Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Turtle Chapter

The third chapter of The Grapes of Wrath is the turtle chapter. I didn't know about it the first time I read the book. It was another school reading assignment, we all had used copies of the Viking Critical Library edition, and I was the fourth student to carry my copy around. It was nicely battered, yet inside the pages were suspiciously pristine. We were supposed to read the book one chapter at a time, which was impossible for me, so I read on, going back to check the assigned chapter before the class discussions. I knew not to offer much in the discussions, so as not to be bullied later by kids who loathed "goody two shoes reader types." I mostly listened in every class anyway because I was shy and whenever I had to stand and answer a question in class my voice would quaver or I'd stammer or forget what I was going to say. Forgetting what you were going to say was horrible. My mind would simply go blank as I stood to speak (we were required to stand.) And there was always the chance of somebody behind you softly whispering reee-TarrHd (followed by muffled giggling.)

The first time I read the turtle chapter I was in awe. I went back and carefully re-read it. It was unusual. Hmmmm... I wondered what kind of class discussion would follow. Not good, as it turned out. Not many kids liked the chapter. Dull, hard to get through--endlessly boring. I was sitting there, thinking it isn't even three pages long, and they act like it's a hardship to read.

Steinbeck's book was not just a social history of the dust bowl and migration to California, we were told. The turtle symbolized the struggle of the migrants and the environment they were fleeing. Our teacher reminded us that the turtle's shell is a house or home and protects the turtle. Home is where Tom Joad returns, only to find his family huddled in the dusty shell of their home. When the home is lost, security, comfort and healthy conditions are lost.

A few powerful individuals are able to withhold security and comfort from the much larger group. The turtle keeps going, through the dry dust because there's nothing else to do, giving up is not an option.

My high school copy of the book had an interview with Steinbeck in it and letters he'd written concerning the story. This bit was my favorite: Steinbeck answering a question about the migrants.

I admire them intensely. Because they are brave, because although the technique of their life is difficult and complicated, they meet it with increasing strength, because they are kind, humorous, wise, because their speech has the metaphor and flavor and imagery of poetry, because they can resist and fight back and because I believe that out of those qualities will grow a new system and a new life which will be better than anything we have had before.
~ John Steinbeck

I fell in love with Steinbeck after reading that.

Steinbeck said he created four layers in the book, and that readers could take from it whatever they wanted, (the mythic, the social history, the symbolism, and whatever else the reader could find in it.) What a genius.


ArtSparker said...

Good post, with the not warm & fuzzy memories of the schoolhouse. Is that about a turtle being stick up on a fencepost? That's my recollection, a disturbing image, I think I was bothered in relation to animals. Thanks for the comment on my blog, I am hoping to be sufficiently motivated to fix it later.

Deborah Godin said...

Awful to have read the assignment, know your stuff, and then freeze when called upon. The ignominy of it all! May as well have gone rollerskating for all the good it did. That happened to me frequently in math class, with the one difference being that I didn't understand anything in the first place.

Avid Reader said...

I used to say stupid things when called on sometimes missing the point entirely... blurt out something and then the mockery seems justified!!! I can recall freezing up/ going suddenly blank ... all the way back to 2nd grade.

tut-tut said...

I will have to pull out L's copy of GOW; she read it this year for school and could not put it down. Didn't know about the turtle chapter. Hmm.

I DO know about standing up in class; I remember distinctly the first time (junior year) I confronted a fellow student. We each had to stand up in front of English class, reading our college applications essays. When my turn came, I stood up, jittery, and started in. One TP (yes, those are his initials), smart and popular, snorted. I stopped my reading and said, "You know, it's really really difficult for me to be up here in the first place, and I really really don't appreciate your attitude."

To this day, I remember the teacher looking down at her hands and smiling . . .

Megan said...

I haven't read this in years but I'm pretty sure I have a copy of it - will have to get it out and re-read the Turtle chapter. My grammar & high school reading lists included a lot of Steinbeck - starting with The Pearl in 5th grade...

Barbara said...

One of the things that make Steinbeck timeless is his ability to see the real world -- warts and all -- and to appreciate it. I love his statement about the migrants. At a meeting I attended last night, one ultra-conservative man suggested that the many immigrants in this country might have been better off in the long run if they had stayed home. Probably not...

