With syntax meaning the systematic, grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence, Chapter 21 of The Grapes of Wrath. an intercalary chapter, demonstrates the biblical refrain that Steinbeck has earlier used in his chapters.
This chapter is written as a refrain of the social criticism of Steinbeck's novel, the battle between the rich and the poor. With the biblical overtones of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in which "the grapes of wrath" suggest the anger of God against those who worship the false god, Steinbeck implies that this false god is capitalism and the wrath is that of the oppressed migrant workers.
The syntax of many of the sentences is in the repetitious form of many of the Psalms of the Bible, as well as many of the chapters of the Old Testament. For instance, Steinbeck writes of the panic of the owners as migrants multiply, beginning several sentences with the subject Men,
Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the fare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the town and of the soft suburban country gathered....
Further in the chapter, Steinbeck describes the great owners who take advantage of the migrants, hoping to reduce them to serfs. Again, using a repeated syntactical structure, Steinbeck begins many sentences with and,
And this was good,....And wages went down and prices stayed up. And pretty soon now we'll have serfs again.
And now the great owners...A great owner bought a cannery. And when...And as cannery owner...And the little farmers who ....And then they too went on the highways. And the roads were crowded....
With the extended allusion to Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," this chapter echoes the apocalyptic reckoning suggested earlier in Chapter 19. And, with the syntax of repetition and refrain, the biblical overtones are certainly apparent.
The fundamental syntax of Chapter 21 is one where Steinbeck conveys the hunger and fear of those moving out West. There is a basic despair that underscores both the writing and the action of chapter 21:
Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants.
The fear and underlying horror of losing what little one has is combined with the very little one wants. This syntax conveys a situation where the fulfillment of basic human needs precludes all else. The reaction of the Westerners to the new migrants also underscores how fear and cruelty feed off of one another. Steinbeck goes to great lengths to bring out how the insignificant nature of human beings is something that is starting to take a toll. Any human being at some point feels the need to lash out at continually being denied a voice:
On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment.
The word choice in descriptions like this one is deliberate. Concepts of "movement" and the dehumanization that the continual state of affairs is causing to human beings, reducing them to "ants," is reflective of where the migrant farmer is at this point in time in the narrative. Steinbeck's syntax is a stylistic device he uses to bring this out.