Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath": The Inner Chapters

Created October 12, 2012


The Lesson


Steinbeck migrants

Migrant from Chicksaw, Oklahoma, stalled in southern California with no money. He and his ten children are facing future in California. March 1937.

Credit: Dorothea Lange, Southern California Desert. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

You say the inner chapters were counterpoint and so they were—that they were pace changers and they were that too but the basic purpose was to hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader—open him up and while he is open introduce—things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a psychological trick if you wish but all techniques of writing are psychological tricks.

John Steinbeck to Herbert Sturtz, 1953

John Steinbeck recognized that one of the most criticized elements of The Grapes of Wrath was his alternating use of inner (also known as intercalary) chapters that interrupt the narrative of the Joads. Steinbeck noted, in his response to a Columbia University student’s letter, that the inner chapters “…have been pommeled. You are the first critical person who seems to have suspected that they had a purpose.” Steinbeck is clear. “Its [The Grapes of Wrath’s] structure is very carefully worked out.” [See: John Steinbeck, “A Letter on Criticism,” Colorado Quarterly 4 (Autumn 1955): 218–219.] The way the book is put together is no accident. The inner chapters were designed by the author. Why did he include them?

The Grapes of Wrath opens with a brief ecological look at the Plains drought in the first inner chapter. What purpose does this chapter’s “inner” narrative serve? In this lesson, students will first determine the function of Steinbeck’s opening chapter which acts as the first “inner chapter.” They will then explore the relationship between inner chapters and the Joad narrative chapters throughout the novel.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Steinbeck’s image-filled opening chapter convey the intensity of the problems faced by Dust Bowl farmers?
  • Why does Steinbeck employ inner chapters and place them intermittently between the Joad chapters in The Grapes of Wrath?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the purpose and reflect upon the effectiveness of the inner chapters in this novel
  • State the relationship between an inner chapter and the Joad chapter that follows it


John Steinbeck was not the first writer to use a series of inner chapters, also known as intercalary or interchapters. In Moby Dick, Melville interpolated chapters into his narrative with names like: “Cetology,” “Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales,” and “The Whale as a Dish.”

Since The Grapes of Wrath’s inner chapters don’t advance the action of the Joads’ narrative, one must ask why Steinbeck uses them. We know that Steinbeck called the structure of the novel “very carefully worked out.” He insisted that the inner chapters “had a purpose.” Yet readers often find them problematic, asking questions from the specific (“How can the first chapter be an inner chapter?” “Why do the inner chapters sometimes come in pairs?”), to the general (“What does this chapter have to do with the rest of the book?”)

The Big Read from National Endowment for the Arts cites in their Introduction to the Reader’s Guide that “The Grapes of Wrath is at least two books in one.” One half tell the story of the Joads while the other half tells the story of nameless people. Steinbeck called these inner chapters "generals," to “emphasize the point that the Joads stood in for all the Depression-era westward migrants.” Through these “generals” Steinbeck wanted to make sure the reading public did not interpret the experiences of the Joad family as unique. This site hosts multimedia resources including a radio show with Steinbeck experts, and teacher’s resources with ideas for capstone projects and essay topics.

Scholars and literary critics have various views on Steinbeck’s purpose for including the inner chapters.

Mary Ellen Caldwell sees a conscious pattern operating in the intermittent arrangement of the chapters. Steinbeck’s inner chapters comment on societal and economic conditions while his Joad chapters contain plot narrative. Caldwell see “each [chapter] augmenting the effect of the other, with a crystalization of the whole placed in the center.” In her analysis, Chapter 15 is unique among the inner chapters in the way it contains its own narrative and is central “not only a microcosm of The Grapes of Wrath but also a microcosm of the United States.”

