What important symbolic qualities does the land turtle have as described in chapter 3?
Steinbeck’s description of the land turtle in Chapter Three is at once keenly observed and supremely realistic, and of course obviously symbolic. The turtle is slow. Its movements require tremendous labor. It is largely impervious to (and ignorant of) its surroundings. The turtle is not very smart, but the little it does know – to keep moving forward – unswervingly guides its actions. When it finally climbs the curb, and begins to cross the road, it encounters traffic – first one car swerves to miss it, then another swerves to hit it. The turtle is flipped over, but rights itself and continues on.
It’s not hard to see how the migrant workers in the novel are like the turtle: they too are capable of tremendous labor, and their journey west is slow and inexorable like the turtle’s across the road. Like the turtle, they are aware of little other than the immediate requirements for work, food, and shelter. And like the turtle, they are either avoided and ignored by those more powerful, or made into targets.
The larger purpose of the chapter is to describe the hostile environment of the road, and how, even here, life goes on and manages to spread and grow. Steinbeck spends some time describing the plants there, “sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal.” The turtle, in transporting a seedpod, unwittingly becomes the mechanism for spreading life, even while in the act of crossing the road. The sense is that regardless of the harsh forces arrayed against it, life, and by extension the people, will continue to endure. Steinbeck’s metaphor suggests that this is not an empty slogan, but a bedrock fact of nature.
The land turtle in chapter 3 has perseverance, blind faith, and ignorance. First, it keep struggling to cross the road even despite the struggles against traffic. Without perseverance, the turtle would have given up and stayed on the side of the road it was on. Next, blind faith is apparent because the turtle has no guarantee that there is anything better on the other side of the road, but he still ventures across. Finally, ignorance of the danger of the traffic sends the turtle on the very dangerous trek across the highway. This is all symbolic of the migrant workers who venture across the country in hopes of better lives.