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