In Oklahoma, the May rain stimulates the growth of corn, and the winter colors of red and gray earth give way to a cover of green. Then a drought occurs; the corn withers under the blazing sun, and the weeds turn darker green in an effort to protect themselves. The red and gray surface of the earth returns and then fades into a pale pink and white. By June, the green vegetation turns brown, and the earth becomes dust. The unrelenting heat of the sun and the dry wind destroy the corn, and the strong wind blows clouds of dust into the air like sluggish smoke. Women and men seek refuge in their houses and have to tie handkerchiefs over their noses and wear goggles to protect their eyes when they venture out. The film of dust is so thick that when morning comes, there is no real daylight; the sun appears as a dim red circle that gives little brightness. At night it is pitch black because the stars cannot penetrate the dust. Even though the doors and windows of all the houses are wedged with cloth, the dust creeps inside and covers everything.
The dust storm takes two days to settle. At its end, the women secretly look
at the men for their reaction and are relieved when they see that the
men retain an unbroken spirit. They know deep within themselves that "no
misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole." The first
chapter ends on a feeble note of optimism: "As the day went forward
the sun became less red, and the sharecroppers squat in the doorways
The first chapter sketches a carefully executed setting before introducing the main characters. In a Steinbeck novel, setting or environment is of great significance and plays an important role in the shaping of the characters themselves. A close relationship between humanity and the environment always exists, and each influences the other. In these opening paragraphs of the novel, Steinbeck describes the dust-blown landscape inhabited by the Oklahoma sharecroppers, including the Joads. By first painting the bleak setting before introducing characters, Steinbeck conveys the message that the forces to be fought against in this novel are tremendous and overwhelming. A sense of inevitability and tragedy is implicit in the unrelenting winds and the dry dust. Humanity is a helpless victim of the forces of the environment.
The opening chapter thus presents the fundamental background circumstances that drive the novel forward: the dust storm which ruins the crops and which causes families to migrate westward to California. In contrast to the dreary landscape, the men display an almost Herculean attitude and will to survive. At the end of the chapter, they squat in their doorways and think and figure their next step. The women are relieved to see the resilient spirit of their men.
In the first chapter, Steinbeck is also introducing the narrative structure of the novel. In order to communicate both the personal suffering of the Joads and the more widespread generalized suffering of the migrants, Steinbeck employs a structural design of two kinds of alternating chapters for The Grapes of Wrath . Out of the thirty chapters in the novel, sixteen are what Steinbeck called intercalary chapters or interchapters. Starting with the first chapter, these interchapters provide an extensive picture of the suffering of the migrants as well as essential background information.
Steinbeck also foreshadows the fate of the sharecroppers in the opening chapter. It is evident that they do not have bright prospects in this region of the dust bowl. Those who refuse to leave, like Muley Graves for instance, will seal their fates and will lose their future.
Unfortunately, what awaits them in California is not much brighter. Steinbeck
also employs symbolism in the chapter. The walking man whose footsteps
lift a fine layer of dust represents the thousands of migrants who lose
their homes. In the next chapter, this abstract figure of the walking
man becomes a concrete figure in Tom Joad, the main protagonist of the
novel and the living representation of all the woes of the migrant worker.