The Grapes of Wrath | Study Guide

John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Steinbeck describes the landowners driving in their cars onto the tenants' farms. Tenant families, such as the Joads, watch the owners suspiciously. The owner men talk with the men who work the land. Some owners try to be kind, some are angry, and others are cold. However, they all are part of the Bank, or Company, and have to carry out their duties.

The owners talk with the tenant men about how poor the crops have been. As a result, the tenants borrow money from the banks to pay taxes. However, the owners explain that the banks can't keep giving loans unless they start to see more profit. Tension builds between the owners and the tenant men as the tenant women look on and sigh. The owners finally say that the tenant system is broken and the tenants will "have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard." The tenant men get angry and describe the bond their families have with the land they work. The owners understand, but the banks still demand that the tenants leave. The owners suggest that the tenants go to California. The tenant men and their families don't know what to do or where to go. The women leave the men alone "to figure and to wonder in the dust."

The tractors come and plow over the farms, destroying whatever is in their path. The tractors and the men who drive them are part of the Bank and are just doing what the Bank demands. The tractor drivers have no connection to the land because they do not work closely with it. "No man had touched the seed," the narrator explains, "or lusted for the growth." Steinbeck conveys a conversation between a tenant farmer and a tractor driver. The driver justifies his actions because he needs the "three dollars a day" to feed his family. The tenant farmer says that the driver's three dollars a day is putting a hundred people out of work. The driver replies that he can't worry about other people. The farmer says he wants to shoot the person or people responsible for forcing him and his family off their land. The driver says, "Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all." The driver continues on his path, plowing down the tenant farmer's house. The farmer and his family do not know what to do.

Analysis

In Chapter 5, Steinbeck introduces and develops the extended metaphor of the "Bank monster," thereby describing the process through which tenant farmers are forced off their land. According to Steinbeck, none of the people involved with implementing this process take personal responsibility for their actions. Steinbeck states, "And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves." This "something larger" is the Bank, or Company, which the author views as a monster. The Bank monster, therefore, has a life of its own, and all the people who work for the monster, no matter how lofty their positions, are really the slaves of the monster.

To survive, the monster needs to make more and more of a profit. If the monster remains the same size, it dies. As a result, the people who work for the monster are obligated to constantly feed it with more profits. The land that the tenant farmers work on is not giving the monster enough profit, because of the drought and poor crops. Because of this, the owners tell the tenants to get off the land. Many of the owners do not like telling the farmers to leave, but they feel they must. The Bank monster, therefore, has a momentum all its own, and all the people involved with the Bank are swept up in this movement. The tenant farmers who leave the land and go to California are also seen as part of this movement. The owners suggest that the farmers go to California, where a person can "reach out anywhere and pick an orange." Even though this depiction is eventually shown to be a lie, the enticement works and serves the purpose of the monster. It gets the people off the land.

Steinbeck then shows how the Bank monster can dehumanize its workers. A tractor plows over a farm, destroying what gets in its way. The tractor, therefore, is connected to Tom's description of the turtle as a bulldozer. Like the turtle, the tractor and its driver single-mindedly go along their determined path. In the process, the driver becomes a type of robot following orders. Steinbeck describes him as "gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth," stripping him of humanity and making him more like a machine. During the talk between the tenant farmer and the tractor driver, Steinbeck reinforces the idea introduced in Chapter 2 of how people who work for the Company or the Bank often end up acting selfishly because they work solely for their own gain.

The major defense of the Bank monster is the lack of any person or people to blame. As a result, the tenant farmer has no one to shoot. The monster acts of its own volition, and the people who work for it and are harmed by it seem to have no alternative except to get swept up in its momentum.

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Questions for Chapter 5

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