The Grapes of Wrath

What is described in Chapter 1, and what is the purpose of the description?

From the novel "Grapes of Wrath"

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Steinbeck begins the novel with a description of the dust bowl climate of Oklahoma. The dust has become so thick that men and women are forced remain in their houses, and when they are required to leave they tie handkerchiefs over their faces and wear goggles to protect their eyes. After the wind has stopped, an even blanket of dust covers the earth. The corn crop is ruined. Everybody wonders what they should do. Yet the women and children know that no misfortune would be too great to bear if their men were whole, but the men themselves have not yet figured out what to do.

Steinbeck begins the novel with omens of the hardships to come. He describes the arrival of the dust in terms befitting a biblical plague. The dust storm overwhelms Oklahoma, clouding the air and even blocking out the sun. However, the end of the storm only represents the beginning of the hardships for the Oklahoma farmers. A sense of hopelessness sets in almost immediately. There seems to be no solution for the farmers, who are resigned to their fate and find themselves baffled at what they may have to face.

This chapter deliberately does not deal with the characters who will occupy the primary places in the novel, for Steinbeck intends to place his narrative within a larger context. Tom Joad and his family, who will be the focus of The Grapes of Wrath, are not yet featured; they make up merely one of thousands of families affected by the events of the Depression. The first chapter serves to give the novel an epic sweep and to remind the reader that the book has a strong historical basis.