The turtle in chapter 3 of The Grapes of Wrath is significant because it represents the tenacity and persistence of the Joad family and other migrants in confronting and surmounting obstacles during their trek to California.
Although vulnerable and seemingly insignificant in the vast, harsh landscape, the turtle is tough with “hard legs, yellow-nailed feet,” a “horny beak,” and a protective “high-domed shell” that deflects “barley beards” and “clover burrs.” His eyes intently stare straight ahead at its goal—to cross the highway—but Steinbeck humanizes the animal with “humorous” eyes. Like humans slowly yet steadily making their way across the country in jalopies, the turtle tediously yet continually inches across the ground, thrashing through brush and “boosting and dragging” himself along undeterred.
The turtle serves as a model of persistence despite hostile external barriers. Within the rough landscape lurk various obstructions. Just as the migrants encounter natural hardships (e.g. inclement weather, poor health, etc.) as well as purposeful malevolence (e.g. unscrupulous used car salesmen, exploitative landowners), the turtle confronts passive and active obstacles. The steep embankment and four-inch-high wall, for example, are inanimate objects within the environment for the turtle to climb. The determined yet unstoppable animal claws up the embankment frantically, “pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along.” When he manages to strain and lift himself up against the wall, an ant crawls into his shell. In reaction to this relatively minor irritation, he snaps his head and legs into his shell; this reflective, protective motion kills the ant and the turtle resumes his journey. Right after the turtle succeeds in climbing over the wall, an external force—“a sedan driven by a forty-year old woman”—speeds by and causes the turtle to “jerk” back into it shell for a brief pause before continuing on its way.
An intentionally hostile player, however, nearly derails the turtle from his goal. A truck driver sees and swerves to hit the turtle:
His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright.
The crooked bosses do not care about—or even recognize individual people within—the swarms of laborers, but simply go on about their businesses, unaffected by their suffering. Similarly, the truck driver clips and up-ends the turtle for fun like a tiddly-wink toy, nearly killing it for sport, and then simply drives away “back to its course.” What may seem like a small action by the truck driver is a huge matter to the turtle, which now is stuck on its back, unable to proceed. Yet with incredible persistence and resilience (and good fortune—the piece of quartz against which the turtle’s foot pushes happens to be nearby), the animal manages to upright itself and persevere.
Triumphant, the turtle successfully crosses the highway and crawls on with “old humorous eyes” and a slightly open “horny beak.”