In John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the author uses setting, characterization combined with theme, and symbolism to communicate his message. Through his realistic descriptions and folksy language, he captures the essence of the farm people of Oklahoma in a turbulent instant in their lives and in the history of America. The imagery places the reader in the center of the dust bowl, surrounded by very real, seemingly uncomplicated characters.
In his descriptive opening setting, Steinbeck emphasizes the power of nature in the lives of the people. The land is parched and in need of water. Yet when it rains the corn is ruined. The dust of the earth has the upperhand over the people; they must wait until it clears before they can go about their chores. Living is portrayed as simple and slow, but not easy. The people believe they are part of the land because they were born on it, worked on it, and died on it. They have become one with it, even if it doesn't serve them well.
In the third chapter, the description of the turtle crossing the pavement is symbolic of the hardships that will follow for the Joads and the other farming families. The reactions of the drivers to the turtle, foreshadow the types of people the Joads are up against. The woman is respectful and wishes no harm for the creature, while the truck-driver purposely goes out of his way to try to injure it. The farm families are just like the corn, as well -beaten down by wind, heat and drought, and covered with dust. As with the path of the turtle, the world continues to present obstacles that create danger and suffering. Even though it is maliciously hit, it gets back on its feet, just as we can expect with the Joads.
The theme of the dignity of man comes across loud and strong from the very beginning of the novel. The families are faced with losing their homes and livelihoods because "the greedy monster" demands it.