The Turtle from The Grapes of Wrath: Symbolism, Analysis & Quotes

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  • 0:04 The Turtle's Story
  • 0:44 Metaphor for the Joads
  • 1:34 The Constant Struggle
  • 2:10 Harm From Others
  • 2:56 Enabling Life
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

The turtle in Chapter Three of ''The Grapes of Wrath'' functions as a metaphor for the Joad family - and for other migrant families. It moves slowly, carrying its home on its back, and fights all kinds of adversity, never losing its will to carry on.

The Turtle's Story

Chapter Three of The Grapes of Wrath tells the brief story of a turtle, who, against all odds, makes it across a road. The chapter is mostly a description of the journey across the street, including all the obstacles that the turtle must face on his way across. He first must drag himself up the embankment; then, on the way across the street, he encounters two vehicles; the second vehicle intentionally hits him, remarkably spinning him to the far side of the street, where he picks himself up and keeps on walking. The turtle also carries along oat seeds, which he picked up before crossing the street and manages to deposit in the dirt after crossing. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the symbolism of the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath.

Metaphor for the Joads

Following a description of the grassy area beside the road, we read: 'And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass.' This introduction sums up the essence of the turtle that the reader is meant to take away from this chapter: his slow yet steady pace, his resolve in the face of obstacles, and the fact that he carries his home on his back.

The final point seems odd to stress in the case of turtles, who naturally carry their homes on their backs, but it's relevant because the turtle is intended to be a metaphor for the Joad family, and for migrant families in general. All of these families must carry whatever is left of their homes with them wherever they go. In most cases, these families had to leave most of their belongings behind them; still, whatever they managed to keep had to be carried along with them, every time they moved, just like the turtle.

The Constant Struggle

The short story of the turtle is filled with struggle from beginning to end. The following quote is typical: 'At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle.' What would be easy for most animals - climbing an embankment - is an arduous task for the turtle. This symbolizes the monumental efforts that the migrants must put forth simply to work, eat, and make a home because the world is set up against them.

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