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Free Study Guide: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - Free BookNotes

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH: SYNOPSIS / PLOT SUMMARY / ANALYSIS

CHAPTER 2

Summary

While a truck driver is talking to a waitress in a roadside cafe, a man walks along the edge of the highway, crosses over, and stops beside the huge red transport truck belonging to the Oklahoma City Transport Company. Although the truck's windshield carries a "No Riders" sticker, the man sits down on the running board anyway because "sometimes a guy'll be a good guy” in spite of a sticker. The man is not over thirty and has strong facial features. His clothes and shoes are new, but cheap; they do not fit him properly. While waiting for the driver, the man mops his face with his stiff new cap, unlaces his shoes, and smokes a cigarette. When the driver comes out of the cafe, the man asks for a lift. The driver considers his request for a moment and then tells the man to hide low on the running board until after he turns the truck.

The driver is very perceptive and notices the man's ill-fitting new clothes and shoes. He starts asking the hitchhiker questions and discovers that he is returning home to his father's small forty-acre farm. The driver expresses surprise that a small farmer has not been "dusted out" or "tractored out" as yet. The man confesses that he has not been home lately and so does not know for sure. The driver notices the condition of the man's hands and guesses that he has been working with a pick, an ax, or a sledge.


The driver's persistent questioning irritates the hitchhiker, but he says angrily that he does not have anything to hide and will tell the driver everything so that he does not have to guess. The driver explains that he was not being nosy, just making small talk. He adds that driving alone all day pushes a man to the verge of insanity and that he feels a need to communicate when someone is nearby. He further tells of his plans to do some correspondence school courses, like mechanical engineering, in order to improve his future employment prospects. The hitchhiker tells the man that his name is Tom Joad. While getting out of the truck, Tom affirms the driver's suspicions by revealing that he is out on parole from McAlester, an Oklahoma state prison, where he has served four years for homicide. He says that he killed a man in a drunken brawl and was sentenced to seven years imprisonment but was out on account of good behavior. Thanking the driver for the lift, Tom walks towards home.

Notes

Steinbeck ensures that there is a continuity in the novel so that the novel does not simply fall into two distinct parts of narrative chapter and interchapter. Chapter two picks up from where the first interchapter left off. Steinbeck achieves a smooth transition from the dying fire-tone of the dust-laden sky to the vivacious red of the transport truck. The faint red of the dusty sky and the dynamic red of the truck symbolize the combined threats of nature and machine.

The second chapter develops certain particulars of the main story. Although the novel is replete with symbolic episodes and imagery, the plot is of prime importance. The action of the plot is generated through the story of the individualized suffering of the Joad family. In this chapter, the first Joad is introduced in the person of Tom, the novel's protagonist. The reader learns about his past when he reveals it to the truck driver. Having served four years in prison for homicide, he is now out on parole on account of his good behavior; therefore, if he leaves for California with his family, he will be breaking his parole and the law. Throughout the novel, a constant threat of being arrested hangs over Tom’s head.

The nameless "walking man" of the first chapter is personalized in the figure of Tom Joad. The detailed description of Tom stresses his well-defined features and his strong, hardy body. It would seem that he is physically fit to endure the hardships that are ahead. The truck driver hints of the hardships. He is amazed that Tom’s father has held on to a small farm and asks his rider, "A forty-acre cropper and he ain't been dusted out and he ain't been tractored out?" Now the nameless sharecroppers of the first chapter have taken on a reality in the form of Tom and his family.

The driver's astonishment prepares the reader in advance for the novel's main complication--the eviction of the sharecroppers from the farms and the tractors taking over the work of the small farmer and his ploy. The reader is also being prepared to accept Tom’s later hostility towards the landowners in California. Already he resents authority figures. He is hostile towards the owners of the company who makes a good guy carry the "No Riders" sticker on his truck and refers to them as “rich bastards,” indicating his delineation of social positions. They are rich, and he is poor.

Other elements introduced in this chapter receive a fuller treatment later on in the novel. The truck drivers and the roadside cafes with their characteristic waitresses dot the entire route to California and are often mentioned in the book. A central ethic advanced in the novel is that only the poor help the poor. Tom was able to convince the truck driver to give him a ride only because he himself was poor and so was sympathetic to Tom. The chapter also provides another parallel found later in the book. The truck driver's plan to better his prospects by taking correspondence school courses parallels the ambitions of Connie Rivers. Most importantly, Steinbeck's mastery in creating the essence of ordinary farming folks is evident in this chapter. The rest of the novel will add new details to the picture of the farming folk as they become migrant workers.


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