The Grapes of Wrath Quotes

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.

– John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 1. These are the opening lines of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece exposing the cruelty of the Great Depression and struggles of migrant farmworkers forced to flee west from the Dust Bowl that struck the southern plains of the U.S. It was Steinbeck’s journalism that inspired the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Three years earlier he was commissioned by the San Francisco News to write on migrant labor camps in California’s Salinas Valley. His series of seven articles, titled <em>The Harvest Gypsies</em>, described the migrants’ desperate conditions. Steinbeck explained his purpose in writing the novel about the plight of dispossessed tenant farmers driven from their homes. He famously said: "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this." The opening quote takes the reader to the heart of Oklahoma, to its land and its agriculture, greatly damaged by the severe dust storms of the 1930s. This is suggested in the description of the earth as "scarred" – implying that it is disfigured or injured. The red country and gray country refer literally to the red soil characteristic of Oklahoma and caused by its high iron content and the normal brown-gray clay found in other parts of the state. But there is also a symbolism in these colors, with red signalling danger and warnings and gray being associated with sadness. This may be seen as foreshadowing the difficulties that the "Okie" Joad family will face, first losing their home to foreclosure, then setting off on their epic odyssey to California. In Steinbeck’s defining novel, the land becomes one of the most important characters after the Joads. The entire first chapter is devoted to an apocalypic description of the slow decay of the land that forces the great migration to California during the destructive Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning. They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

– John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 1. Steinbeck uses the first of the interchapters, which are inserted between the narrative chapters, to paint a picture of what daily life is like for people in the Dust Bowl. It is only when the wind dies down and the people emerge from their homes that they see the new world the dust has created. The opening chapter describes the day after a disastrous dust storm. A simile compares the dust to a fog hanging in the air in the morning. As the day wears on it slowly settles down from the sky to cover the earth and everything on it. Steinbeck employs a metaphor to describe the ubiquitous dust as a blanket covering the plant life. Color imagery and simile are employed to compare the red sun to fresh new blood. There is nothing comforting about that dust blanket or blood red sun, its color signaling danger and death. The reference to "ripe new blood" speaks of change, but certainly not for the better. The chapter’s tone is sombre, eerie and understated. Yet Steinbeck’s language gives us a sense of the farmers’ anxiety about the dust storms that attack their crops and will lead to them losing their family farms. They "stirred restlessly," the voices of the roosters are "muffled," the people know it will take "a long time for the dust to settle" – just like their altered lives.