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

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