Arendt and the Grapes of Wrath


Post by John Driscoll

I was recently having a discussion with my father, a former farmer, about the dust bowl. Of course, I was inclined to bring up some of the things we had talked about at the beginning of the year, but afterwards I began thinking about the Grapes of Wrath from an Arendtian perspective. In regards to her ideas about authority, I would say the Bank, in the context of Chapter 5, displayed both of the behaviors Arendt identifies as authority-reducing. When comparing her discussion of the abusive parent to the Bank, it is easy to see how this abuse of power caused the farmers to completely lose respect for the Bank.

            In her discussion, Arendt points out that there are two primary ways in which a parent can lose authority over their child. First, the parent could argue with the child, thus giving the child power in its words and actions. Second, the parent could beat the child, which would automatically show that there is no reason the child should obey other than the fear of physical suffering. In both cases, the child would lose respect for the parent first, which then leads to a loss of authority on the parents behalf. As mentioned in class earlier, respect and authority are married; one cannot maintain authority without the respect of his or her subjects.

            In the case of the Grapes of Wrath, the Bank showed a shining example of how violence, or in this case, legal power with the threat of violence, caused the farmers to completely lose whatever small amount of respect they had for the Bank. By completely controlling the physical actions of the farmers through various policies (e.g. ordering which crops to be harvested, when, and by what means,) the Bank was relying on a subdued form of violence to maintain control over the tenants. They then went on to continue this form of abuse by forcing the tenants off their land. All the while, one can see the specter of Arendt shaking her head in disapproval of the Banks abuse of power and subsequent loss of authority. The sad truth about all this is that none of the suffering, either from the tenants or employees of the bank, was necessary. It is only because of the collective failure of everyone involved to even attempt to challenge the authorities. Because no one believed they had the strength, or as a group, the power to affect change, the cycle continued.

            I guess in the end, the only changes that are ever made come from the belief that it is possible. No matter what amount of strength or power any individual or group of people possess, they will never implement change without first realizing it is a possibility. From this perspective, our imaginations are our only real limitation, it seems…


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