The illustrious author John Ernst Steinbeck wrote the small novel or novella, "Of Mice and Men". Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902 in Salinas, California. His story of "Of Mice and Men" portrayed a sort of "microcosm" which runs parallel with the American Society in the 1930s. This idea also shows how the different characters on the ranch represent different cultures and groups in American society. Steinbeck writes about how these different characters manage their lives on the ranch, and how life wasn’t easy there. Following the collapse of the New York Wall Street stock market in 1929, America entered a prolonged period of economic depression. Work was very hard to find, as many workers migrated out of the big cities and into the countryside to find work like George and Lennie. From this the characters’ lives are restricted and many of them feel trapped by the situation in which they live. Some, however, restrict their own selves rather than being restricted by the pressures put on them by their society, resulting in their own limitations.
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The two main characters in the story are named George and Lennie. They are "migrant workers", traveling from ranch to ranch to find work. As times were hard they were lucky to find work. As their lives had always been rootless it created a dream that both George and Lennie held onto as a sort of relief from the life that they lived from day to day. This idea of a dream remains as a sort of constant throughout the novella. This theme also consists of certain features such as the freedom from having to work for someone else all the time (being their own boss). Another feature is being able to enjoy the fruits of their own effort: as George says,
"We’d know what come of our planting"
Also living somewhere where they belong because it is theirs,
"we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunkhouse".
George seems continuously driven by these dreams showing us how desperate he is to gain an easier life to live. However, Steinbeck stresses how difficult it is for George and people like him to acquire this. Money is very scarce for people to get their hands on but when they do it is easy to part with. The society that George and Lennie mix with does not make it any easier for them to achieve this dream.
Lennie, the other main character, is a man with a mental disorder that restricts his life even further. He is a fully grown man with what seems like superhuman strength, maybe because of his size, but he has the intelligence of a small child. Steinbeck compares Lennie’s strength and clumsiness to a bear-like creature,
"drank with long gulps, snorting into the water like a horse".
"and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws"
Another aspect of LennieТs fraught life is that he has to rely on George in order to live. Even when life is hard enough already it is a lot worse for Lennie, as he lacks the capacity to organize himself for survival. Because of Lennie’s "handicap" he is a victim of social prejudice to some extent, mainly because people do not understand what drives him or the innocence of his motives. George may have felt a little embarrassed about Lennie by having to care for him all the time and this may have been the reason George did not take Lennie into town with the rest of the ranch workers one evening. It could have been that Lennie might have become agitated and therefore started causing trouble and George would not want Lennie to become hurt.
In the end George kills him as he cannot bear to see the sight of him shot down like an animal by Curley or the alternative that could have happened, which Slim portrays for him,
"An s’pose they lock him up an" strap him down and put him in a cage. That ain’t no good, George".
Lennie is very unfortunate by the fact that the story is mainly based around his inevitable death. But George knew what he was doing and the fact that he did what was best for Lennie, blocks the horror of his death. He then focuses on his own sympathy for Lennie and therefore allowed him to "sacrifice his own peace of mind to save him from further suffering".
Candy is another character like Lennie in the way that he is isolated and lonely. Candy is old, disabled and after an accident four years before, deprived of his right hand. At that time he had the lowliest job on the ranch as a swamper but he knew that sooner or later he would be "canned" or get sacked because he is too old and useless,
I won’t have no place to go an’ I can’t get no more jobs".
As he is lonely he has become more attached to his dog that is also old and disabled. This dog begins to stink out the bunkhouse, which annoys the other men. There is also an inevitable end to the dog. Candy is also haunted by letting another man kill his dog. However the dogТs fate acts as a sort of metaphor for the rules in American society at that time. The dog was a fine sheep dog but now it is old and disabled and therefore expendable. The death of Candy’s dog is also a prefiguration of LennieТs death, as both dog and Lennie have to be put down.
As a result of Candy’s misery and insecurity in life he is very willing to give up this life and contribute to George and Lennie’s dream. Candy just wants to get away from his downtrodden existence and start a new life somewhere else. He also agrees with George and Lennie’s idea of their own place and living off their own work. Candy’s desperation for this dream shows how meaningless his life is and what he has achieved in that time.
Crooks is probably the worst off victim of social degradation. He was the image of racism in American society in the 1930s. He has the job of a stable buck; the word buck means Negro, and his name comes from the way his back was disfigured by a horse. So physically both Crooks and Candy were disabled with probably the lowliest jobs on the ranch. Steinbeck underlines that Crooks" life was very difficult and that he suffered a lot more than anyone in the story. His lifelong pain apart from his deformity was the fact that he was a "nigger".
Crooks has a bitter knowledge of how his life has been hampered by racial prejudice and by the way people assume his inadequacy. Apart from his earlier life he seemed to have become more socialized with the people on the ranch. For example he pitches horseshoes with the others and is described as a "nice fella" by Candy. Crooks is still frowned upon therefore he is not allowed to set foot into the bunkhouse although he may be invited in. Although people were allowed freely into his room as he was too low to have to ask asked permission, most people would rather stay away from him, as they would not want to be caught socializing with an inferior person. Unfortunately he encounters Curley’s wife whilst talking to Lennie which resulted in him cowering from the violent threats he subsequently received from Curley’s wife which were mainly racial and social status threats.
