Jun 14, 2012

Imagery in The Grapes of Wrath

Reading John Steinbeck’s novel set in the Salinas Valley in California in the 1930s for the first time at around age 12 or 13, I was astounded at the richness of the story although I knew nothing about writing. I was still a kid, had hopes of becoming a writer myself, and never had I read a book with such wonderful imagery and never forgot the old turtle trying to cross the gravel road in the scorching heat of the hot Salinas Valley. Today I am a writer and often teach creative writing, and have read the novel about four or five times, even purchasing an extra two copies so each of my kids could have one.

Here is a description of one of the characters: “the man’s clothes were new – all of them, cheap and new. His gray cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap – carrying sack, towel, handkerchief. His suit was of cheap gray hard cloth and so new that there were creases in the trousers.”

What a flawless and descriptive piece of writing. Steinbeck had described the inner character without mentioning vital statistics and the color of his hair, which happened to be the same color as the sun burnt wheat in the background. This was not a cardboard character. He had created a new kind of hero. It was hard to copy Steinbeck’s style of writing. It was effortless, real – so real that one felt it in the muscled struggle of the turtle as it moved agonizingly upward and out of the way of an oncoming truck.

“…over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails stared straight ahead.”

The struggle of the turtle continues for two or more pages when the turtle finally reached the top and an oncoming vehicle swerved to hit it and struck the edge of the hard shell and flipped the turtle “like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway.” The storyteller is a master novelist and the book a sprawling tale, timeless and beautiful and which will speak to its readers for decades to come.


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