In The Grapes of Wrath, what role does the bank play? What power do the small farmers have against the banks and the tractors?

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For Steinbeck, the bank serves as the complete moral antithesis to the small farmers: large, imposing, austere, and machine-like, that bank is an institution without feelings or remorse. Even the men who work at and own the banks are referred to as “slaves” of the banks, which are “machines and masters all at the same time.”

Steinbeck’s book is about the hardships faced by poor Western-American farmers during the Depression Era. His characterization of the bank allows him to juxtapose its lifeless, calculating presence against flesh-and-blood human beings. For example, a group of squatting tenant men have a conversation about what the bank is and why a farmer shouldn’t borrow money from it. One says that a man can hold on to his land and grow crops until they fail, and then he must turn to the bank for help. He continues,

“But you see, a bank or a company can't do that, because those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.”

This description of the bank as a lifeless institution reinforces how antithetical its existence and way of sustaining itself are to the farmers who need its support. The bank doesn’t breathe, doesn’t eat meat. It is a completely artificial entity, dehumanized to the point of abject caricature. The point here is that real, breathing, common men and women depend on the bank to issue them loans so that they can keep their farms afloat and continue to feed themselves. Even thought the bank requires certain things to survive, it does not suffer the threat of death the same way a poor farmer does, making it a pure representation of evil.

This representation of the bank as something completely lacking humanity is reinforced later when the tenant men keep repeating that “the bank isn’t like a man” and “the bank is only made of men,” but is not actually one of them. The Grapes of Wrath has a lot of imagery relating to the nature and society of the American West. Imagery about the bank reinforces in the reader’s mind how unnatural and strange it really is.

Later in the story, when Thomas is talking about how much money the Farmer’s Association allows him to pay employees working his land, he reveals that the organization is owned by the bank. The bank forced employers like Thomas to drop their payments from thirty cents to twenty-five cents per hour. Thomas would like to pay the workers more, because his laborers were strong and reliable. Thomas’ rage signifies how callous and unforgiving this bank, a disembodied, money-collecting parasite, was when deciding how much money America’s poor farmers were worth.

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In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses the third person omniscient point-of-view which allows the narrator to relay macro cultural insights to the reader. Many of these insights revolve around the owner/tenant system created by early 1900’s American banking and financial system. It’s clear Steinbeck holds banks in the highest level of disdain, and the story of the Joads allows him to explore those themes.

The bank is presented as a “monster” and becomes a character within the novel. All characters are forced to act at the hands of the bank and all the negative emotions which our characters experience can be traced back to the bank. Steinbeck believed the bank used the farmers to make money off the land, and then when the banking system failed, did not protect the farmers.

Due to this relationship, farmers have absolutely no power over the bank. Even families and large groups of farmers bonded together can do nothing to stop the monster.

Without the bank, the farmers could deal with the circumstances. Unfortunately, since the bank owns the land, the farmers are forced to uproot their entire lives and head West. In this way, the farmers are characterized as pawns in the bank’s game, which removes their humanity.

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In The Grapes of Wrath, the bank plays a largely antagonistic role towards the primary characters It is a source of resentment for those who are trying to survive after their farms fail. Time and time again throughout the book, the bank is referred to as a "monster," consuming the small powers of individual farmers in order to satiate its never-ending hunger. Many times, this hunger is one that is attributed to greed as well as necessity:

When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size.

The title The Grapes of Wrath refers to a passage in the biblical book of Revelation, which applies the metaphor the "winepress of God's wrath" to show god's transference of all of the evil things on earth into punishment. While the most readily apparent instance of this divine punishment is the dust bowl itself, the bank can be seen as another, as it is an instance of an evil trait of man (greed) being "pressed" into a punishment.

In terms of what common men are capable of doing against the menace of the banks, they are almost entirely powerless. The bank is a monster that destroys lives readily and without discrimination, and it is far more powerful than any single man. Just like in the instance of a real, tangible monster of fantasy, all that the small farmers can do is flee.

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In The Grapes of Wrath small farmers are presented as being at the mercy of the banks. The banks and other finance companies own the lion's share of the land on which the farmers work. With the Great Depression in full swing, and with the need for profit ever more urgent, landowners start kicking tenant farmers off their land to satisfy the insatiable appetite for money of the banks back East, portrayed as savage, greedy monsters with their own army of snub-nosed tractors.

The bank is depicted as an especially rapacious, hungry monster that feeds off the hard work of tenant farmers. The financial needs of the banks will always come first. It doesn't matter how long a farming family has occupied a particular plot of land; the bank won't think twice about sending in the tractors to turf out the tenant farmers just to squeeze some extra profit out of the land.

In truth, there's virtually nothing that the tenant farmers can do about it. The main problem is that the decision-making process is entirely subject to the dictates of profit, and so it's impossible to pin the blame for evictions on any one individual. At every stage in the process, individuals—whether they're bankers, landowners, or tractor drivers—are controlled by the need to turn a profit. Among other things, this somewhat absolves them of individual moral responsibility for kicking tenant farmers off their land. It's nothing personal; it's strictly business.

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