John J. Conder discusses his view that these chapters form a network of interlocking determinisms through their emphasis on the effects of abstract, impersonal forces in the lives of the Oklahomans. For Condor, these inner chapters illustrate how economic, biological, and social determinism affect groups and how those forces set in motion “the growth of a group consciousness.” The narrative chapters demonstrate the varieties of individual choices (free will) in the face of forces the characters cannot control.

For further discussion about the purpose of Steinbeck’s inner chapters see:

  • John J. Condor, “Steinbeck and Nature’s Self: The Grapes of Wrath,” in Harold Bloom ed., Modern Critical Interpretations, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988).
  • Mary Ellen Caldwell, “A New Consideration of the Intercalary Chapters: The Grapes of Wrath,” in Robert Con Davis, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982).
  • Michael J. Meyer, ed., The Grapes of Wrath: A Re-Consideration. (New York: Rodopi 2009). A collection of essays in celebration of the novel's seventieth anniversary that contains several essays devoted to Steinbeck’s inner chapters.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Chapter 1: Inner Chapter

Have students read (or read with the class) the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath.

Lead a discussion asking what students think Steinbeck is trying to do in this chapter.

For student reference, factual information detailing the severity of the Dust Bowl and the conditions of the Drought in the Dust Bowl Years is available from The National Drought Mitigation Center.

  • Point to some examples of Steinbeck’s language that convey: 1) the severity of the drought; and 2) the emotional state of farm families.

Read aloud sections from Chapter 1 in which Steinbeck’s uses rhetorical means such as metaphors and similes as well as personifications (wind, dust, colors, and the physical and emotional descriptions of people) as clues to emotional states. For example: “In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth.”

  • The opening chapter of the novel is one of the so-called “inner chapters” (chapters that do not focus on the Joads’ narrative). Ask students to consider why Steinbeck chose to start the book with this chapter instead of a Joad action narrative. What does this say about the author’s intent?
  • Choose one adjective to describe the emotional tone of Chapter 1.
  • As time allows, view all or part of The Dust Bowl, Ken Burn’s PBS documentary film. Then resume the discussion:

Reflect on any changes the students may have experienced in learning more about the actual conditions in the Dust Bowl. How does this new understanding affect their views of Chapter 1 or of the novel as a whole?

Have students skim Chapter 2 and instruct them point to words, phrases, or ideas that relate to Chapter 1.

As a warm-up for Activity 2, ask students to describe the relationship between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 in one sentence.

Activity 2. Chapter 1: Comparison with "The Plow That Broke the Plains"

After the whole class reading and discussion activities for Chapter 1, show the film, The Plow that Broke the Plains.

Provide students with the following context: Pare Lorenz’s film The Plow That Broke the Plains, brought national attention to the plight of those living in the Dust Bowl and the human influence on the natural disaster. EDSITEment-reviewed American Experience program, Surviving the Dust Bowl, contains an article explaining that Lorenz wanted to make a series of government documentaries covering the full range of American life. Rexford Guy Tugwell, then Director of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration), agreed that it was a good idea to use film to educate the public.

Together they decided that the first subject would be the Dust Bowl. The Plow that Broke the Plains, released in May of 1936, promoted New Deal agricultural reforms. It’s important to note that “images of the Great Plains” drew Lorenz to this subject.

A further article about the film from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia explains that although critics loved the film, Hollywood branded it as government propaganda and refused to distribute it commercially. Nonetheless, positive public reaction insured the film’s availability to theaters agreeing to show it. (Click here to view the entire documentary.)

The American public saw a steady stream of images related to the Dust Bowl and its aftermath. Notice how powerfully Lorenz’s colleague at the FSA, Arthur Rothstein, illustrated the words “the plow that broke the plains.”

Plow in the desert












The plow that broke the plains; look at it now. Oklahoma, April 1936. Arthur Rothstein. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.


