John Steinbeck’s Use of Intercalary Chapters

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinback

When imagining the Great Depression of the 1930’s, rarely does a person suddenly feel a deep and pure sympathy for each individual person who suffered through the historical event or quickly visualize the scenes the migrants had struggled through and the pain they had felt. Most people are unable to suddenly feel sorrow for something they don’t know much about or for something that seems so vast. When John Steinbeck wrote his book, The Grapes of Wrath, he kept his main purpose always on his mind. He wanted to inform the public of this impacting tragedy and wished that his piece would move people so deeply that they would actually act upon what they had just read. To make people feel so emotional, he had a great writing technique in mind that broke down the unimaginable sorrow in the Great Depression and first showed the reader the Joads, a compassionate family, strong-willed and always looking out for one another. Once he had snatched his reader’s heart, he then spanned out and showed them that just about every migrant suffering from the Great Depression was like the Joad family allowing the reader an easier transition from a single family to the society in whole. John Steinbeck used intercalary chapters to give the effect that he wanted.

When The Grapes of Wrath was written with the sole purpose to enlighten, rather than to entertain, John Steinbeck found that there were many points to get across and that he needed to intensely explain each complex idea. To be able to tell the public of the situation, however, he would first need to catch and keep the reader’s attention and create a newfound sympathy within him for the migrants of the Great Depression. This would present a challenge for any of his readers who had not personally experienced the event themselves. Steinbeck created the Joad family, making sure that they were a lovable group that could grow on one’s heart and could easily be loved. Through an array of different characters within the family, Steinbeck was able to create plots and problems, display different sides of the Great Depression, show how different people reacted to the event, and insure that there was at least one character for everybody to favor. Showing the audience how the family cared so deeply about one another and adding characters like Ma Joad, the readers felt emotionally troubled when the family suffered. Ma would always put her family first and would even deprive herself if one were in need. Steinbeck clearly shows this when Mrs. Wainwright tries to get Ma to sleep and temporarily stop watching over her daughter, Rose-of-Sharon, who had just lost her baby. “‘Come on,’ Mrs. Wainwright said, ‘Jus’ lay down. You’ll be right beside her. Why, you’d wake up if she took a deep breath, even.’” (606) From this small setting that the reader is tucked into, he is able to clearly imagine and feel how the family feels as they progress through the story. He begins to struggle alongside the characters and grow to understand more clearly. It is then that Steinbeck feels that the reader is ready to be exposed to an even larger amount of problems and finds a clever way to make an easy transition. Through the use of intercalary chapters, this can be achieved.

Intercalary chapters provide documentary information for the reader and give social and historical background that he would otherwise not receive from the story itself. These chapters do not progress the story, however, but temporarily interrupt the small setting that the author has created to step back and take a larger look at the situation in a whole. As the reader leaves the somewhat familiar and comfortable microcosm and is exposed to the much larger macrocosm, he may then fully understand the situation that the author is trying to point out. Realizing that he had thought that the small setting was unbearable, he is then shown an even larger population, all dealing with similar problems, and then truly understands the impact of such a drastic event. The single Joad family traveling from place to place is suddenly transformed into “the moving, questing people” with “great highways streaming with moving people.” (385) The reader sees that a great sum of families, each similar to the Joads, are going through the same situations and then sees the entire population with new eyes. He can now feel the entire society’s pain and suffering and feel as if he personally knows every one of the migrating families. This technique tries to overwhelm the reader, making him feel sympathetic not only for the quaint and personal part of the situation that he has grown to know and love, but also the general and somewhat unfamiliar society all together. Showing him that he can love a small piece of the population that is just like the rest of unknown migrants, he is able to be more considerate and caring. From there, Steinbeck was hoping that with this new selflessness, the reader would feel the need to do something about the situation. Through this technique, he was hoping to bring great change and help for these migrants. Steinbeck used intercalary chapters with a story to accomplish what he had hoped, which can only be affective if used skillfully.

Steinbeck successfully used intercalary chapters to inform the reader of the historical and societal background, broaden the scope of the novel, expose others with experiences similar to the Joads, provide his own opinions of the situations, and imply possible solutions or outcomes to the problems. Introducing the reader to a strong-willed family, he allowed the Joads to grow on the reader’s heart, causing him to become emotionally attached. Throwing in intercalary chapters, usually between each “Joad Chapter” he then showed the reader that even more families, each like the Joads, were suffering the same problems and something needed to be done. With the reader already feeling the pain of the Joads, it was not difficult for him to then feel the pain of the entire society and understand the problems of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With the help of intercalary chapters, Steinbeck was able to show someone how to love and care for those he hadn’t even known.