In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting two novels, “Of Mice and Men” and “The Pearl”, both by the American author John Steinbeck. I also will be considering how Steinbeck has interwoven the social and political concerns of that time.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born on February 27th 1902 in Salinas, California. He was educated at Stanford University and graduated from there in 1919. He went on to study English, but later left without a degree. In the years that followed on Steinbeck had many jobs, varying from newspaper work to an itinerant ranch-hand. Steinbeck later became an author and wanted to see the effect of the depression that took place in 1929 on normal people. He had seen for himself and visited refugee camps and his work emphasizes the gap between upper and lower class people and shows us how they are treated. Steinbeck wanted mainly to write about the hardship and difficulties that millions of Americans were facing.
During the 1920s there was a boom time in America when people made huge fortunes and people were going from “rags to riches”. Anyone could become rich and so ordinary people bought shares. As you can see from the examples given below, shares rose dramatically due to the vast improvement in technology.
Soon in October 1929 an economic “depression” began and poverty swept the entire United States. There was no employment money and no support for those who were jobless. People lost their savings and many began to lose self-respect and became desperate. Thousands struggled to find work after banks went bust
along with their savings. This was probably the main reason why “Of Mice & Men” was written in 1936, during the time of mass unemployment and when shares were lower than before. Steinbeck thought people should have stability in their lives. He was concerned about how people were living and wanted others to know how migrants life was like, he didn’t feel it was right.
People heard that California had good soil and also had plenty of room and so headed West, where “Of Mice & Men” is set. The Pearl was written in 1944 and was published in 1945. When Steinbeck was on holiday in 1941 on a 6-week sardine fishing boat with a friend who was a marine biologist, they together explored the Gulf of California and visited the small villages and heard folktales, which inspired Steinbeck to write “The Pearl” with his own adaptations and characters. Steinbeck died on 20th December 1968 after marrying three times and having other stories published, the most popular being Grapes of Wrath written in 1939.
The lives of migrant workers in “Of Mice & Men” are similar to those of the characters in “The Pearl” (Kino’s people). They share their poverty and lead simple lives although their lifestyles and living conditions differ in other ways. In “Of Mice & Men” the migrant workers go around from ranch to ranch searching for work and live in bunkhouses that are shared by other workers. They are poorly decorated, had no privacy and no employment rights though they are still suitable for the men to live in. “Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted. In three walls there were small square windows and in the forth a solid door with a wooden latch”.
People worked long hours in unsafe conditions and were disrespected by their bosses. In contrast, the poorer people in “The Pearl” live in brush huts that have only one room and sleep on sleeping mats and their babies sleep in hanging boxes, “on the hanging box where Coyotito lay and on the ropes that held it”. All the poorer villagers live in a “cluster of brush houses” where everything was a “neighbourhood affair”, separate from the upper, richer class. Since everyone lived so close together on the outskirts everyone knew everything that went on in La Paz. We see that this is true when Kino finds the pearl and “the nerves of the town were pulsing and vibrating with the news- Kino had found the Pearl of the World.”
The way characters dress in “Of Mice & Men” distinguishes their class-whether they are rich or poor. “Both were dressed in denim trousers and in denim coats with brass buttons. Both wore black, shapeless hats and both carried tight blanket rolls…” These clothes are worn by migrant workers, George and Lennie, as described in the opening paragraph of the first chapter. Compared to what the owner of the ranch wears, these are nothing. “He wore blue jean trousers, a flannel shirt, a black unbuttoned vest and a black coat. His thumbs were stuck in a belt, on each side of a square steel buckle. On his head was a soiled brown Stetson hat, and he wore high heeled boots and spurs to prove he was not a labouring man”. The clothes worn by the boss just how superior he is to George and Lennie, the migrant workers.
In “The Pearl” the type of house they own and what they eat for breakfast, as shown in the contrast by Steinbeck, unlike in “Of Mice & Men”, divides the richer and poorer classes up. “They came to the place where the brush houses stopped and the city of stone and plaster began”. The people who are richer and live in the more stable houses are well off and eat breakfasts like “…drinking chocolate and sweet biscuits” whereas the occupants of the brush houses eat “corncakes and drink pulque”. People like the doctor and the pearl buyer had lives worth living unlike Kino and the others who lived in the brush huts and had a low standard of life. Even after all he has, the doctor still isn’t satisfied with what he has and craves for more. The poorer people can’t afford a doctor or even to get married, they lead the same lives everyday.