"I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny"
The power of the threat is evident in Crook’s reaction to it, as he "had reduced himself to nothing". Crooks has a sort of lifelong experience of the sort of damage that can occur both mentally and physically as a result of racial prejudice.
"My ol" man didn’t like that. I never till long later why he didn’t that. I know now."
He had his own small room attached to the side of the stable where he is isolated from the rest of the ranch workers. Steinbeck also portrays the fact that he was considered as an animal as he was virtually sleeping next to them.
This racial prejudice shows how serious it can actually turn out to be through age. Crooks talks about how his childhood was a little happier than his adult life and that he could play with black and white children and have a lot of fun. But as they grew up the children would become more self-aware and would acquire the attitudes of the "ranch hands" and think nothing more of him than a nigger. Also not allowing him not to play cards in the bunkhouse,
"They say I stink".
This could be another parallel with Candy’s dog. Steinbeck shows Lennie’s mental age very clearly as Lennie does not know that Crooks is considered very low and that he should not mix with him. He is a sort of example of how children are not aware of racism.
As a consequence Crooks is lonely as there is no one like him on the ranch, not even another black person, that he could possibly talk to and share the torments of his life.
"A guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick".
Along with Candy he knows that life and his future is bleak. Even when Candy reassures him of his own room, Crooks responds with a sarcastic comment that tells us his view of life,
"And a manure pile under the window. Sure it’s swell".
The heap of manure shows how insignificant Crooks is to the rest of the ranch and that he cannot mix with the other men just because he is black.
Crooks’ vision of a dream is not so different from the others. Of course he would have liked to share in the profits of George’s, Lennie’s and Candy’s dream. However after remembering the position that he was in he quickly gave up the idea as being impossible. Crooks may have had a brief encounter with the dream of becoming "normal". For example Crooks might have wanted to become a part of an equal and sleep in the bunk house play cards with the other men and not be unwanted anymore.
The last character who plays an important role is a woman, Curley’s wife. In the 1930s the women of America were expected to lead domestic based lives, such as doing the housecleaning, as well as serving the interests of their husbands and families. Being the only woman on the ranch life is lonely for her just like Crooks. So she tries to mix with the workers on the ranch, where she gets a little further than Crooks. The men interpret her attempts to try and ease the loneliness as unfaithful flirtatiousness. She has also been named,
"Tart" and "These here jail baits".
Curley’s wife also dresses up to make Curley happy but everything that she wears or puts on is red; the color of danger and seductiveness.
She is not happy with Curley, we can tell this by the way she acts towards him and by the personality of Curley, a self-centered man who is immaturely aggressive. Curley treats her as a fashion item and an "attractive piece of property". Steinbeck does not give Curley’s wife a name, showing the insignificance of a woman in a manТs world of a ranch.
This desperation to try and socialize with other people is what drives her to seek out Lennie. By now she knows Lennie’s limitations and although he does not understand most of the things she is saying to him, she tells him more about herself than to any other character. She ironically echoes the words of Crooks about how she is lonely and the need of companionship. She then goes on to describe her dream of how she could have become a movie star and how she was let down by the man she met at the Riverside Dance Palace and by her mother whom she did not trust. This triggered off the impulse to marry Curley to get away from the boredom of her existence at home.
This irony led up to the death of Lennie. By killing Curley’s wife Lennie had unravelled not only her dream of a better life but also the dream that he shared with George and Candy. So after his death Candy asks about the dream but George points out the inevitability of his future life,
"I’ll work my month an’ I’ll take my fifty bucks an’ I’ll stay all night in some lousy cat-house. Or I’ll set in some pool-room till ever’body goes home. An’ then I’ll come back an’ work another month an’ I’ll have fifty bucks more".
So Candy and George both face their fate and their future lives in this downtrodden existence.
This novella is based around the social criticism of American Society in the 1930s and contains many themes, each of them relating to the different "classes", of people who are hampered by their society. As a result the whole story implies the failures in society not only because of their personalities but also because of the society in which they live.
The story also presents very well the picture of human life. Dreams are always there and it is very unlikely that dreams are fulfilled easily. George, for example, would have been better off after Lennie’s death. George would have found it easier to manage his own life. The fact that Lennie was a "payload" is that George had to care for him and therefore was not able to achieve his dream. George thinks that Lennie was a sort of restraint holding him back. George and Lennie seemed to have thought about this dream a lot and maybe since they had set out from home. It shows how desperate a man or woman can become in a society like this.
Curley’s wife may seem a selfish character but some may sympathize with her. She is naive, lonely and frustrated as well as unhappy by the fact that she did not achieve what she could have been capable of. Steinbeck’s presentation of her implies that she exaggerates her ability. She needs to dream as an escape from an unfulfilling, loveless existence.
Overall Steinbeck has presented the character’s lives very well and how they have developed as the story progressed. He especially delivered the message of how individuals are hampered by the society and the surroundings and how it has affected their lives and dreams. He does this by showing George’s restraints with Lennie and how everyone has a dream which is not easy to achieve. With these two main facts Steinbeck puts together a marvelous piece of writing showing how the life on the ranch represents the life in American Society in the 1930s.
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