"'It's mine. I built it. You bump it down -- I'll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I'll pot you like a rabbit.'
'It's not me. There's nothing I can do. I'll lose my job if I don't do it. And look -- suppose you kill me? They'll just hang you, but long before you're hung there'll be another guy on the tractor, and he'll bump the house down. You're not killing the right guy.'
'That's so,' the tenant said. 'Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill.'
'You're wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, "Clear those people out or it's your job."'
'Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.'
The driver said, 'Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.'
'But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me.'
'I don't know. Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all.'"
This dialogue involves two individuals who have not been formally introduced to us; like the other chapters devoted to unnamed characters, this chapter is posed against the narrative of Reverend Casy and Tom Joad. The namelessness of the two individuals creates a universalizing effect, since it is easy for the reader to believe that conversations like this are happening on farmlands across the United States. The tenant has a visceral reaction to the driver's threat to his home and livelihood, yet through this conversation the reader can see how the tenant's anger is misplaced and futile.
The destruction of the tenant's home is part of a much bigger, more comprehensive system than he can initially imagine. Shooting the driver will only lead to another driver taking his place, and the driver is merely responding to instructions from his supervisors, who are likewise responding to instructions from their supervisors. As this progression continues to unfold, the tenant becomes further and further removed from tangible possibilities for creating change. Through this conversation, Steinbeck portrays the situation of the tenant as hopeless; he illustrates how little power the tenant really has.
"An' then I'd want to go in town an' kill folks. 'Cause what'd they take when they tractored the folks off the lan'? What'd they get so their 'margin a profit' was safe? They got Pa dyin' on the groun', an' Joe yellin his first breath, an' me jerkin' like a billy goat under a bush in the night. What'd they get? God knows the land' ain't no good. Nobody been able to make a crop for years. But thems sons-a-bitches at their desks, they jus' chopped folks in tow for their margin a profit. They jus' cut 'em in two. Place were folks live is them folks. They ain't whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. They ain't alive no more. Them sons-a-bitches killed 'em."
When Tom Joad realizes that his home has been abandoned, he and Casy become aware of how little they know about what has transpired on the land; they decide to stay with Muley Graves and hear what he has to say about everything. Muley is frustrated and lonely. While his relatives, who can no longer support themselves on the land, have left for California, Muley has stayed in order to watch over things. Slowly, he has realized the futility of trying to protect the land that was once his.
In this quote, Muley explains both his own, and the broader farmer population's, connection to the land. He sums up, in a simple yet profound way, the injustices of industrial agriculture and the corporate world's lack of compassion. Everything can be reduced to a bottom line, margin of profit, and there is no space for humanity in that equation. A callous and deeply unfair economic and agricultural system has pushed the people off the land and has taken away their means of survival.
"How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it. They sat and looked at it and burned it into their memories. How'll it be not to know what land's outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know -- and know the willow tree's not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can't. The willow tree is you."
This quote is located in a chapter that deals with the broader struggle that the Joads are going through and that highlights the difficulties of saying goodbye to prized possessions and moving on to a new place. The challenges that the Joads and others in their situation face are not only economic but also emotional. It is clear that the family is leaving behind everything of both economic and sentimental value, in the hope that a better life awaits in California. Yet even if California is everything that the Joads have imagined, the trip and transition still require a remarkable amount of sacrifice. And even if the family members are able to create new lives for themselves, they have still left a part of themselves behind in the Oklahoma land that they once considered their property.
"One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate -- "We lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.
In this broad, generic chapter (which does not consider the Joads alone), the narrator speaks of the potential for underprivileged people to unite. When just one man realizes the unfairness of his personal life -- whether it's losing his land to a company with a tractor or having to overpay for a broken-down jalopy -- that man does not realize the systemic unfairness that affects everyone. The owner men and the other perpetrators of this systematic injustice want the individuals on the bottom to stay isolated and not interact with others. When these individuals go about their lives as separate persons, they lack the power and momentum to create change. Yet when they meet others with the same goals, the volume of their complaints grows -- as does their awareness of the extent of the injustices they face. The transition from "I" to "we" terrifies those who perpetuate economic inequality; with this shift, their system begins to become endangered.
