The landowners come in closed cars, feel the dry earth with their fingers, and test the soil's fertility. The tenants watch them uneasily from their sun-scorched dooryards. Some of the owners are kind and hate what they have to do; some are angry because they hate to be cruel; and others are cold and hold themselves at a distance since they had learned long ago that they could not be an owner if they showed sympathy with the people.
Both the owners and the tenants seem to be entrapped in something that is bigger than they are. The owners explain that they have to evict the tenants because of the years of poor crops and claim that the cotton has sucked all the blood out of the land and made it barren. The sharecroppers suggest that maybe rotation of crops would pump the blood back into the soil and that maybe the next year would be a good one. The owners, however, insist that it is too late and say that "the bank--the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die." The farmers say that they cannot cut down on their share because the kids do not have enough to eat even now. The owner then says that the tenant system will not work any more. A man on a tractor can replace twelve to fourteen families and provide a sizable profit. They will pay the tractor man a wage, and they will take all the produce themselves.
At this point, the tenants claim ownership of the land since their grandfathers have settled it. Their families have lived, worked, and died on this land for years; they have no other place to go. Nonetheless, the owners order them to leave and blame the bank: "It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man." They explain to the tenants that they can go on relief or go west to California, where there are plenty of oranges to be picked.
The tractors come and plow the land efficiently. The drivers, who have no
love of the land, have strict orders to demolish anything that comes in
the way of a straight line. They rape the land without passion. At mid-day,
the tractor driver sometimes stops near a tenant house and has his lunch.
He eats without really enjoying his food. The tenants stare curiously
at his strange face caked with dust and marked with lines where the goggles
and the mask are worn. Hungry children watch his hands as it carries food
to his mouth. The tenants often accuse the driver of betraying his own
people. The driver declares his prime concern is only for his own starving
family and not others. He earns three dollars a day to plow in a straight
line. It is not his fault if he must demolish a tenant's house when it
blocks his way. The tenant sometimes threatens to shoot the driver, but
he points out the futility of such an action by saying that he would just
get hanged and another driver will come and demolish his house. The tenant
wants revenge; he wants to kill somebody but is at a loss to know whom
to kill since the driver gets his orders from the bank which in turn gets
its orders from people in the East.
Chapter five presents a striking contrast between the agrarian way of life and the modern methods of farming. It is an enactment of the generalized drama through which the sharecroppers are evicted from their land. In the narrative chapters that follow, the Joads will be the victims of similar circumstances. In this chapter, Steinbeck describes the representative tenant's encounter with the tractor driver as the latter demolishes the tenant's house by driving through the doorway. He captures the general sense of futility as the tenant merely steps aside and watches his home collapse in front of his own eyes.
Steinbeck succeeds in involving the reader emotionally in the suffering of the croppers. He never lets the reader lose sight of the human predicament involved in the national disaster of the dust storm. The real threat comes from the holding companies and the banks which are inhuman and devoid of any feeling and emotion. The bank is a monster that must feed on profits or perish. The owners of the land tell the sharecroppers to vacate the land and blame the bank for their actions. The owners are also devoid of human feeling and passively accept a situation which enables them to make a profit while avoiding the moral implications of their action. The tractors take over. The eviction of the tenants from the land into which they and their forebears have poured their sweat and blood underscores the human side of the tragedy.
Steinbeck levels another criticism against the society which allows machines, in the name of progress, to sever humanity's natural relationship with nature. The tractor functions as a symbol of the technological age, and the unfeeling tractor driver, like a robot, has lost contact with the earth. The tractor is indifferent to weather and unaffected by drought or rainfall. Under its mechanical precision, crops can be grown without spending human labor: "No one had touched the seed or lusted for growth. People ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread."
The tractor driver also becomes dehumanized, a part of the monster." The dehumanization of the driver is externalized in the form of a rubber dust-mask and goggles which hide his features. He has also lost his human will and the capacity to think and act independently. He mechanically fulfills the role of carrying out the orders of the machine and the capitalist economy. He has been conditioned to merely act without thinking. Steinbeck writes that "the monster . . . had goggled him and muzzled him--goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest." The driver, failing to think clearly, blinds himself to the effects of his actions.
The dialogue between the tenant and the farmer exposes the selfishness of the driver who betrays his own people. He is only interested in getting his three dollars a day and does not think about the fact that for his three dollars, fifteen or twenty families cannot eat at all and hundreds of families lose their homes and wander about on the roads. He also avoids thinking about the moral implications of his actions. His self-absorption keeps him from thinking about the suffering of the others. The tenant cannot defend himself. He threatens to shoot the driver but realizes the futility of such an action.
Chapter five also examines the issue of what constitutes ownership of land.
The absentee landlords and the tenants hold conflicting views about it.
For the landlords land is simply a means of earning sizable profits. Land
is nothing more to them than a financial investment. For the tenants,
on the other hand, land is a vital part of their very existence, and everything
in their life is tied to it, including birth, employment, and death. The
tenants follow the ideas of Jeffersonian agrarianism. Thomas Jefferson
believed that all people should have the opportunity to own landed property.
The Jeffersonians argued that even if a person did not own land legally,
the person had a natural right to claim ownership if he or she lived on
it and cultivated it. This idealism is reflected in the tenants' reply:
"We measured it and broke it up. . . that's what makes it ours--being
born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper
with numbers on it."