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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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What does this quote from Grapes of Wrath mean? "If a man owns a little property, that property is him...But let a man get property he can't see, or can't take time to get his fingers in, or can't be there to walk on it - why, then the property is the man."

When a person owns land, the land becomes part of that person. If a man owns the land and works it, then the man and land become one entity. However, if someone buys the property without working it or even seeing it, then that person is not connected to the land.

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This quote comes from a tenant farmer speaking to a man driving a bulldozing tractor through the countryside, destroying the homes of poor farmers who work the land. The man driving the tractor works for a bank, which owns the land that once belonged to the poor farmers. The tenant attempts to argue with the tractor driver about destroying everyone's property, but the tractor driver refuses to take responsibility for his actions by saying that he has to feed his family. The tenant then begins to ponder about what the land means to the poor farmers, who are being exploited by the banks. The tenant tells the driver that if a man owns property and works it, the property becomes the man. When the land produces, the tenant farmer feels a sense of accomplishment and rejoices. He then says,

"But let a man get property he doesn't see, or can't take time to get his fingers in, or can't be there to walk on it—why, then the property is the man. He can't do what he wants, he can't think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big—and he's the servant of his property" (Steinbeck, 25).

The tenant farmer is essentially speaking about the callous nature of the banks and those who own the property. The people at the bank have no sentimental feelings regarding their property. Unlike the tenant farmers, they are detached and insensitive to the land they own. The people at the bank only view the land as a commodity, which is why they carelessly buy and sell large tracts at their convenience. This upsets the tenant farmer, who feels a deep attachment to the land he worked his entire life.

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