"An' I wouldn't pray for a ol' fella that's dead. He's awright. He got a job to do, but it's all laid out for 'im an' there's on'y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an' they's a thousan' ways, an' we don' know which one to take. An' if I was to pray, it'd be for the folks that don' know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An' now cover 'im up and let 'im get to his work."
When Casy delivers this "sermon" to the rest of the Joad group, he speaks to many of their fears of the future. They don't know what awaits them: even though they have been promised a fruitful future in California, doubts have started to creep in and new possibilities and alternatives have begun to multiply. Mirroring the many possibilities are the differing reactions of the members of the Joad family. Ma is calm and refuses to think much about the future, Pa remains preoccupied with the great things that await, and Tom refuses to engage in conversations about the future out of self-protection, since he doesn't want to be disappointed.
Overall, Casy believes that the people who have no clear direction in life are the ones who are in need of the prayers, so that such prayers are applicable to the Joads as they face an uncertain future. His message is important because it applies to all of the people moving to California -- not just to the Joads. Each traveler has a highly individualized image of the future, but nobody knows which image will become reality.
"S'pose you got a job a work, an' there's jus' one fella wants the job. You got to pay 'im what he asts. But s'pose they's a hunderd men." He put down his tool. His eyes hardened and his voice sharpened. "S'pose they's a hunderd men wants that job. S'pose them men got kids, an' them kids is hungry. S'pose a lousy dime'll buy a box a mush for them kids. S'pose a nickel'll buy at leas' somepin for them kids. An' you got a hunderd men. Jus' offer 'em a nickel - why, they'll kill each other fightin' for that nickel."
Whenever the Joads experience doubts about their prospects in California, they ease their worries to some extent by reminding themselves of the orange handbill that Pa carries in his coat. According to the handbill, hundreds of men are required for work in the fields; supposedly, the Joads can count on getting work and earning good wages as soon as they arrive in California. Yet when they arrive, they are not met with the bountiful opportunities that they had imagined, and a conversation with a man named Floyd (a leader of a migrant group) reveals why this is the case. With a surplus of laborers, who were unorganized and prone to infighting, the owners had the definitive advantage. They could dictate wages and drive them absurdly low -- to levels that would keep a worker from feeding his family with a day's work.
Because Steinbeck's laborers are unorganized and do not communicate with one another about acceptable pay, they are often powerless against the owners, who also have the benefit of a compliant police force. Conversations among the disgruntled workers are the basis of what the police and owners call "talkin' red," or promoting communism and the power of the proletariat.
"Those folks in the camp are getting used to being treated like humans. When they go back to the squatters' camps they'll be hard to handle."
The farm owners and bosses are unsettled by the conditions that the workers have become accustomed to in the government camps. They realize that they are toeing a fine line between extracting maximum profits and forestalling potential unrest. Just as at other points of the novel, when the intensity of complaints becomes more prominent as people meet one another and interact, here the social life of the workers is creating in them a sense of mutual agitation. One discontented man does not pose a problem, but many disgruntled men, who are living together in a large group, pose a substantial problem to landowners.
Under the capitalism described in The Grapes of Wrath, owners' high profit margins rely on the internal competition among laborers that drives wages down. However, if workers decide to strike and not work for certain wages, then the entire corporate system is threatened. Beyond attaining reasonable wage negotiation, the people in the government camp have been able to achieve a certain level of dignity and self-respect. The camp is clean, the residents elect their own officials, and they also work together to provide a better life for everyone. Now that the migrants are experienced in this style of living, the owners fear that the continuation of these living conditions will lead to unrest. Consequently, the owners want to terminate these camps in an attempt to prevent rebellion.
"And now the great owners and the companies invented a new method. A great owner bought a cannery. And when the peaches and the pears were ripe he cut the price of fruit below the cost of raising it. And as cannery owner he paid himself a low price for the fruit and kept the price of canned goods up and took his profit. And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries. As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit, exhausted their friends, their relatives. And then they too went on the highways. And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.
And the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it. The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their sides. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line. And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment."
