Machines in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will explore the themes in ''The Grapes of Wrath'' that evoke the intimate connection between land and farmer. We will look at the symbols Steinbeck uses to contrast and conflict with that relationship: bank foreclosures and farming machinery.

The Housing Crisis

When John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, American farmers and home owners hoped that the housing crisis would find a quick resolution. Oddly enough, a quarter of a century later, we're still facing many of the same problems. When you take into account the masses of home owners who have been foreclosed upon across the country in the last few years, Steinbeck's themes of the human connection to land and home ring clear.

In the novel, Steinbeck expresses the intimate bond between land and the people. The plight of the Joads shows how that relationship is disrupted by foreclosures linked to the destructive force of machines. When banks take ownership of a farm, they force the tenants from the land. When industrial farmers move in, their machines rip apart the land that had once been tilled by hand.

The current housing crisis mirrors the struggle of displaced farmers in The Grapes of Wrath

In this lesson we will examine two ways that Steinbeck expresses the conflict that arises when the farmer is forced from his home. The domineering bankers and the cold machinery of the tractor both contrast with the warm-blooded farmer and the natural soil.

What is Agrarian Democracy?

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck writes of the blood of the land, as if it were a living thing. He writes of the farmer who is tied to the land as if by a tether. In one scene early on, Steinbeck relates a conversation between a tenant farmer and the tractor driver, who is employed by the bank. The tenant says, 'If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it's part of him, and it's like him.'

Literary scholars say that the connection Steinbeck paints between man and the land represents the theory of agrarian democracy associated with Thomas Jefferson.

An American founding father and third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson upheld the farmer as the ideal citizen: honorable, noble, and virtuous. Living close to the earth and working the soil, farmers demonstrated the height of moral integrity and courage. Farming the land gave people a total independence from government and industry, allowing them to live a self-sustaining life. Jefferson believed that agrarian democracy was the best kind of government. He imagined American citizens living on farms, in rural communities without the need for urban settlements or dependence on technology.

The Bank

In chapter 5, Steinbeck introduces the uneasy relationship between the tenant farmers and the bank. He describes how the owners come in 'closed cars,' never even getting out of their vehicles, to emphasize their attitude of being separated from the land and the life on the farm. In contrast, the farmers dig and draw in the sand.

A tenantless farm in Texas circa 1938

For Steinbeck, the bank is a 'monster': cold, rational, mathematic. farmers were its slaves 'while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time.' The author contrasts the cold-blooded bankers with the warm-blooded farmers, showing that the land gives life. But the connection has been severed by by economic, political, or natural disaster.

The Tractor

After introducing the conflict between farmer and bank, Steinbeck continues to illustrate the destructive force of machinery.

Once the bank repossesses the farm, in come the tractors, ripping the land with hard, brutal force. Mechanized farming equipment swoops in and puts manual laborers out of work. Steinbeck writes: 'The tenant system won't work any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families.' Like the banks, tractors are inhuman, destructive 'monsters'.

Steinbeck uses figurative language when describing the tractor. 'The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects.' Here, the author employs a simile: 'moving like insects'. This literary device uses 'like' to compare two things. As a result, the traits of one thing reflect upon the reader's perception of the other.

Slimy, scaly, or frightening monsters: insects like centipedes and spiders haunt our dreams and populate our horror movies. By comparing the crawling machines with creeping centipedes, Steinbeck gives readers the visual image of an inhuman, cold-blooded monster crawling over the land.

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