Intercalary Chapters in The Grapes of Wrath: Analysis & Purpose

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

John Steinbeck's ''The Grapes of Wrath'' largely focuses on the story of the Joad family; however, Steinbeck includes several intercalary chapters that break up the narrative about the Joads. This lesson focuses on the purpose of those chapters as well as an analysis of some examples.

Steinbeck's Own Explanation

The intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, also known as 'inner chapters,' are the chapters that do not concern the Joads directly, but provide some sort of indirect commentary on their struggles. Before getting into types and analysis of the intercalary chapters, it is worth looking at Steinbeck's own description of his goals in writing them. The following quote is taken from a letter that Steinbeck wrote in response to a reader's comments on The Grapes of Wrath:

'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.'

Besides being an apt description of writing in general, Steinbeck gives us valuable information about his intentions in writing these chapters. And he was certainly successful in 'hitting the reader below the belt,' as it is often these intercalary chapters that provide much of the psychological impact of the work. Below, we look at a few ways that Steinbeck achieves this 'psychological trick.'

Zooming Out for Perspective

As poetic as many of these chapters are, they also provide critical background information that is much more difficult to convey in the narrative chapters. Although we get lots of clues about the Great Depression and the migration from the Joads' story, it would not be possible to present a comprehensive picture if we are only watching the Joads. Think of the intercalary chapters as a 'zoom out' function: we take a long step back and look at the context that the Joads are operating within.

Describing the Dust Bowl

The Grapes of Wrath begins with an intercalary chapter that 'zooms out' to let the reader get a look at the dust bowl. Here is a quote from Chapter One:

'The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk sipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn. Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.'

Although we get hints of the dust bowl from the narrative chapters, this kind of quote gets at the heart of the matter in a more direct way - the reader can immediately get a sense of what it must have been like to never have a day with sunshine, and to have to protect yourself constantly from the dust. Once we move back to the Joads' story, we have a better sense of how they are living day to day.


Besides simply conveying information about the period, Steinbeck often does this in the cadence and with the vocabulary of a sermon. Chapter 19 focuses on farming in California, and how the fields are owned and managed. Lots of land was not being worked, but since it was owned by large farms, it was illegal for people to use it to grow food. Steinbeck writes:

'And a homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against thin children.'

This quote is one that 'hits the reader below the belt,' as Steinbeck put it. This situation would obviously be difficult to accept for the migrant families, many of whom were hungry, and some of whom were starving. Rather than simply explain this reality, Steinbeck uses terminology such as 'sin' and 'crime,' and preaches about the issue as one might in a sermon.

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