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Unlike his businessman son, Al, old Anderson is not prospering in his affairs. He's a small farmer surrounded by huge orchards owned by three wealthy and powerful families.
And that's not all they own. Mac hits on Anderson's major problem first thing, when he tries to convince the old farmer to lend his fallow land to the workers for a camp:
"Have they been squeezing you? You know God damn well they have. How long you going to last? Maybe one year; and then Torgas Finance takes your place." (89)
Those same Big Ag families also own the company that holds the loan on Anderson's little place. That means that the same three families influence the wages that Anderson can pay his workers—whether he likes it or not. It's enough to drive a man of integrity to tears.
And Anderson gets angry pretty quickly when Mac lays his cards on the table. It isn't long before Mac gets to the desire in the deepest part of Anderson's heart:
"It'll probably break me, and put me on the road. Christ knows I'm headed for it anyway. Might as well have some fun. I'd give a hell of a lot to stick Chris Hunter." (90)
Mac plays to Anderson's desire to "stick it to the man" to get what he wants, even though Anderson has no real use himself for universal justice for the worker.
But Anderson's fair-weather support for the workers doesn't see him through the sacrifices he's about to make on account of his participation in the strike. When his son's lunch wagon is burned and Al himself assaulted, the old man is beside himself.
He doesn't have the stoic outlook on personal loss that Mac has in this situation. Mac tells Doc that such losses can't be helped—nor should they want to stop them:
"We can't help it, Doc. He happens to be the one that's sacrificed for the men. Somebody has to break if the whole bunch is going to get out of the slaughter-house. We can't think about the hurts of one man. It's necessary, Doc." (158)
Harsh? You betcha. But also probably true. The battle is getting harder, and it becomes clear that no one is getting out without some scars. Anderson's fate, however, forces us to ask something very important: how much should any one person have to sacrifice for meaningful change to take place?
Jim tells Mac that Anderson should quit whining: others, like himself, are willing to sacrifice their entire lives. But what does that mean to people like Mac and Jim, who really don't have anything to lose?
Through Anderson's character, Steinbeck points out a tough situation: those who don't have anything believe it's just as easy for those who do to sacrifice it all. But that's just not true. After he loses his barn and dogs, Anderson rages at Mac and Jim:
"You bastards never owned nothing. You never planed trees an' seen 'em grow an' felt 'em with your hands. You never owned a thing, never went out an' touched your own apple trees with your hands. What do you know?" (259)
It's a truly pitiful, heart-wrenching scene. Yet there is something that Anderson, too, fails to consider (and that Mac points out to him): you can't appreciate something that you never had. And Mac and Jim never even had the chance to have what Anderson has, because the system is basically rigged. Steinbeck's ability to look at the suffering of both of these men impartially imparts a good lesson. Systemic injustice knows no bounds.