Mickey,Georgia , Tillie said...

Great post!!! You sound as if you were very mature growing up!! I probably would fit in with the group not liking to read assigned work.Give me Nancy Drew and gothic mysteries any day!!!!
I did not grow up until my mid 30's or so :o Now,I appreciate the books I did not like in high school and so many more that are not fluff :)
I now love Dickens,hahaha
Amazingly,I have not read 'Grapes Of Wrath'!!
So many books,so little time :)

Avid Reader said...

I liked reading, otherwise not very mature at all.

R.L. Bourges said...

Love, love, love Steinbeck. And that quote - the part about "the technique of their life is difficult and complicated " - exactly right. Achieving a semblance of normality in some lives is a feat much greater than writing a symphony - but a feat that rarely gets recorded.

(oh yes, school is tough on kids - both the ones who hate it AND the ones who happen to love it. The social pressure to play it dumb is just tremendous.)

Coffee Messiah said...

I too have meant to pick this book up and have come close to a purchase.

This summer I might finally get to it.

Especially since the times we live in, sans dust bowl is kind of similar ; (

My Classic Fiction Book List -Partial List

  • Austen, Jane: (Complete Works)
  • Balzac: Cousin Bette/ Eugenie Grandet / Cousin Pons
  • Best Russian Short Stories
  • Boyle, TC: Short Works
  • Brennan, Maeve : Short Works, 1 Novella
  • Bronte, Emily, Ann, Jane (Complete Works)
  • Brookner, Anita ( Complete Works)
  • Cather, Willa (Complete Works)
  • Chekov: Short Works
  • David Copperfield (Dickens)
  • Dickens:A Tale of Two Cities
  • Dickens:Great Expectations
  • Dickens:Nicholas Nickelby
  • Dickens:Our Mutual Friend
  • Dickens:The Old Curiosity Shop
  • Doyle, Roddy (some novels, memoir)
  • Drabble, Margaret (4 Novels)
  • Drieser, Theodore (Complete Works)
  • Fitzgerald, F.Scott (Most Novels & short works)
  • Hardy, Thomas (Complete Works)
  • Hemingway, Short stories
  • Hemingway: The Old Man in the Sea
  • Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises
  • Hugo: Les Miserables/Hunchback Of ND
  • James, Henry: Daisy Miller
  • James, Henry: In The Cage
  • James, Henry: Portrait of a Lady
  • James, Henry: The Golden Bowl
  • James, Henry: What Maisy Knew
  • James, Henry: Wings of a Dove
  • James, Henry:The Ambassadors
  • James, Henry; The Bostonians
  • Kerouac: Dharma Bums
  • Kerouac: On The Road
  • Kerouac: The Subterraneans
  • Kerouac: Tristessa
  • Lardner,Ring:Short Works
  • Larsen: Quicksand
  • Lewis, Sinclair: Arrowsmith
  • Lewis, Sinclair: Free Air
  • Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street
  • Lewis, Sinclair: The Job
  • MacGill, Patrick (Complete works)
  • Mackin, Walter (novels)
  • Maupassant: Short Works, novels
  • McGahern, John (novels of)
  • McNulty, John (Short Works)
  • Norris, Frank: McTeague
  • O'Brien, Edna (3 Novels)
  • O'Donnell, Paeder : Novels of
  • O. Henry
  • Potok, Chaim (4 novels/1 non fiction)
  • Salinger, JD : Nine Stories
  • Salinger: Franny & Zooey
  • Salinger: Raise High the Roofbeams
  • Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
  • Sinclair, Lewis: Dodsworth
  • Sinclair, Lewis: Elmer Gantry
  • Sinclair, Upton: King Coal
  • Sinclair, Upton: The Jungle
  • Steinbeck, John: Sweet Thursday
  • Steinbeck: Winter of our Discontent
  • Steinbeck: Cannery Row
  • Steinbeck: East of Eden
  • Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
  • Theroux, Paul (3 Novels )
  • Toibin, Colm: (Novels of)
  • Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
  • Tolstoy: Short Works
  • Turgenev (2 novels)
  • Twain: T Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi
  • Vonnegut: Early Works (1950s-60s)
  • Wharton, Edith: Novels of/Short Stories
  • Women & Fiction (Edit. Cahill)
  • Zola, Emile ( 10 novels)