The Grapes of Wrath Historical Accuracy

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn how historical accuracy comes into play in 'The Grapes of Wrath' and how the intercalary chapters provide a larger context for the non intercalary chapters.

Historical Accuracy in The Grapes of Wrath

When considering the historical accuracy of The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that Steinbeck wrote a novel based on tenant farmers, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression--not a documentary work on these subjects. The Great Depression was a time of major economic crisis in the United States that lasted for a decade (1929-39). During this period, the Dust Bowl, a severe drought, plagued several mid and southwestern states. A novel, by its very nature, is an extended fictive work, and The Grapes of Wrath is not categorized as a historical novel but simply a novel. That said, it would be remiss to merely consider The Grapes of Wrath as a work of fiction with occasional references to the historical times in which it was written. Having seen tenant farmers' suffering firsthand, Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath with the intention of giving voice to thousands of real people who were homeless, hungry, and repeatedly taken advantage of by landowners and banks. Hence, the story of the Joads.

The Joads

Because the Joads are fictional characters who represent nameless thousands, the Grapes of Wrath is not a historical novel. Let's put this in perspective. Think of other historical novels of which you might have heard, for instance, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. This is a historical novel because it's based on the actual historical figures of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, among others. Now that we grasp the difference between a historical novel and a novel based on historical events, it helps us understand that Steinbeck was well within his rights as a novelist to take creative license with The Grapes of Wrath. Given what we know about the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, we can surmise that Steinbeck was dedicated to presenting a realistic and accurate depiction of what these two subjects meant for people like the Joads.

The Dust Bowl Landscape

Dust Bowl Storm

While the Joad chapters could form a novel on their own, the intercalary chapters, chapters that break away from the main narrative arc, could not. So we must ask ourselves, why do they matter? A reasoned answer tells us that Steinbeck uses intercalary chapters in The Grapes of Wrath to provide a larger context to the Joad narrative. Without these chapters we would not have so thorough a picture of tenant farmers, land owners, banks, and the economy during the Great Depression, all of which affect the Joads. Consider the following excerpt from Chapter 1: '' A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way.'' As we can see, this quote draws an accurate depiction of a dust storm and its aftermath.

Let's compare this quote with one from a Joad chapter, Chapter 8: ''And the sun flashed on the windows of the house. The weathered boards were bright. Two red chickens on the ground flamed with reflected light. ''Don't yell,'' said Tom. ''Let's creep up on 'em, like,'' and he walked so fast that the dust rose as high as his waist. And then he came to the edge of the cotton field. Now they were in the yard proper, earth beaten hard, shiny hard, and a few dusty crawling weeds on the ground. And Joad slowed as though he feared to go on.''

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