Chapter One: 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.
Chapter Two: A man approaches a small diner where a large red transport truck is parked. The man is under thirty, with dark brown eyes and high cheekbones. He wears new clothes that don't quite fit. The truck driver exits the diner and the man asks him for a ride, despite the "No Riders" sticker on the truck. The man claims that sometimes a guy will do a good thing even when a rich bastard makes him carry a sticker, and the driver, feeling trapped by the statement, lets the man have a ride. While driving, the truck driver asks questions, and the man finally gives his name, Tom Joad. The truck driver claims that guys do strange things when they drive trucks, such as make up poetry, because of the loneliness of the job. The truck driver also claims that his experience driving has trained his memory and that he can remember everything about a person he comes across. Realizing that the truck driver is trying to glean information, Tom finally admits that he has just been released from McAlester prison, where he had been serving time for homicide. He had been sentenced to seven years and was released after only four, on account of good behavior.
The Oklahoma City Transport Company truck is both imposing and intrusive, a symbol of pervasive corporate influence (as shown by the "No Riders" sticker that is so prominently displayed). Tom Joad immediately voices the idea that business is cold and heartless when he asks the truck driver for a ride. Overall, The Grapes of Wrath is unsparingly critical of business and the rich: these groups, here, serve only to keep truck drivers isolated and bored to the point of near insanity.
As for Steinbeck's first primary character, there are several indications that Tom Joad has recently been released from prison. His clothing is recently prison-issued: it does not quite fit him, it is far too formal, and it is spotless so far. He has few possessions with him. The truck driver immediately realizes Tom's recent circumstances; his probing questions, as Tom realizes, are meant to elicit a more particular confession of the crime Tom committed. The little information that Tom reveals about himself shows him to be a shrewd but uneducated man. He can barely write and is accustomed to little more than hard labor, but he is clever enough to know how to manipulate the truck driver into giving him a ride.
A persistent strain of anti-elitism runs throughout the novel. Beyond the contempt that Tom and the truck driver collectively show for big business and the rich, these two men also sharply criticize those who use big words. According to them, only a preacher can use educated language, for a preacher can be trusted. When employed by others, big words merely serve as a means to obscure and confuse.
At the side of the road, a turtle crawls, dragging its shell over the grass. This animal comes to the road embankment and, with great effort, climbs onto the road. As the turtle attempts to cross the road, it is nearly hit by a sedan. A truck swerves to hit the turtle, but its wheel only strikes the edge of the turtle's shell and spins the turtle back off the highway. The turtle finds itself on its back, but finally sets itself right.
The turtle is a symbol of the working class farmers whose stories and struggles are recounted in The Grapes of Wrath. The turtle plods along dutifully, but is consistently confronted with danger and setbacks. Significantly, the dangers posed to the turtle are those of modernity and business: the intrusion of cars and the building of highways both endanger the turtle. The truck that strikes this creature is a symbol of big business and commerce. The Joad family -- which will soon be introduced in its entirety -- will experience travails analogous to those of the turtle as the family members plod along, wishing only to survive yet brutally pushed aside by corporate interests.
Chapter Four: After getting out of the truck, Tom Joad begins walking home. He sees the turtle that appeared in the previous chapter and picks it up. He stops in the shade of a tree to rest and finds a man sitting there and singing "Jesus Is My Savior." The man, Jim Casy, has a long, bony frame and sharp features. A former minister, Casy recognizes Tom immediately. Casy was a "Burning Busher" who used to "howl out the name of Jesus to glory," but he abandoned his calling because he found that too many sinful ideas seemed sensible. Tom tells Casy that he took the turtle for his little brother, and Casy replies that nobody can keep a turtle, for eventually the turtle will wander off on its own. Casy claims that he doesn't know where he's going now; Tom tells him to lead people, even if he doesn't know where to lead them. Casy tells Tom that part of the reason he quit preaching was that he too often succumbed to temptation, having sex with many of the girls he saved. Finally, he realized that perhaps what he was doing wasn't a sin; perhaps, according to Casy, there isn't really sin or virtue, simply things that people do.
Tom tells Casy why he was in jail: he was at a dance, got drunk, and got into a fight with another man. The man cut Tom with a knife, so Tom hit the man over the head with a shovel. Tom then informs Casy that he was treated relatively well in McAlester. He ate regularly, got clean clothes, and was able to bathe. He even states that another prisoner broke his parole in order to go back. Tom also relates a little Joad family history and tells how his father stole the family house. The former residents of the house had moved away, so Tom's father, uncle, and grandfather cut the house in two and dragged half of it away, although a man named Wink Manley took the other half. Soon enough, Tom and Casy arrive at the boundary fence of the Joads' property; the Joads didn't need a fence, but having one gave Pa a feeling that the family's forty acres was forty acres. Upon reaching the house, Tom and Casy find that something odd has happened. Nobody is there.
