Among John Steinbeck's best-sellers were Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery
Row (1945) and East of Eden (1952).
The description of the turtles that follows is from an early chapter of his most famous novel
Grapes of Wrath (1939). Steinbeck uses the painful struggle for survival, which is the theme of the
The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads
were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog's coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse's
fetlocks1, and cover burrs2 to fasten in sheep's wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and
dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance3 of dispersal, twisting darts4 and parachutes for
the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind,
for a man's trouser cuff5 or the hem6 of a woman's skirt, all passive but armed with appliances
of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage7 of movement.
The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects
moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick
their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs8 like little armadillos9, plodding restlessly
on many tender feet. And 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 beards10 slid off his shell, and the cover 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. He came over the grass leaving a beaten
trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment11, reared up12 ahead of him. For
a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to
climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet
kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment
grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing
his hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as
far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a
parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall
four inches high. As though they worked independently the hind legs pushed the shell
against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the broad smooth plain
of cement. Now the hands, braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell
came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant
ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in,
and the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs. And
one end of wild oats was clamped13 into the shell by a front leg. For a moment the turtle
lay still, and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and
the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell
tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher
and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the shell
front tipped down, the front legs stretched at the pavement, and it was up. But the head of wild
oats was held by its stem around the front legs.
Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to
side. A sedan14 driven by a forty-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to
the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a
moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had
jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.
And now a light truck approached, and as it came near the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit
it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink15,
spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right
side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved
in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz
and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The white oat head fell out and three
of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment,
its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along,
drawing a waving shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead,
and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust.
1. fetlock - Fesselgelenk (beim Pferd)
2. cover burr - schützende Klette
3. appliance - Vorrichtung
4. darts - Pfeile
5. trouser cuff - Hosenaufschlag
6. hem - Saum
7. anlage - Anlage (entwicklungsbiologisch)
8. sow bug - Kellerassel (bio.)
9. armadillo - Gürteltier
10. barley beard - Granne an der Gerste
11. highway embankment - Straßendamm, -böschung
12. to rear up - sich aufbäumen
13. to clamp - festklemmen
14. sedan - Limousine
15. tiddly-wink - Flohhüpfen
1. Describe the turtle's crossing of the highway and the obstacles it has to overcome.
2. What is the meaning of the 'head of wild oats' which is clamped between the turtle's shell
and one of its front legs?
3. The turtle's 'humorous eyes' are mentioned several times. What do they suggest?
4. Although Steinbeck's novel is about the migration of the Joad family from the dust
bowl of Oklahoma to California, what do you think makes the author include the description of a
turtle in his novel?
5. There are two modes of presentation in literary works, the panoramic and the scenic modes.
Which of the two does Steinbeck employ here and what does he achieve by doing so?
6. Which details best convey a sense of authenticity? Do they seem to be gratuitous details, or
integral to the description? Consider e.g. the age of the woman driver.
7. An allegory always has two meanings, a literal and a symbolic one. What is the symbolic meaning
in this description?