Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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What is the symbolic role of the truck driver in chapter 2 of The Grapes of Wrath?

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The truck driver in Chapter 2 represents the way in which the poor help the poor. Tom Joad has been walking home when he comes upon the truck at a roadside diner. A sticker on the windshield reads "No riders," but Tom Joad, walking home from a stint in prison, asks the driver for a ride anyway. When the driver asks Tom if he has seen the sticker, Tom replies, "But sometimes a guy'll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker."

The truck driver relents and decides to give Tom a ride. The way Tom asks the driver for a ride divides the world into two—the rich, who make capricious, heartless decisions, and the poor, who are good people who help others. The driver has no choice but to help, as he does not want to be classed with the rich "bastards" who make arbitrary rules. The driver symbolizes the unity of the poor in the face of the unfeeling rich.

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The truck driver represents the need for "random acts of kindness" in a setting as bad as the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  The fact that the driver has a sign in the truck indicating that he is not supposed to take hitchhikers represents how individuals in this challenging time period are driven by self- interest or self- preservation.  Yet, when the driver violates this by giving Tom Joad a ride represents how, in the most basic of senses, individuals have to look out for one another in challenging times when no one else is providing for the general welfare.  While the driver is suspicious of Tom, this does not prevent him from helping out someone in need.  While there are many characters loaded with symbolism, the truck driver might not possess as much importance.  Yet, Steinbeck does not miss an opportunity to display how there has to be some level of empathy and concern for others in a context where compassion for others was noticeably absent.

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