Giving an inanimate object the characteristics of a living being invites readers to better understand and visualize the experiences and events in a novel. In his classic novel, John Steinbeck uses this literary device, personification, turning critical elements, such as the road, the banks and the farms into living characters critical to the tale of the struggles of Oklahoman farmers migrating to California during the dust bowl.
The Farms and Land
The Joad family have been farming and living off the land until the dust bowl and literally blew the soil off their land. In an effort to save the farms, bankers and landowners began planting cotton instead of corn, even though cotton is water hungry and will drain what water is left in the soil. One farmer describes the cotton as a thief and the water as blood: "You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land."
The Modern Tractor
The land meant more to the farmers than a way to grow crops and earn a living. It was loved and cherished as a living being or family member. The banks sent modern tractors -- cold, unfeeling, without any relationship with, respect for or understanding of the land. The tractors were the "snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines." Steinbeck personifies the tractor, writing, "The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects."
Banks as Monsters
After seasons of struggle, many farmers lost their property due to foreclosure. The banks on the East coast were a faceless entity that became personified as a monster. Steinbeck writes, "The Bank -- or the Company -- needs -- wants -- insists -- must have -- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster,” even though a bank itself cannot have wants. Steinbeck continues, writing, “It’s the monster. Men made it but they can’t control it.” With hopes of persuading the landowners to be allowed to keep his land, a tenant explains, "Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. Maybe we can kill banks -- they're worse than Indians and snakes."
Why The Turtle Crossed the Road
Steinbeck would not have given the turtle crossing the road such an important role if it were not serving other functions in the story. Prescribed with human characteristics such as tenacity and persistence in a struggle, the turtle becomes another traveler crawling at a slow pace and sharing characteristics with the Joads and the migrants in general. Steinbeck writes, “All over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high domed shell over the grass."
Leaving their homes in hopes of finding a better life in California, Route 66 becomes a character in the story with human-like qualities. Route 66 is referred to as "the mother road, the road of flight."