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The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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Chapter 2

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 2 of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 2 | Summary



In Chapter 2, Steinbeck introduces the main character. Tom Joad walks to a roadside restaurant and notices a "No Riders" sticker on a parked truck. He sits on the running board of the truck, apparently waiting for the driver to come out of the restaurant. He is "not over thirty," has dark brown eyes, and high cheekbones. His hands are hard from calluses, suggesting that he has done manual labor. Curiously, he wears new clothes that fit poorly.

The truck driver pays his bill and comes out. He is surprised to see the waiting man and asks if he saw the "No Riders" sticker. Tom says he did but asks if the driver can make an exception. The driver agrees and tells him to crouch on the running board until the truck has pulled away from the restaurant. Tom does so, then gets in the truck and sits next to the driver.

The driver is curious about the hitchhiker and begins to ask him a series of questions. The hitchhiker gets annoyed in a friendly way at the driver's nosiness and offers to tell him anything he wants to know. He tells the driver that his name is Tom Joad. The driver gets defensive. Tom removes a whisky bottle from his pocket, takes a slug, and offers some to the driver, who declines. The driver brags about how observant he is, such as noticing people's clothes, and Tom gets angry about the driver's indirect way of trying to pump him for information. Irritated with the truck driver's invasive questioning, Tom tells the driver that he just came out of McAlester Prison. The driver lets Tom off at his stop. After Tom gets out, he satisfies the driver's curiosity, telling him he was jailed for homicide. The stunned truck driver pulls his vehicle away from Tom, who walks down a dirt road.


Steinbeck portrays Tom Joad as an outsider who doesn't fit comfortably into society. His clothes look odd, and he has a disregard for rules. This is evident when Tom asks the truck driver for a lift, despite the sticker on his truck. He drinks whiskey in the truck, even though he knows it's frowned upon. He does not hesitate to show his anger, even though doing so makes people uncomfortable. Also, Tom is quiet, showing he does not feel the need to be sociable.

In contrast, Steinbeck depicts the truck driver as an insider. He seems to be familiar with roadside restaurants, such as this one, and is friendly with the waitresses. He is heavyset, talkative, and wants to be liked by people. Also, the driver is a Company man who drives a truck for a big business. He is intent on working the system by taking a correspondence course in mechanical engineering. Doing this, he figures, will enable him to get a better job and let "other guys drive trucks."

Through the contrast between Tom and the driver, Steinbeck introduces a major theme and reinforces another theme introduced in the first chapter. The new theme is the abuse caused by selfishness, especially by big business. The driver is a Company man who is concerned only with getting ahead. Throughout the novel, the author stresses how people use big business as a way to get ahead without much regard for the harm they might cause to other people. This selfish attitude proves to have severe consequences for many people outside the business system.

Steinbeck reinforces a theme by showing Tom's anger at the driver about his indirect cross-examination. Tom is honest and direct and does not like the driver's sneaky questions. Steinbeck again shows anger in a positive light, connecting to the affirming display of anger by farmers in the first chapter. At the end of Chapter 2, Tom satisfied the driver's curiosity by revealing that he just came out of prison and was convicted for homicide. The revelation puts an exclamation point on Tom's being an outsider who has trouble fitting in with society.

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