Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family's experiences from their eviction from a farm near Sallisaw, Oklahoma to their first dismal winter in California. The novel has little plot in the ordinary sense. Out of its thirty chapters, only fourteen deal with the Joad story. The other sixteen chapters are not part of the narrative. They are called intercalary chapters or interchapters. Steinbeck desired to make the reader participate in the narrative of the Joads; but he also wanted the reader to identify and feel the pathos and futility of their situation. At the same time, Steinbeck wanted the reader to see beyond the Joads and sense the larger suffering of the displaced migrants. Steinbeck wanted to write a tragedy on an epic scale.
Steinbeck, thus, adopted the technique of interspersing the intimate individualized suffering of the Joads with the larger universal suffering of the migrants. He interweaves the narrative chapters of the Joads with the interchapters presenting the larger context of the Dust Bowl tragedy. The Joads do not appear in any of the interchapters. But there is a close relationship between the two types of chapters. The interchapters serve many artistic and symbolic functions. They are what Steinbeck called the "repositories of all the external information in the novel." They present the broad picture of the suffering of the migrants, and also provide the essential Background Information, such as the pattern of land ownership in California, which helps the reader to understand the novel better.
This segregating of two distinct types of chapters could have resulted in an imbalance in the narrative structure, and the novel could have fallen into two distinct parts. But Steinbeck avoids this by skillfully linking narrative chapter and interchapter. The interchapters sometimes serve to comment on the main action and also foreshadow later events about to occur in the novel. Steinbeck was influenced in his narrative structure by the newsreel technique of John Dos Passos. The technique of interspersing interchapter with narrative chapters had also been used earlier by Fielding in Tom Jones and by Tolstoy in War and Peace.
The novel is structured into three parts: the time spent in the dust bowl region of Oklahoma, the journey on the road along Highway 66, and the time in California. Peter Lisca, a well-known critic, sees a relationship between this three-fold division and the three stages of the Biblical Exodus: the Israelites' time in bondage when God sent plagues to free them (chapters 1-11), the forty years of wandering in the desert (chapters 12-18), and the arrival in Canaan, the Promised Land (chapters 19-30). The plagues sent by God are paralleled by the drought in Oklahoma, the Egyptian oppressors by the bank officials, and the hostile Canaanites by the Californians.