The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck Summary and Analysis Chapter 1

Summary

After early May, no more rain came to the red and gray country of Oklahoma. Soon the earth crusted and clouds of dust surrounded all moving objects. Midway through June, a few storm clouds teased the country but dropped very little rain. The wind became stronger and soon the dust hung in the air like fog. People were forced to tie handkerchiefs over their faces and wear goggles over their eyes.

When the wind stopped, the men and women came out to survey the damage to the fields. Everyone, even the children, was subdued. They were waiting for the reaction of the men, to see whether they would break. The men did not break, but began figuring how to deal with the ruined corn. The women resumed their housework and the children their play, for they knew as long as the men were okay, the family would be fine.

Analysis

Chapter 1 establishes the epic context and tone for the entire novel. This brief, but important, opening chapter provides a backdrop for the main events of the narrative, describing the event primarily responsible for spurring the great migration to California during the 1930s. The destructive force of the Dust Bowl is staggeringly described as a backward life cycle, a regression from fertile green to a dead and dusty brown. The deterioration of the land that forces the farmers to huddle and "figger" foreshadows the plight of the Joads: Forced off their land by a bank looking for profit, they will move west seeking a new livelihood. The beautifully apocalyptic description of the slow spread of decay throughout the Oklahoma country is strongly influenced by the King James Bible and sets the brooding and oppressive tone of the novel.

The opening chapter also introduces many of the themes that will be played out throughout the course of the novel. The suggestion of unity and human dignity in the huddled circle of men will be developed in the narrative. Likewise, the theme of survival, particularly survival in the face of environmental destruction, is implied by the refusal of the men to break. This theme, too, will be examined in detail in the narrative chapters.

Chapter 1 is the first of the so-called intercalary chapters, inserted between the narrative chapters, which are generalized accounts of the social, economic, and historical situations that shape the events of the novel. These chapters provide significant commentary on the narrative elements of the novel and establish that this story is not one of an isolated group of individuals. The Joads' troubles — dispossessed, stripped of dignity, and struggling to maintain familial unity — are not unique to their family, but representative of an entire population of migrating people. Throughout the novel, the broad events of these intercalary chapters will be brought into sharp, personalized focus by the specific plight of the Joad family.

Glossary

perplexity the condition of being perplexed; bewilderment; confusion.

hams a) the backs of the thighs; b) the thighs and buttocks together.

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