The Grapes of Wrath: Of Tractors and Men

Inanimate objects do not take on meaning until human beings give them meaning. Then, the object is not just an object; it becomes a powerful force in life. Take, for example, the tractor that appears in the beginning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. It plows the soil that the tenant farmers had once owned, ignoring "hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses"; it is a machine that takes the place of farmers who once toiled lovingly on their soil--a machine that does not love the soil but that plunders on relentlessly. By emphasizing the coldness of this machine and the machine-like driver who operates the tractor, Steinbeck contrasts them with the human farmers who had been driven off the land. The driver is "part of the monster, a robot in the seat," writes Steinbeck, "... he [loves] the land no more than the banks [love] the land." In stark contrast, the hapless tenant farmer had once "crumbled a hot clod in his hands and let the earth sift past his fingers." "The machine man [drives] a dead tractor on land he does not know and love," says Steinbeck. In this sense, the tractor in Steinbeck's novel becomes not just a machine that plows the land, but a symbol of the heartless and relentless powers behind the curtains that are forcing the farmers off their land. It is part of a huge "machine" the farmers cannot control, a force that takes the farmers' fates into its hands--and "all of them [stare] after the tractor."