Politics of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: Banks Vs Tenant Farmers

Chapter 5 of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath is the chapter where the men who represent the bank come and tell the tenant farmers that they have to get off the land because the bank has decided that the land is to become more like a factory. They bring in one guy on a tractor who will work all of the land for the price of feeding 100 tenant farmers.

The chapter is interesting for a few reasons. First, I love the way the characters aren’t even delineated. We don’t even hear any of their names here. There is lots of dialogue, but we don’t know the names of any of the speakers. They’re representatives, almost like caricatures. Their identities don’t matter because they just types of people. They’re business people and they’re tenant farmers, not real people with names.

But that’s the point, too. For the bankers, the tenant farmers aren’t real people; they’re just people who stand in their way of making money. For the tenant farmers, the bankers aren’t real people, either; they’re just monsters who are destroying their lives.

And everyone points to something bigger than themselves as the culprit. When one of the tenant farmers tells the guy on the tractor that he will shoot him if the tractor gets too close to his house, the tractor guy says, “‘It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look-suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.'” The tenant farmer says that he will go after the bankers instead, but the guy on the tractor retorts again, “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all.”

The tenant farmer knows that the “monster” needs to be stopped, though. He just doesn’t know how to stop it: “‘I got to figure,’ the tenant said. ‘We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.'”

It’s poignant that the system hasn’t changed all that much since 1939. Banks still seem to be in control and no one knows quite how to stop this monster. No one takes personal responsibility and lots of people have lost the homes they worked so hard to get in the first place. Even listen to the way the news talks about the crisis, and they use the term “Wall Street” to refer to the banks and the term “foreclosures” to refer to the homes of those who have lost them. They’re not referring to something real. Instead, they’re referring to a made-up entity–Wall Street–and the effect that that entity has caused–foreclosures.

An interesting essay would compare the current housing crisis with the crisis faced by the tenant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath. Both have been displaced by man-made non-entities–banks and the businesses that banks represent. The villains in the current instance have gotten bigger, but the point remains the same.

Is there a way to fight it? Government certainly doesn’t seem to be willing, and one lone homeowner or tenant farmer certainly can’t do anything about it. But it’s made by men, so it can be stopped, at least according to Steinbeck’s tenant farmer.

Thankfully, the solution is not to flee to California and live on a work farm. But, like the guy on the tractor tells the tenant farmer, “‘Times are changed, don’t you know? Thinking about stuff like that don’t feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody’s kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you’ll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won’t give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.”

Maybe that’s the problem, though, at least it is according to Steinbeck. The problem is that we don’t care about anyone except ourselves and those that depend on us, usually our children. Maybe we need to think a little bigger sometimes.

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And check out our Cheat Sheet study guide on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath if you need more.