From its original publication date, the unusual way The Grapes of Wrath was structured has been questioned by many of those who have read the novel in its entirety. The author uses an unconventional method of interjecting chapters of random information – or commentary – between narrative chapters and this jumbling of information is found by many readers to be distracting and said to take away from the realness of the life and story of the Joads.
These ‘intercalary’ chapters serve a very specific purpose in terms of expanding upon important events and providing commentary that supports what happens in the narrative proper. The Grapes of Wrath has sixteen intercalary chapters. Despite the fact that the Joad family does not appear in any of the intercalary chapters, much of the events described in each of those chapters foreshadow the experiences of the Joads. Interestingly, these intercalary chapters are needed to provide readers with a very generalizes synopsis of the social conditions that affect the main characters, as well as to deliver historical accuracy and commentary on the social and political background of the novel.
The author regularly utilizes symbolism, motifs and narrative to bridge the connection between each intercalary chapter and its accompanying narrative chapter. For example, the land turtle, as described in Chapter 3, will be found by Tom in Chapter 4. And, the monologue of the used car salesman occurs immediately prior to the purchase of the truck that the Joad’s will use to make their journey. Furthermore, the Joads’ continued search for employment in California is heralded by the State’s strong history of migrant labor.
Steinbeck understood how imperative it was for his readers to grasp the true social message delivered by his novel. He wanted them to understand the struggle of the travelling families, and how desperately they were oppressed by the larger and more powerful forces in a social crisis.
He feared that those reading The Grapes of Wrath would not clearly comprehend these issues unless they could truly be sympathetic to the ordeals of the Joad family. On the other hand, he did not want his audience to view these events as an isolated problem, specific only to the Joads. By using intercalary chapters, Steinbeck was able to create balance by tying together precise social facts and narrative elements to craft a uniquely personal story that also told a very emotional tale about universal truths and the so-called human condition.