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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 1

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 1 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 1 | Summary



In this chapter, the narrator describes the erosion of the land that led to the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. This process begins with gentle rains on the "red country and part of the gray country." As a result of the rain, corn grew quickly, and grass and weed colonies spread across the countryside.

Then rain does not fall for a period, causing the surface of the earth to crust. The constant "sharp sun" wilts the young corn and weeds. Soon the dirt crust breaks, causing dust to form. As a result, anything that moves, such as a man walking or a wagon rolling, lifts dust into the air. During mid-June, rain clouds move in but release just a spattering of precipitation. After this, a windstorm develops that blows so much dust into the air that it darkens the sky. Through the dusty air, the "sun [shines] redly." The wind increases even more, uprooting corn. "The dawn [comes], but no day," because the dust hangs in the air like fog.

Because of the windstorm, men and women tie handkerchiefs over their noses and wear goggles. They shut their houses tight and wedge cloth around doors and windows to prevent the dust from entering. Even so, dust penetrates their homes, coating furniture and clothing. The wind eventually stops, but it takes an entire day for the dust to settle. The dust blankets the earth and everything on it. Men stare silently at their ruined crops. Women worry that their men will break under the pressure. Children draw "figures in the dust with bare toes." The men become angry. The women continue their housework, and the men think about what to do.


In Chapter 1, Steinbeck uses a poetic narrative style, which employs figurative language to establish the novel's tone and convey important insights about the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck uses this style in the novel's odd-numbered chapters to present an overview of the Dust Bowl and the migration of thousands of people to California. The chapters that use this approach, called intercalary chapters, are usually fairly short and focus on the people as a whole instead of on a particular family or person.

Interspersed with these intercalary chapters are longer narrative chapters focused on the Joad family, their response to the Dust Bowl crisis, and their way of dealing with hardships as they migrate to California. By alternating intercalary chapters with narrative chapters, Steinbeck places the Joad family within the larger context of an exodus of people migrating to California.

Steinbeck shows his knowledge of farming and ecology in Chapter 1. In this chapter, he describes the erosion that causes the Dust Bowl and the effects of this disaster on farmers in Oklahoma. Steinbeck makes a strong connection between the land and the farm families who work the land. This connection is emphasized throughout the novel. For these farmers, the land is the way they sustain life. The dust storm obliterates this way of life, leaving the men stunned. As they look at their ruined corn, "The men [are] silent and [do] not move often."

Near the end of this chapter, Steinbeck introduces one of the major themes of the novel, namely the danger of meekness and the benefits of anger. At first, the women are worried that their husbands will meekly accept their fate and, as a result, be broken by the disaster. However, when they sense their husbands' anger, they know their families will be all right.

Documents for Chapter 1

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Questions for Chapter 1

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