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S T U A R T L. B U R N S Drake University The Turtle or the Gopher: Another Look at the Ending of The Grapes of Wrath Critics generally agree that the parable of the turtle presented in chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath foreshadows and parallels the adventures of the Joad family. Almost as unanimously, they agree that the concluding scene of the novel dramatizes Steinbeck’s theme that, as Ma Joad states it, “the people . . . go on.”1 To be sure, there has been considerable controversy about the propriety of the conclusion — whether it is dramatic, poignant, sentimental, vulgar, or obscene. But most scholars agree about its meaning. I am inclined to believe that the critics have correctly assessed Steinbeck’s intent in both instances. But whatever his intent, this is not what he accomplished. For the affirmative parable of the turtle provides a contrast, not a parallel, to the tragic story of the Joads. And while the scene in which Rosasharn nurses the old man is certainly a logical ending to the novel, it is a much more pessimistic conclusion, thematically, than the phrase “the people go on” connotes. Had Steinbeck truly wanted a parable com­ plementary to the story of the Joads and to the theme of the novel, he would have done better to have inserted the story of the gopher which appears, instead, in Cannery Row. For the point of that parable is that peace and prosperity are attainable only if one is willing to sacri­ fice love and companionship. The price one pays for community is the threat of famine, flood and violent death. That is a drastically simplified, but not inaccurate summary of a major theme in The Grapes of Wrath. JThe Grapes of Wrath (New York: The Viking Press, 1958), p. 383. All sub­ sequent quotations from the novel will refer to this edition and page numbers will be included in the text. 54 Western American Literature There are certain similarities between the turtle and the Joads, of course: it is heading southwest, as will they; the highway (but not the same highway) is a formidable obstacle to both; and the overloaded Hudson certainly travels at a turtle’s pace. But consider the very real and thematically more meaningful distinctions. The turtle has an instinctive sense of purpose and direction; it turns “aside for noth­ ing” (20). And while one cannot know for certain where the turtle is going or what it intends to do when it gets there, the context clearly implies that it will get there and accomplish whatever it has instinctively set out to do. The Joads, on the other hand, head southwest due to circumstances beyond their control. They have at first no desire to move at all, and throughout a nostalgia for the Oklahoma farm they were forced to leave. And only an unflagging optimist would connect their concluding situation, or for that matter their future prospects, with any concrete achievement. But perhaps the most significant dis­ tinction between the turtle and the Joads is that, whereas the former plays a fertilizing role to the “sleeping life waiting to be dispersed” (20), the life that Rosasham carries is delivered premature and stillborn. Twelve Joads spanning three generations (thirteen spanning four if one counts the unborn baby) begin the journey; although ten presumably survive, only six are together at the end. The emphasis is on attrition, not continuance. If one examines subsequent passages in the novel where the turtle is alluded to, the difference between the positive thrust of the parable and the negative thrust of the narrative becomes even clearer. Two characters, Tom Joad and Jim Casy, are specifically associated with the turtle. Tom picks it up and carries it with him for a while (to the northeast, opposite the turtle’s intended direction); and Casy’s physical description is suggestive of a turtle. He has a “long head, bony, tight of skin, and set on a neck as stringy and muscular as a celery stalk.” His “heavy . . . protruding” eyeballs with lids stretched to cover them” (25) are decidedly reptilian. That Tom and Casy should be closely associated with the turtle is appropriate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 53-57
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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