In his fascinating portrayal of the 1930’s »Dust Bowl« John Steinbeck demonstrates a unique and profound grasp of the English language. He presents one of the darkest decades of American history with an intricate blend of different styles, rhetorical devices and a highly unusual structure. One of the defining characteristics of the novel is the use of interchapters, or »intercalary« chapters, as Steinbeck scholar Peter Lisca calls them. These chapters are criticized by some readers for supposedly being disruptive to the flow of the »main« story. I do not believe this to be the case. In fact, these chapters add relevant, to the modern reader almost essential, background information on the social and economic situation, of the time depicted in the novel. They enhance the book from a mere fiction novel to a documentary-like historic overview.
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Nevertheless, I do see the logic behind the critics’ claim. The intercalary chapters make up for almost a sixth of the novel, yet often lack an obvious connection to the Joad family storyline. However, as careful readers will note, there is always a subtle connection, with which Steinbeck weaves these »interruptions« into the fabric of his story. For example, the weather that is present in the intercalary chapters often continues into the chapters immedately following them, while symbolically used generic representatives are sometimes brought into the main story. Such is the case with the turtle that we first encounter in chapter three. In the interchapter it is fairly obvious that the use of this tireless turtle is metaphoric, and is probably a symbol for the hardworking farmers. But the author, rather ironically, brings the turtle to life in the very next chapter when Tom picks it up as a gift for his younger siblings. Peter Lisca calls this technique of co-reference between the main storyline and the intercalary chapters, juxtaposition.
The divide between the story of the Joad family and the accompanying chapters is deepened by the stark contrast of styles used within them.
“Jesus, where’d that Apperson come from, the Ark? And a Chalmers and a Chandler-ain’t made ’em for years. We ain’t sellin’ cars-rolling junk. Goddamn it, I got to get jalopies. I don’t want nothing for more’n twenty-five, thirty bucks. Sell ’em for fifty, seventy-five. That’s a good profit. Christ, what cut do you make on a new car? Get jalopies. I can sell ’em fast as I get ’em. Nothing over two hundred fifty. Jim, corral that old bastard on the sidewalk. Don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Try him on that Apperson. Say, where is that Apperson? Sold? If we don’t get some jalopies we got nothing to sell.” (p. 70)
In sections such as this one, from the seventh chapter car-salesman monolog, we can observe a technique known as stream of consciousness which is typical for the Modern Novel. At the same time the rigorously detailed style that is employed throughout the novel is more reminiscent of realism than modernism. Steinbeck does not stop here though. His vivid images of nature and the climatic changes that brought about the agricultural catastrophe the novel is based on, add an almost impressionistic flavor to his writing. This is well demonstrated in the first chapter.
“The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.” (p. 1)
Another peculiarity of Steinbeck’s novel is his use of dialect, jargon and archaic terms such as: lifer, spam, jalopy, hackles, gelding, squatter, stir-bug and countless others. This surely hinders understanding and frustrates the purist reader, but it also infuses the story with lifelike realism which makes The Grapes of Wrath a testimony of its time.
To make the story more striking and to touch and involve the reader, Steinbeck utilizes several elements. He dramatizes, one could even claim he overdramatizes, with his apocalyptic forecasts that often allude to The Bible. And he uses absurd images that shock, disgust or even anger the reader. The premier example of this can be found in the twenty-fifth chapter, where the author describes how the abundant produce of the land has to be left to rot or even be intentionally burned in the name of profit, while hundreds and thousands are left to starve. Quite interesting, and rarely applied, narrative technique used by Steinbeck to involve the reader, is his shift from the all-knowing, third person, narrator that is present in the bulk of the novel, to the second-person narrator as seen in the bellow quote.
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“Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses, for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean – a week here?” (p. 136)
Apart from the second-person narrative, we can observe another element in this section that the author uses several times throughout the novel to more effectively convey his message – namely, the rhetorical device called repetition.
Steinbeck’s immenesly complex style is unfriendly, harsh and provocative. His novel is, by no means, easy reading, and I believe this is no coincidence. The lives of the “Okies” were not easy either. The Grapes of Wrath is a brutally honest and eloquently constructed novel that wears its readers down through a bombardment of sensational images of human suffering and injustice and forces them to confront the reality of its grief-stricken characters. I think it is its uncompromising style, which so accurately describes the effects of the combination of The Great Depression and one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, on the People that makes this novel truly – Great.
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