A land turtle navigates through a dry patch of ground toward a slanted highway embankment full of oat beards and foxtails. Resolute and unswerving, the turtle fights its way up the slope to the highway and begins to cross the hot pavement. A speeding car swerves onto the shoulder to avoid the turtle. Moments later, a truck purposefully clips the shell of the turtle, sending it spinning to the side of the highway, landing on its back. Eventually, the turtle rights itself, crawls down the embankment, and continues on its way.
Whenever an entire chapter is devoted to the movement of a seemingly inconsequential creature, a reader should take note. Chapter 3, with its stunningly realistic depiction of an old turtle gamely trying to cross the highway, can (and should) be read as symbolic of the Joads and their struggle. Like the turtle, the Joads are victimized by the hostile environment in which they exist, yet, also like the turtle, they persist in their journey. This journey takes the turtle southwest, the same direction that the Joads will be traveling. The author follows the turtle in painstaking detail, beginning with its arduous climb up the embankment and through its ordeal on the highway, where it is humanely avoided by one driver, only to be purposefully attacked by a second. Because of its protective shell, however, this collision with the truck only hastens the turtle to the other side of the highway, its original destination.
In the course of its travels, the turtle unwittingly carries an oat beard, a symbol of new life, in its shell. This oat beard is carried to the other side of the highway, where it falls out and is covered with dirt by the turtle's dragging shell, ready to produce again. With this symbol, Steinbeck specifically refers to the notion that humanity and its life force will continue to regenerate regardless of obstacles and setbacks. Steinbeck will revisit this theme of re-birth in Chapter 14 when he claims that humankind is defined by its need to struggle toward goals that grow beyond work, "having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back." This concept will also be supported later in the novel with Ma Joad's assertion that "we're the people that live
we're the people — we go on."
foxtails plants with cylindrical spikes bearing spikelets interspersed with stiff bristles.
head of wild oats the uppermost part of a plant's foliage.
oat beard a hairy outgrowth on the head of certain grains and grasses.