The Grasshopper and the Driver¹
On first reading, I was more entranced by the Tortoise scene in chapter 3, but re-reading it after the Dark Days, I now appreciate chapter 2 as the power scene. It simply sets up the two strings that run throughout the story — anti-establishment (the little guy versus the fat cats), and violence.
The truck driver picks up a hitchhiker at a stop. Referred to only as the man or the hitchhiker, protagonist Tom Joad has been in prison, and is now heading back home to his Pa’s land. He has all the earmarks of just being released – new shoes, suit, on his own. The driver is an inquisitive sort. It helps pass the time. He eventually asks one too many questions. At this point, the entire story could tip in a totally different direction. Who is this man? Is he dangerous? Will he kill the driver? Look at this menacing exchange.
“You sure took a hell of a long time to get to it, buddy.” The driver did not look over. “Get to what? How do you mean?”… “You know what I mean. You give me a goin’-over when I first got in. I seen you.” The driver looked straight ahead, gripped the wheel so tightly that the pads of his palms bulged, and the backs of his hands paled. Joad continued, “You know where I come from.” The river was silent. “Don’t you?” Joad insisted. “Well – sure. That is – maybe. But it ain’t none of my business. … The words tumbled out now. … And suddenly he was silent and waiting. And his hands were still white on the wheel. [And then, this is the moment] A grasshopper flipped through the window and onto the instrument panel, where it sat and began to scrape its wings with its angled jumping legs. Joad reached forward and crushed its hard skull-like head with his fingers, and let it into the wind stream out the window. Joad chuckled again while he brushed the bits of broken insect from his fingertips.
This exchange sets up Tom Joad’s constant companion — the violence that would send him back to prison. At this point, he’s on his own thinking his family is still on the land, so he only plays with the driver. As he soon learns in the next couple of chapters, his family’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worst, Tom must deal with the stress and guilt that’ll drive him to violence.
¹ The Grapes of Wrath, Ch. 2, pp. 17-18