Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946
Tom Joad: the protagonist, an Oklahoma tenant farmer’s son
Jim Casy: a former preacher who now questions traditional beliefs as he observes human behavior
Muley Graves: a farmer reduced to homeless poverty when he loses his family’s land through foreclosure
When the last of light rains ended in early May, the land began to dry up. Weeds changed their color to protect themselves from the harsh sun and the corn faded and dried up. The few drops of rain that fell in June gave no help. Animal hooves and vehicle wheels broke the dry dirt crust and formed dust. Winds drove the dust until it mixed with the air and the sky was dark. When the winds subsided, the dust settled and covered the earth like a blanket. Farm men stood silently and looked at the ruined corn blown down by the wind and covered by the dust. Their women watched the silent men, and when they saw anger in the men’s faces they knew there was still hope as long as the dust did not break the spirit of the men.
A man dressed in new, but cheap, clothes sees a large truck parked at a roadside cafe. Despite the “No Riders” sign on the truck he asks the driver for a ride. He points out that some drivers are “good guys” even if their bosses make them carry the sign. The driver lets him into the truck, around the corner out of sight of the cafe. The hitchhiker says his name is Tom Joad, and having been away from home for four years, is now returning to his father’s 40-acre farm. The driver expresses surprise that someone with only 40 acres has not been driven out yet. The driver is obviously suspicious of Tom and talks about studying fingerprints. Tom tells the driver he has just spent four years of a seven-year sentence for manslaughter in the state prison and been paroled for good behavior. He leaves the truck at the road leading to the Joad farm.
A land turtle, after a long and difficult climb, finally reached the highway surface and started slowly across. One vehicle swerved to miss it, but the driver of a second vehicle swerved to hit it. The turtle was thrown off the highway and landed on its back. After struggling for some time the turtle righted itself and slowly resumed its journey.
Tom notices the thickness of the dust. He picks up a land turtle he sees, intending to give it to one of the young children in his family. As he walks toward the farm he meets a man who recognizes him. This is Jim Casy, the preacher who baptized Tom and knew Old Tom Joad, his father. He explains he no longer preaches because he became worried about his having sexual relations with girls who came to his religious meetings. Feeling it was not right, he went off to think about it. He says he now realizes “there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtues,” and that the actions of people are more important than abstract religious concepts.
Tom starts to leave and Casy asks how Old Tom is. Tom says he does not know because he has been gone for four years and has not heard from the family. He tells Casy about having killed a man who stuck a knife in him by hitting the man with a shovel and about being in prison for the four years. When Casy asks him his feelings about the killing, Tom says he had to defend himself and is not ashamed of his actions. Casy asks about prison life and Tom tells him simply that the prisoners ate regularly and bathed daily. He tells of a man who committed a crime to get sent back to prison because he was hungry.
Casy asks if he can go with him and speak with Old Tom. Tom says he is welcome to do so. As they approach the Joad house, they realize that no one is home and something is wrong.
The owners of the land, hating what they had to do, came to the tenant families in anger or in grief. Blaming the banks’ demand for profit on their money, they explained the tenant farming system wouldn’t work anymore. The only way the land could be profitable was to farm larger consolidated sections of it with machines. The tenants knew they couldn’t feed their families adequately from their small farms, but they had no place to go. They had been on the land since it was settled by their grandparents. Mortgages were foreclosed, the farms were consolidated, and the tenants had to leave. Then a tractor hired by a bank or corporation plowed the fields in long straight lines, knocking down houses or barns that stood in the way of any such straight line.
When a tractor operator told one tenant he would have to knock the tenant’s house down, the farmer recognized him as a farm boy named Davis and asked why he was doing this to his own kind of people. The operator said his own family was without food and necessary clothing, and he was doing it because the pay was good. When the farmer threatened to shoot him, the boy said it would do no good; another tractor driver would be pushing the house down even before the farmer was surely hanged for shooting him.
Tom and Jim approach the Joad house and see that one corner has been knocked in and the house is pushed out of shape. Noticing the well is dry and the barn is empty, Tom is aware something is wrong. He realizes there are no neighbors left when he sees a cat prowling around and nothing is disturbed. He knows that if only the Joads have moved, the neighbors would have come and taken the lumber from the house as well as other things. He releases the turtle he was bringing for the children. It immediately heads ploddingly toward the southwest.
