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VARIOUS TEXTS: THE TURTLE (from Grapes of Wrath by J. Steinbeck)

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 novel.


Text:
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.
883 words

Annotations:
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


Assignments:
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?


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