The Grapes of Wrath: The Bank, The Monster, The Society...

Since some days i have been finding myself recalling with increasing frequency a certain portion from the novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck.

I am posting some selections from Chapter 5 of the novel. The extracts taken are from separate places in the text and have been joined to form a continuous narrative, '...' representing the point of cleavage. The situation is that of a Bank taking over a land from its tenants due to the decreasing produce and the decreasing profits. The narrative beautifully expresses the frustration of the tenants and their inability to understand the legality of the issue, and how something called a 'Bank' which they see as a 'monster', can take over a land which the tenants believe to be rightfully their's.

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came.... And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them....

The owner men went on leading to their point: "You know the land's getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it."...

The squatting men looked down again. "What do you want us to do? We can't take less share of the crop we're half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an' ragged. If all the neighbors weren't the same, we'd be ashamed to go to meeting."

And at last the owner men came to the point. "The tenant system won't work any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster."...

The tenant men looked up alarmed. "But what'll happen to us? How'll we eat?"

"You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard."

And now the squatting men stood up angrily. "Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here. There in the door our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised."

"We know that all that. It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster." ... "We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man."

"Yes, but the bank is only made of men."

"No, you're wrong there quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it."

The tenants cried, "Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land. Maybe we can kill banks—they're worse than Indians and snakes. Maybe we got to fight to keep our land, like Pa and Granpa did."

And now the owner men grew angry. "You’ll have to go."
"But it's ours," the tenant men cried. "We—"
"No. The bank, the monster owns it. You'll have to go."
"We'll get our guns, like Granpa when the Indians came. What then?"
"Well—first the sheriff, and then the troops. You'll be stealing if you try to stay, you'll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants."...

[And later when a driver arrives with a tractor:]

"It's not me. There's nothing I can do. I'II 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."

"That's so," the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill."

“You're wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, 'Clear those people
out or it's your job.' "

"Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank."
The driver said, "Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.' "

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me."

"I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe, like you said, the property's doing it. Anyway I told you my orders."

You can read the whole chapter 5 here.

The reason I recall this text is that i am going through a similar frustration these days; except that the Bank has been replaced by the Society, and it is robbing me of relationships which i consider to be my right. And yet, i am helpless like the tenants in Steinbeck's novel. There is no one to kill. No person to fight with. No single person to blame. It's the whole damned system. It's a Monster...


Shade said…
Great article. I've only read Mice and Men by John Steinback, but now I'll be sure to read Grapes of Wrath. I like the way you joined disparate parts together to form a narrative and made it a meaningful commentary on your situation.
kk0isonlymyname said…
Have you seen the movie? It's one of my favourites. An absolute classic, made ironically by a giant movie production company.
MarisaH said…
I didn't think much of the book at first when reading through it. But by just rereading this little bit from chapter 5 I find it, already, much more meaningful. Especially to the times of today that people are struggling with. The connection to your situation really made it easier to connect to from my point of view. Which is something I didn't have going into the book the first time. Thank you, I might have to give the whole thing another look someday.