The "new method" mentioned above has placed California small farmers in competition with the Okies. Once able to earn a living from their land, the California farmers have been pushed off by larger industrial conglomerates, and now they are traveling up and down California looking for work, just as the people who came from Oklahoma are.
Defined precisely, the "new method" described is a simultaneous process of vertical and horizontal integration.Vertical integration is when the supply chain of a company is owned by the same company. The vertical integration began first: the wealthy owner was able to buy a cannery, use this business to package his goods, and then sell the canned goods to consumers. He was also able to sell his fruit for a relatively high profit because he had control over the prices of the canned goods, since he owned the cannery. Having control over the price of fruit sold to factories allowed the wealthy owner to expand horizontally and push small farmers off their land. The horizontal integration entailed the expansion of one owner across an industry, such as peach production. When both of these processes emerged, it would become impossible for a moderate- or small-sized farm to compete or even continue to exist.
"Fella tol' me what happened in Akron, Ohio. Rubber companies. They got mountain people in 'cause they'd work cheap. An' these here mountain people up an' joined the union. Well, sir, hell jes' popped. All them storekeepers and legioners an' people like that, they get drillin' an yellin', 'Red!' An' they're gonna run the union right outa Akron. Preachers git a-preachin' about it, an' papers a-yowlin', an' they're a-buyin' gas. Jesus, you'd think them mountain boys was reg'lar deviles!" He stopped and found some more rocks to shoot. "Well, sir -- it was las' March, an' one Sunday five thousan' of them mountain men had a turkey shoot outside a town. Five thousan' of 'em jes' marched through town with their rifles. An' they had their turkey shoot, an' then they marched back. An' that's all they done. Well, sir, they ain't been no trouble sence then. These here citizens committees give back the pick handles, an' the storekeepers keep their stores, an' nobody been clubbed or tarred an' feathered, an' nobody been killed.' There was a long silence, and then Black Hat said, 'They're gettin purty mean out here. Burned that camp an' beat up folks. I been thinkin'. All our folks got guns. I been thinkin' maybe we ought to git up a turkey shootin' club an' have meetin's ever' Sunday."
When Pa Joad meets with a group of Central Committee members in the government camp, the men's talk turns to quality of life, wages, and work opportunities. A man in a black hat tells the story of a group of people in Akron, Ohio, who fought against the state's powerful rubber companies, suggesting that comparable action could be taken against agricultural giants. The mountain people were also forced to work for lower wages, and when they organized it caused a lot of controversy in their territory. An entire town wanted to break down their organization and run them out -- and the townspeople acquired weapons in order to do so.
The events described in these stories parallel what has been happening in California. People are afraid of organizing because there is little understanding of what it is or what it seeks to accomplish. Yet in a calm show of force -- a march through town, equipped with guns for a "turkey shoot" -- the mountain men were able to establish themselves and prevent actual violence. The man in the black hat suggests that the men in California could do something similar. After all, they all have guns and would be capable of staging a "turkey shoot," and could both assert their strength and organize proactively under this pretext. Because it is impossible for the workers to thrive in the current environment, something drastic must be done to create a better life.
"There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates -- died of malnutrition -- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
It is in this passage that the title of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is first mentioned in the text. Understanding the title's origins is important for understanding the larger themes of corporate greed and suffering that are present throughout the novel. The title of the novel can be traced to both the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the Bible's Book of Revelation 14: 19-20.
The lyrics of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" are as follows:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
The passage from the Book of Revelation is as follows:
So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.
The idea of "grapes of wrath" has historically been used to represent the oppression of the weak by the mighty, which occurs throughout the novel as the rich landowners create a miserable existence for the landless laborers. Contained within the phrase is the idea that the anger and wrath of the oppressed becomes deeper and more intense, just as the grapes used to make wine ferment and acquire stronger tastes. In both the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the passage from the Book of Revelation, there is a call for a higher power to set right the wrongs that have been done to the oppressed. It is unclear whether Steinbeck is making a plea to God or to some other higher force in the novel. However it is interpreted, this crucial quote places the novel's themes of greed, oppression, suffering, and justice in the context of older, hallowed texts.
The Grapes of Wrath Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Grapes of Wrath is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.