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Steinbeck skillfully illustrates American culture in the 1930s through the main story of the Joads' odyssey from the dustbowl of Oklahoma to the migrant camps of California; however, Steinbeck gives us even more Depression-era details through his intercalary chapters, that is "in between" chapters which depart from the story of the Joads but which provide even more insights into the wrenching poverty of millions and the efforts to find a better life by getting on the highway and moving west.
The Joads, like many farmers, lost their land to the banks after crops failed. Years of unmitigated drought led to what is now called the Dust Bowl. When the farmers were unable to pay the banks, the banks foreclosed, causing economic problems to spiral. In Steinbeck's novel, the Joads seek a better life in California, but the migrant farms were overrun by all the unemployed and working conditions were dismal. This led to unionization as workers used their strength in numbers to get better conditions. This development is reflected in Steinbeck's theme of a united human family of mankind all caring for one another instead of every man for himself.
The impact of Steinbeck's twofold presentation (the main story vs. the intercalary chapters) is powerful. As readers, our empathy is aroused through the story of all the Joads and Jim Casy as they care for their own family and gradually take on caring for the larger family of all of humankind. We are moved by Rose of Sharon as she matures from a flighty girl to a caring and mature woman through her pregnancy and the loss of the child. We see the overpowering strength of Ma as she becomes a mother to everyone in the camps. We see Tom Joad's efforts to organize workers and Jim Casy's preaching that also shows the interconnectedness of all humans and the need to provide decent conditions for all. However, the intercalary chapters remind us that this story was being played out over and over again as millions suffered the devastation of lost homes and income during the Depression only to face worse oppression in every new setting.
Much like his contemporary John Dos Passos who uses Newsreels consisting of headlines and fragments of articles from such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune and New York World in his U.S.A. Trilogy, John Steinbeck employs intercalary chapters in Grapes of Wrath that give "a camera's eye" look at realia in the Great Depression.
In Chapter Seven, for instance, Steinbeck describes how used car salesmen responded to the demand for second-hand vehicles during the great exit of the Okies from the Dust Bowl. Because they knew little about automobiles, these salesmen victimized the desperate dispossessed. Steinbeck describes them as predatory,
Owners with rolled-up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses.
Chapter Nine presents the Jefferson Agrarian theory that people removed from their land will lose much as the women must part with sentimental articles just to keep their family going when the men return with little or no money after trying to sell their farm tools. Chapter Twelve, too, serves as an example of a portrait of Americana in the 1930s as it describes the route that went coast to coast in the U. S., Route 66. In another chapter of this kind, Steinbeck writes of the fraternity of the displaced Americans, describing one man who made a trailer and has put all his belongings in it; then he waits alongside the highway. A car finally comes by and the owner hooks his trailer to the automobile, taking the man with his family.
In Chapter Twenty-One, there is a summary of the attitudes of the Okies, who have transformed from"questing people" to "migrants" that have been pushed out by machines. The transformation of the Okies from hard-working contented farmers to cruel wanderers with "hunger in their eyes" who are dehumanized by the uncaring and exploitive "great owners." Truly, in this chapter, the alteration of those who are disenfranchised is well protrayed.
In his powerful novel set in the Great Depression, John Steinbeck illustrates through his intercalary chapters the changing face of America, one in which hunger and desperation and alienation and want and sometimes fraternity have become a subsociety in the 1930s.
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