famous chapter in the book, both for its attention to detail and because it works as an allegory for the Joads' struggles throughout their journey.

Life Everywhere

While 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck may contain more eventful chapters than the third one, there are many elements found within this chapter that illustrate why the novel has been so revered for so long. The chapter opens with a vivid description of the highway embankment where we first meet the turtle, who moves slowly but doesn't let that deter it from getting around. Steinbeck describes the various plants growing beside the highway, adding '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, all waiting for animals and for the wind...' We get a sense that this atmosphere is full of life and growth, but is also committed to waiting -- it is a place where things may wish to happen, but they will happen slowly.

The Turtle

While not one of the most gripping chapters in the history of literature, this chapter focuses on a turtle crossing the road. In a book whose focus is the difficult and often slow business of surviving the Great Depression, it is perhaps not surprising that we should have a chapter about a resolute turtle slowly but surely crossing a road, working as an allegory for the challenges facing the Joad family. We are introduced to the turtle in this way: 'And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass.' The description carries on the same way from here, describing a turtle who slowly but surely drags his heavy shell forward, refusing to be deterred by anything in his way.

The Red Ant and Wild Oat

One of the more exciting scenes -- if 'exciting' is an appropriate description for a turtle's journey to the other side of a street -- is when a red ant crawls onto the turtle. The turtle reacts by pulling its limbs and head inside the shell, which crushes the red ant between the flesh and shell. At the same time, however, a wild oat gets trapped inside as well, meaning that it will be carried by the turtle as it crosses the road. Therefore, one of the wild plants in the opening scene of this chapter has had its waiting pay off: this piece of life will be spread.

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