The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 5

This chapter describes the coming of the bank representatives to evict the farmers. Some of the representatives are kind because they knew how cruel their job is, yet some are angry because they hate to be cruel, while yet others are merely cold and hardened by their job. These men are mostly pawns of a larger system and have no choice but to obey. For its part, the tenant system has become untenable for the banks, since one man on a tractor can efficiently take the place of a dozen families. The farmers raise the possibility of armed insurrection, but what would they fight against? They will be murderers if they stay, fighting against the wrong targets -- the messengers of the banks, not the banks themselves.

Steinbeck describes the arrival of the tractors. They crawl over the ground, cutting the earth like surgeons and violating it like rapists. The tractor driver does his job out of simple necessity: he has to feed his kids, even if doing so comes at the expense of dozens of families. To highlight the cruel logic of the entire situation, Steinbeck dramatizes a conversation between a truck driver and an evicted tenant farmer. The farmer threatens to kill the driver, but such violence would accomplish nothing. Another driver will come. Even if the farmer murders the president of the bank and board of directors, the bank is controlled by people from the East. There is no effective target which could be destroyed in a way that would prevent the evictions.


Even more than the coming of the dust, the arrival of the bankers is an ominous event. For Steinbeck, the banks have no redeeming value. They are completely devoid of human characteristics:­ they are monstrosities that "breathe profits" and can never be satiated. Steinbeck explicitly states that a bank is inhuman, and that the bank owner with fifty thousand acres is a "monster." A bank is made by men but is something more than and separate from people, a destructive force that pursues short-term profits at the expense of the land, destroying the landscape through cotton production that drains the terrain of its resources.

Steinbeck describes the movement of the tractors over the ground as indiscriminate and hostile. The tractors move arbitrarily, violently slicing the ground with their blades. Steinbeck first equates the plowing with surgery, but goes further to compare it to a rape: a cold and passionless intrusion into the land, and an event unconnected with human emotion.

According to Steinbeck, personal connection to the land determines ownership. A man who does not reside on his land and walk upon it cannot own it; rather, the property controls the man and he becomes the servant of the land.

In this critique of the banks, the behavior of the employees is largely excusable. They are "caught in something larger than themselves," controlled by the mathematics of bank operations and slaves to the company that has ensnared them. The situation that the bank poses for the farmers leaves them no options. They cannot defend the land, for they would be murdering men who are not genuinely responsible for the land's fate. They can only leave. The tractor drivers face a similar situation. Despite the suffering of the farmers, they have to work somehow to feed their families. They are not responsible for what they do, for they are controlled by larger forces.

The conversation between the tenant farmer and the tractor driver illustrates how far-reaching the controlling corporate system is. If a farmer were to attempt to stop the bank, he could not do so by targeting one individual or even a small group; even if a farmer murdered the bank president, such a murder would not stop the process of evictions. The people are helpless.

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