Uses of Setting–Example: Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

When it comes to long descriptions of setting, I tend to react like Alice:  what’s the use of a book without pictures or conversation?

That said, I’ve been examining chapter one of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which contains two and a half pages (seven long paragraphs) of description of the landscape and the weather before any humans come into it–and he keeps my interest throughout.

  How does he do it?

The language has a poetic beauty.  But that is not the key.  Rather, it is his use of verbs and adverbs to give weather, plants, and tools life–some examples (emphasis added):

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.  The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks…The sun flared down on the growing corn…The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try anymore…the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

And a little further in:

During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

Here, the vagaries of weather and nature are not used merely to set a scene or mood but presented as characters that act.  Phrases like the wind “dug cunningly” or the stalks “settled wearily” suggest intention–a struggle between elements.  In presenting his Oklahoma setting this way, Steinbeck sets us up to feel the emotional connection of the tenant farmers to the land–for them, it is a living, but also something more than just land, or just a living–and therefore to understand the largeness of their catastrophe when the land does not produce and they are thrown off of it.


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