John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, starkly and vividly describes the mass westward immigration of tens of thousands of displaced American Midwestern migrant workers, and the symbolically representative Joad family in particular. Steinbeck's editor Pascal Covici states: "John Ernst Steinbeck was born February 27, 1902, in Salinas California" (p. xxxvii). After graduating from Salinas High School, he attended Stanford University, but did not obtain a degree there. Determined by then to become a writer, Steinbeck moved to New York City, where he worked in construction to support himself while he honed his craft, and then as a reporter for the American. In 1926, he returned to California, where he worked at various odd jobs to support his writing. His first book, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929, and his second, The Pastures of Heaven, in 1932. Steinbeck's better-known works Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle, were published in 1935 and 1936, respectively. The novel The Grapes of Wrath, considered his best, was published in 1939. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, with The Grapes of Wrath singled out for special mention by the Nobel Committee. John Steinbeck died on December 20, 1968. (Covici, pp. xxxix-xli).
The novel The Grapes of Wrath has an unusual structure and a uniquely intricate narrative strategy. There are thirty chapters in all, but fifteen of them are not so much about the Joads themselves, as about the Joads' surrounding environment, and the similar problems faced by other migrants like the Joads. The intercalary chapters provide the book with a universality it would not have otherwise. The intercalary chapters themselves can be divided into three categories. The first category has to do with the migrants' getting ready to leave the Midwest, for California. The second category has to do with their process of traveling westward. The third category has to do with the aftermath of the journey once they arrive in California. The Grapes of Wrath, while not universally well-received, was nevertheless as socially powerful in its time as other socially-critical American novels, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. As Claudia Durst Johnson states:
In 1939, as the nation continued to suffer from an economic depression
Regarded as one of the most devastating events in its history, a young
California writer named John Steinbeck saw into print a novel about a family of migrant agricultural workers who had fled Oklahoma to find a new life in California. . . The Grapes of Wrath, had an immediate and explosive effect on the public. . . Steinbeck was regarded as a hero who had had the courage to portray appalling conditions as they really were. (xi)
As Harold Bloom points out: "The Grapes of Wrath is a flawed bur permanent American book, and its continued popularity after well more than half a century seems to indicate that it is anything but a period piece" (5). Clearly, the novel has stood the test of time, but it is also an experimental and at times eccentric work. Most unusual and unique is Steinbeck's insertion, in the otherwise linear text, of the sixteen relatively short, generalized "intercalary chapters," as Steinbeck himself called them (Owens, 28), not about the Joads in particular, but about the entire phenomenon of displacement and westward movement of migrant farm workers in general.
The book has three main characters, Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Jim Casey, who, together and in combination, propel the major action of the story. Tom is a good-hearted individual, but with a tendency to be a hothead, which foreshadows his fate at the end of the novel. As the novel opens, he is returning home after serving a prison term. Ma Joad, his mother, is the glue of the family, steady, long suffering, practical, and optimistic, even in the face of enormous discouragement. Jim Casey is a preacher who accompanies the Joads, who understands, before any of them do, that their plight and that of others like themselves represents not just a natural phenomenon, but a breakdown in the system. The first five intercalary chapters, Chapters 1; 3; 5; 7, and 9, have to do with Midwestern migrant workers' preparations, en masse, to travel westward, from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and other Midwestern states, to California in search of work. The opening chapter of the book, rather than describing any of the Joads right away, instead details the general condition of the land that the Joads (and countless others) will soon be leaving, since the Midwestern soil can no longer support these workers and their families. Within Chapter 1, then, Steinbeck is making a general statement of the American Midwestern migrant workers' problem, not a specific one about the Joads. In this essay, I will explore, compare, and contrast the significance of Steinbeck's intercalary chapters in relation to the rest of the novel.
Clearly, Steinbeck tells a riveting story of enormous magnitude and immense human tragedy. The intercalary chapters in particular make a strong social statement that transcends the Joads. As Louis Owens states:
. . . The Joads are only selected specimens . . . there are thousands of others just like the Joads, and what Steinbeck is writing about is a tragedy on an enormous, epic scale . . .
The narrative chapters thus follow the migration of the Joads, telling their personal story of pain, despair, and hope, while the interchapters shift the narrative consciousness from the intimate portrait of the Joads to the epic dimensions of the Dust Bowl tragedy. (p. 28)
Warren French further suggests that the Joads themselves, even with all of their personal and self-contained misery, eventually become "part of one vast human family that, in [the preacher] Casey's words, shares '[one big soul everybody's a part of" (p. 77). As Frederic I Carpenter further suggests, "When the old society has been split and . . . individuals wander aimlessly about, some new nucleus must be found, or chaos and nihilism will follow" (p. 10).
Specifically, the intercalary chapters, interspersed as they are throughout the novel, serve to remind us that, even though we are focused mainly on the Joads and their personal hardships, tens of thousands of other migrant families also exist, and they, along with the Joads, are experiencing something similar. The process of moving westward, for the Joads and others, takes place in three methodical and equally heart-wrenching stages. First, the families pack all of their belongings, and themselves, into a single old vehicle. Second, they travel westward toward California, a journey fraught with setbacks, obstacles, frustrations, and disappointments. Typically, illness and death occur along the way. Third, upon finally arriving in California, where they had hoped life would be better once they got there, the migrant families must try their best to survive. The struggle for survival is separate and individual for each family. Each family is alone, friendless, and competing for work (which they had thought would be plentiful) with countless others, in a new, inhospitable, and hostile land, whose people far from welcome them.
Chapter 1, the first of the fifteen intercalary chapters, is not about the Joads, but instead about the fallowness of the once rich and profitable Midwestern American farm land many families have lived on for generations, but now must leave. The land itself has turned against them, into nothing but untellable dust. In a manner typical of American Naturalism of the period, within which natural forces inhibit and often degrade human beings, the land takes on a formidable life of its own, and dominates every aspect of the migrants' lives. For example, as Steinbeck writes in Chapter 1:
In the morning, the dust hung like a 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. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees. (Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 9)
Here, Steinbeck describes the ubiquitous dust and the insurmountable problems it creates, yet he stops short of labeling the dust or calling it an enemy or anything similar. That is instead left to the reader. As Warren French observes:
Steinbeck never identifies the "Enemy." Each reader may interpret the term for himself as referring to God, fate, some cycle of nature, or whatever he envisions as imposing limits on man and obliging him to conform to limits on some system rather than live a law unto himself. (p. 74).
As John Conder also notes, "The interchapters [sic] of Steinbeck's novel create a network of interlocking determinisms through their emphasis on the operations of abstract, impersonal forces in the lives of the Oklahomans" (p. 99). Of the enemy dust, Steinbeck also tells us, in Chapter 1, "Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied…