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LOUIS OWENS AND HECTOR TORRES Dialogic Structure and Levels of Discourse In Steinbeck's The Grapes ofWrath The development of the novel is a function of the deepening of dialogic essence, its increased scope and greater precision. Fewer and fewer neutral , hard elements ("rock bottom truths") remain that are not drawn into dialogue. —M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination UCH attention has been paid to the most basic level of narrative structure in The Grapes of Wrath, to the alternation of the story of the Joads with the story of the Dust Bowl exodus as a whole. Critics have discussed Steinbeck's rationale for such a structure and have closely examined devices the author uses to weld the two kinds of chapters into a unified novel.1 In spite of long interest in the immediate dialectic of the alternating chapters, however, almost no attention has been devoted to the still more complex dialogic structure and levels of discourse in The Grapes of Wrath. In attempting to write the story of a human tragedy on a national scale, Steinbeck was faced with a dilemma. The documentary, a form with which he was thoroughly familiar, tended to give the big picture, tended to focus on the suffering multitudes, with the effect ofeducating the viewer or reader but at the same time distancing him from the intimate suffering and pain of those caught up in disaster. "It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know Arizona Quarterly Volume 45 Number 4, Winter 1989 Copyright © 1989 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 004-1610 76Louis Owens and Hector Torres one Chinese who is starving," Steinbeck wrote in 1941 in the preface to his script for the documentary, The Forgotten Viüage. In discussing the film, he added: A great many documentary films have used the generalized method, that is, the showing of a condition or an event as it affects a group of people. The audience can then have a personalized reaction from imagining one member of that group. I have felt that this was the more difficult observation from the audience's viewpoint. ... In The Forgotten Village we reversed the usual process. Our story centered on one family in one small village. We wished our audience to know this family very well, and incidentally to like it, as we did. Then, from association with this little personalized group, the larger conclusion concerning the racial group could be drawn with something like participation.2 "Something like participation" is what Steinbeck wanted for The Grapes ofWrath. The reader must not only be shown the enormity of the widespread suffering, he must also identify with the migrants, and feel their loss, their hope, their frustration and futility, their enduring strength on a personal level. It is this participation in the lives of the Joads that captures the reader and propels him through the long book, and it is only through this participation that the full emotional impact Steinbeck desired can be achieved. The subject of the novel, however, was not the suffering of a single family. For the novel, as Steinbeck conceived it, to be successful, the reader must be aware that the Joads are only selected specimens, and that what Steinbeck is writing about is tragedy on an enormous, epic scale, tragedy for which no individual blame can be assigned. Steinbeck's answer to this dilemma is the dialectical structure of The Grapes of Wrath, with chapters telling the story of the Joads' trek westward alternating with those that depict the larger exodus from the Dust Bowl. The result of Steinbeck's narrative experiment is a pattern of expansion (interchapters) and contraction (Joad chapters) that runs throughout the novel from beginning to end, creating a powerful dialectic between regional disaster and intimate pathos as we move between macro- and microcosm. Of the thirty chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, sixteen—less than twenty percent of the novel—are what Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath77 called intercalery chapters, or interchapters. Beginning with the novel's first chapter, these narrative interludes allow the narrative eye to pan back, away from the intimate picture for a broad view of generalized experience. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 75-94
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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