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The Grapes of Wrath: Banks & The Bank Monster Metaphor

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, we will cover the ways in which Steinbeck describes banks as monsters, how these monsters survive, what they feed on, and what makes them so terrifying.

Banks as Monsters in The Grapes of Wrath

We can't read The Grapes of Wrath without noticing how often the banks come up in the narration and in conversation amongst the characters. In fact, if we collected a dollar every time banks were mentioned in the novel we'd have a decent stack of cash. We would also come to understand that Steinbeck depicts banks as monsters, because he sees them as an evil which feeds on the misfortune of farmers and land owners.

To put the concept of banks as monsters in perspective, think of many zombie movies, books, and shows that are so popular in our culture right now. What we have all learned about zombies is that they must feed on brains. Well, in Steinbeck's novel banks were like zombies, insatiable and nearly unstoppable. Because the novel is set during the Great Depression, a time when economic devastation haunted America for a decade, leaving over twelve million Americans jobless and hungry, it stands to reason that Steinbeck would take issue with the banks. Consider the following quote from chapter 5 of The Grapes of Wrath, ''If a bank or 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'' (31-33). From this quote, we can determine that in Steinbeck's realist world, there exists a very real monster, the banks, which use people to fulfill their needs and desires. Instead of feeding on brains, the bank monsters feed on the labor, payments, and taxes of tenets and land owners.

Why are the Bank Monsters So Hard to Overcome?

The Grapes of Wrath has a very specific focus on farmers and land owners during the time of the Great Depression. Because Steinbeck writes so much of the starving land, the crops, and the drought, it makes sense that he evokes an almost lyric language when describing them, and it also makes sense that when he leans into the metaphor of banks as monsters, he uses a similar language of starvation and physicality. For instance, ''A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that. Yes, he can do that until the crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank… But--you see, a bank or company can't do that, because those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest of money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat… When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size'' (32). As we can see from this quote, Steinbeck leans into the lyric quality of repetition by emphasizing following words and phrases: ''eat,'' ''eat' side meat,'' ''breathe air,'' ''air,'' ''breathe,'' ''they die'' and ''you die,'' doing so to emulate the desperation so many people felt during the Great Depression.

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