Tortoise Tuesday: Steinbeck’s Structure in The Grapes of Wrath

I recently read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and was struck by how simple but impactful the story was. The book follows the Joad family during the Great Depression after they are forced to leave Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowls. They travel to California in search of work — dreaming of picking peaches, owning a small plot of land, and settling down with the family. 

After finishing the book, I reflected on the elements that I enjoyed the most: Steinbeck’s poetic language, his keen insight into universal emotions and desires, the moments of humor in the Joad family’s otherwise difficult lives. And at some point in my ruminations, I recognized the immense impact of the book’s structure.

Steinbeck alternates between chapters specific to the Joad’s story and chapters that zoom out to a larger American narrative. Steinbeck describes the physical environment — dust destroying crops in Oklahoma, unused farmland in California going to waste while displaced families starve — and the political and social environment — the undefined and unheard American voices, the frustration of the lower class with the industrialization of agriculture, the rapidly decreasing wages and lack of labor unions, the plague of poverty and starvation that sweeps through the population.

This is the story-line that broadens the reach of The Grapes of Wrath. It places the Joads into their historical context and demonstrates that they are only one example of a shared experience among thousands of families.

I am usually unimpressed by novels that use this technique of switching back and forth between two perspectives or two timelines. I find them somewhat cliche and often unnecessarily confusing. However, Steinbeck’s use of the alternating narratives is anything but trite. It serves a clear purpose of orienting the reader to the historical context in which we find the main characters. It does not detract from the story but enhances it. We feel the struggle of the Joads multiplied by thousands for each and every family just like them.

— Ellie Shapiro, ’21