Have students write an essay entitled “America’s Useable Past: Reaping the Golden Harvest vs. Reaping The Grapes of Wrath,” noting the nostalgic and bucolic images Lorentz employed to tell the story of The Plow that Broke the Plains and comparing those images with the ones Steinbeck uses in his inner chapters to tell the story of The Grapes of Wrath. Ask students to think how the concepts “idealism” and “realism” might apply to these works. Ask them to consider which artist’s vision would provide more inspiration to a nation experiencing economic and personal hardship.

Activity 3. Relationships between Chapters

Since the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, the inner chapters have been the topic of much discussion and disagreement among critics. Despite differing views on their purpose, it is widely accepted that Steinbeck crafted these “inner” (intercalary) chapters with intention and had a rationale for every inner chapter’s content and placement. Tell students to keep in mind that Steinbeck advised his readers that The Grapes of Wrath’s “structure is very carefully worked out.” 

Distribute or display “Outline of Intercalary Chapters in The Grapes of Wrath” from EDSITEment-partner ReadWriteThink’s lesson, Designing Museum Exhibits for The Grapes of Wrath: A Multigenre Project. Explain to students that in this activity they will embark on their own search for the purpose of these chapters and their connection to the Joad narrative chapters that immediately precede them. Note that twelve chapters after Chapter 2 in The Grapes of Wrath focus on the Joad family (4, 6, 8, 10, 13, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 28) and that each Joad narrative chapter is preceded by one or two of the “inner chapters”(3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27.)

Assign one or more of the Joad chapters (4–28) to each pair or small groups of students. Have each group also review the information in the preceding inner chapter and take notes on the content of that chapter. Tell students to keep in mind the content of the preceding inner chapter(s) as they discuss the relationship between the two chapters.

Hold a brief discussion on what the students have noticed and then have the groups each develop a paragraph stating the relationship they see between their two chapters.

Gather the statements into a worksheet labeled “Relationships between Chapters.” In the following class, share the students’ findings, allowing for discussion.


  • Each student should point to a pair of chapters (inner and Joad) that s/he believes work together in a way that supports Steinbeck’s purpose. Ask students to explain that purpose and its support in one sentence.
  • After viewing the new Ken Burns documentary film The Dust Bowl, have students write a new inner chapter for The Grapes of Wrath or write a contemporary inner chapter entitled “The Dust Bowl Revisited.”
  • Have students write an essay surmising what the impact would be if Steinbeck had left out the inner chapters. In their essay student should consider how the lack of inner chapters would affect Steinbeck’s capacity to tell the Joads’ story. For example:

Extending The Lesson

  • EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project hosts California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, an archive ofthe WPA California Folk Music Project (1938–40), which includes sound recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documents from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in Northern California. Have students examine these primary source documents from the time and location of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to hear, see, and read primary sources from that era. Then, have students write an essay “Seeking California Gold in the 1930s” drawing on these primary source as well as the inner chapters narratives of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
  • To practice for the AP English Language exam sample question: Have students write an essay in which they discuss the role of the individual in confronting injustice that synthesizes and uses for support at least five intercalary chapters from The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Have students read Susan Shillinglaw’s “Of Migrants and Misdeeds California and The Grapes of Wrath;” then view her slide show as an example of how major themes in the novel’s chapters can be illustrated visually. Let them design their own slide show illustrating the relationships they discovered between their Joad chapter and the inner chapters.
  • Have students listen to the radio show of experts from The Big Read: The Grapes of Wrath. Have them write a reflection paper using The Grapes of Wrath and another American novel they have studied to explore the idea articulated by the novelist Susan Straight at the end of the show: “The novel reminds us really of how timeless the fight is for land and for dignity and for survival.”
  • Have students compare the style of the 2012 Ken Burns documentary film The Dust Bowl to the 1936 Lorentz documentary film The Plow That Broke the Plains. In their comparison they might discuss:
    • Format (organization, documentary techniques, use of music)
    • Narrative style
    • Content (information on the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl)


Selected EDSITEment Websites


The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Visual analysis
  • David Kleiner (Rydal, PA)


Activity Worksheets

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