Jim Casy is the moral voice of the novel and its religious center. He is a religious icon, a philosopher and a prophet. His initials (J.C.) reveal that Steinbeck has designed him as a Christ figure; in fact, he espouses Steinbeck's interpretation of religious doctrine. Casy eschews dogma and scripture, even any semblance of a strict moral code. Instead, Casy finds the rules and regulations of Christian teachings severely confining and clearly inapplicable to actual situations. The most striking case of this is his history of sexual activity with the women he converts. Casy originally felt tremendously guilty over his actions and worried about his responsibilities toward the women he was trying to direct to Jesus, yet finally came to the conclusion that "maybe it's just the way folks is." Casy's final more code resists solid definition. He denies the existence of virtue or vice, finding that "there's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing." His final conclusion is that all men and women are the Holy Spirit, connected by one common soul.
Steinbeck thus focuses on the common people not only politically (for instance, by playing up the theme of poverty during the Great Depression) but also religiously. Casy rejects the idea of Jesus as intangible: he does not and cannot know Jesus, but he does know common people and believes them to be the representation of God. Even Tom's stories demonstrate a dislike of concrete religious structure. He mocks the pious religious Christmas card that his grandmother sent him while he was in prison.
Tom's description of the prison demonstrates the poverty under which he and his family struggle. For Tom, living in prison ensured that he would be fed and cared for. Now that he has re-entered society, he has no such guarantees. The story of how Tom's family obtained their house further demonstrates his family's desperation to establish property and security; they were forced to literally take their home from someone else. Yet Tom tells Casy all this in the form of a humorous anecdote. Poverty has become so ingrained that all that Tom can do is accept it.
Chapter Five: This chapter describes the coming of the bank representatives to evict the farmers. Some of the representatives are kind because they knew how cruel their job is, yet some are angry because they hate to be cruel, while yet others are merely cold and hardened by their job. These men are mostly pawns of a larger system and have no choice but to obey. For its part, the tenant system has become untenable for the banks, since one man on a tractor can efficiently take the place of a dozen families. The farmers raise the possibility of armed insurrection, but what would they fight against? They will be murderers if they stay, fighting against the wrong targets -- the messengers of the banks, not the banks themselves.
Steinbeck describes the arrival of the tractors. They crawl over the ground, cutting the earth like surgeons and violating it like rapists. The tractor driver does his job out of simple necessity: he has to feed his kids, even if doing so comes at the expense of dozens of families. To highlight the cruel logic of the entire situation, Steinbeck dramatizes a conversation between a truck driver and an evicted tenant farmer. The farmer threatens to kill the driver, but such violence would accomplish nothing. Another driver will come. Even if the farmer murders the president of the bank and board of directors, the bank is controlled by people from the East. There is no effective target which could be destroyed in a way that would prevent the evictions.
Even more than the coming of the dust, the arrival of the bankers is an ominous event. For Steinbeck, the banks have no redeeming value. They are completely devoid of human characteristics: they are monstrosities that "breathe profits" and can never be satiated. Steinbeck explicitly states that a bank is inhuman, and that the bank owner with fifty thousand acres is a "monster." A bank is made by men but is something more than and separate from people, a destructive force that pursues short-term profits at the expense of the land, destroying the landscape through cotton production that drains the terrain of its resources.
Steinbeck describes the movement of the tractors over the ground as indiscriminate and hostile. The tractors move arbitrarily, violently slicing the ground with their blades. Steinbeck first equates the plowing with surgery, but goes further to compare it to a rape: a cold and passionless intrusion into the land, and an event unconnected with human emotion.
According to Steinbeck, personal connection to the land determines ownership. A man who does not reside on his land and walk upon it cannot own it; rather, the property controls the man and he becomes the servant of the land.
In this critique of the banks, the behavior of the employees is largely excusable. They are "caught in something larger than themselves," controlled by the mathematics of bank operations and slaves to the company that has ensnared them. The situation that the bank poses for the farmers leaves them no options. They cannot defend the land, for they would be murdering men who are not genuinely responsible for the land's fate. They can only leave. The tractor drivers face a similar situation. Despite the suffering of the farmers, they have to work somehow to feed their families. They are not responsible for what they do, for they are controlled by larger forces.
The conversation between the tenant farmer and the tractor driver illustrates how far-reaching the controlling corporate system is. If a farmer were to attempt to stop the bank, he could not do so by targeting one individual or even a small group; even if a farmer murdered the bank president, such a murder would not stop the process of evictions. The people are helpless.