Tom and Jim see a dust-covered figure coming down the road. When Tom recognizes the person as Muley Graves, they call to him. He is frightened but comes over and recognizes Tom. He tells Tom that Old Tom is very worried about leaving and being unable to let Tom know about it because he is such a poor letter writer. Muley gives a long explanation about what has happened to the farms. Tom finally gets him to tell where the Joads are. Muley says they have moved to the house of Tom’s Uncle John and have been chopping cotton to earn enough money to buy a car in which to go to California.
Muley tells them he has been pushed off his farm and his family has gone to California, but that he could not bring himself to leave his father’s land, so he has been hiding on it. He tells them a large company bought up the land and replaced the tenants with tractors and day laborers as they only way to make a profit from the land.
Tom has become hungry and asks Muley about eating. Muley is living off the land and has two rabbits he trapped. He shares these with Tom and Jim, saying there is no choice when one person has food and another doesn’t. As headlights approach, Muley says they must hide or be in trouble for trespassing. Tom doesn’t want to hide on his own father’s land, but is reminded that he is on parole and can’t afford trouble. Tom refuses to sleep in a cave Muley shows him, saying he prefers the open night air.
Discussion and Analysis
In this unit we are introduced to the format Steinbeck chooses to tell two stories; the larger story of the mass migration of refugees from the southwestern “Dust Bowl” toward the promise of a better life, and the more personal story of the Joads, one family that makes the journey. The story of the Joads is a traditional fictional narrative, while the larger story is told in a variety of styles in intercalary chapters which give background to, and often a parallel to or preview of, what happens to the Joads.
Chapters 1, 3, and 5 are such intercalary chapters. They also establish the story’s conflict between man and his physical and social environments. The first describes the forces which created the “Dust Bowl” and the troubles of the farm families there. Chapter 3 is an allegory in which a land turtle symbolizes the common man laboring and struggling to make his way in the world beset by natural and social forces. While Chapter 1 deals with the forces of nature affecting the Joads, Chapter 5 is concerned with the economic and social forces that push them off their land.
It will be through the narrative of the struggles of the Joads that central themes such as social injustice and the family as a source of strength will emerge. Indeed, as the plot unfolds we will see, paralleling the journey west, the movement from one strong family through the strength of a group or family of families to the belief in the unity of the entire family of mankind giving the strength to overcome social injustice.
There is another theme which appears in many scenes in the novel and is later expressly stated by Ma Joad: that when a poor person wants something, he had best go for help to one of his own kind. Here in Unit I this theme is introduced by Tom getting the ride from the truck driver and Muley Graves sharing his meager food. The truck driver is pictured as one of the “good guys” who will help those in need as opposed to the “rich bastards” who are out to destroy the poor. Muley feels there is no choice but to share what little he has with those even less fortunate.
The major theme that what people actually do is more important than abstract concepts about behavior is introduced with the character of Jim Casy. He has renounced his preaching of religious principles because of his own actions, which he saw as sinful according to religious teachings. After a long, lonely, and laborious meditation he has decided that there is no sin or virtue, just what people do.
Thus, Ma and the Joads are not pictured as abstract concepts but as real people, living human beings struggling to survive in a harsh society. Casy also expresses the idea of the unity of mankind in one “oversoul” of which each person is a part. Casy, in contrast to the somewhat self-centered Tom Joad we meet in this unit, is trying to formulate something that will help all mankind. As we will later see, meeting Casy is pivotal to Tom’s eventual development. For now it represents the solitary Tom joining forces with another person on his personal journey toward membership in the larger community of mankind.
Chapter 6 initiates the action on Tom’s personal journey. Here he wants only to go home to his old life but finds his home destroyed, and he is forced to hide to avoid being arrested for trespassing on the land which had belonged to his father. Though angry at this, he is made to realize his actions and natural instincts will be restricted in the future because of his parole. As his journey progresses, he will become more resentful of his inability to fight back against oppressive conditions he and his family encounter.
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