During the time when “Of Mice & Men” was written segregation existed in several southern states and prejudice and discrimination against black people were widespread. After farmers struck difficult times during the depression, black workers lost their jobs and so three quarters of a million went looking for employment in the north. Black people suffered the lowest wages and the worst conditions and ended up in the poorest housing. In “Of Mice & Men”, Crooks, the stable buck, is the only black man on the ranch and is made to live in a place separate from all the ranch workers just because of the colour of his skin. The ranch workers call him “the nigger”, but do not deliberately mean it as insults they also think of him as a “nice fella”. “Nigger, huh?” “Yeah. Nice fella, too”. To us and what John Steinbeck is trying to tell us is that Crooks is a symbol for black people at the time. In the story, Crooks is the victim of oppressive violence and prejudice and is suppressed by years of antagonism. Crooks are very bitter about the way he is treated and as a result is cold to others and prefers to keep to himself.
“Lennie smiled helplessly in an attempt to make friends. Crooks said sharply “You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me”. The only time he mixes with the other men is when he plays the horseshoe game, which he always wins. “Darker’n hell in here”, he said. “Jesus, how that nigger can pitch shoes”. “Why ain’t you wanted?” Lennie asked. “Cause I’m black. They play cards in there, but I can’t play because I’m black. They say I stink”. After speaking to Lennie, Crook’s new found confidence and self-respect encourage and influence him to counter the intrusion of Curley’s wife, but he is humilated by her vicious threats and racist remarks. “She turned to him in scorn. “Listen, Nigger…You know what I could do if you open your trap?”…”Well you keep your place, then Nigger. I could get you strung up to a tree so easy it ain’t even funny”.
Again, in “The Pearl”, Kino and his family are treated unkindly and with disrespect by the people who are “higher” than them and feel superior, e.g. the doctor, the priest etc. When Coyotito falls ill after being stung by a scorpion, Kino and Juana make their way into town “where the brush houses stopped and the city of stone and plaster began”, seeking helpfrom “the fat, lazy doctor”. The doctor who is having a rich, lavish breakfast when Kino shows up with his wife and child instantly shows off his superiority, “the doctor put his cup down gently before he let his anger rise. “Have I nothing better to do than cure insect bites for “little Indians”? I am a doctor, not a veterinary”. Here, this quote tells us that the doctor thinks Kino, Juana and Coyotito are “litttle Indiand”, a racist remark and also “animals” as he says he is a doctor, not a vet.
The women in both books, Curly’s wife in “Of Mice & Men” and Juana in “The Pearl”, are treated in similar yet contrasting ways. In “Of Mice & Men”, the only female character we meet is Curley’s wife. Curley’s wife is never named in the novel which makes her sound like Curley’s posession, as if she belongs to Curley. She is not treated as an individual or as her own person in her own right, which I think is something she feels bitter about almost as if she resents marriage. Towards others she is seen as various other things and objects- a tart, a flirt, a sex object, a chattel and even a piece of “jail bait”. “She’s a jail bait all set on the trigger”. Curley’s wife in the story is described as a tart and I would agree because although she is a married woman, she still shows herself off in front of all the other ranch workers and gives them “the eye”. She does this wearing short dresses and flirts with the ranch hands, aware of the effects, some positive, i.e Whit “Well ain’t she a loo-loo” and others negative, “Jesus what a tramp”.
In “The Pearl” Juana is the main female character. Like the position of women in America, Juana’s place was at home to raise the children, cook and support Kino. Juana was “obedient and respectful”, to her husband Kino and also dutiful and faithful to him. Juana wants the best for her son, Coyotito, just like Kino does so “he must go to school” and not have to suffer likehis parents did. Juana follows Kino and his decision to sell the pearl although she thinks it will “destroy them all”. When Kino refuses to throw the pearl away she respects his decision because she knew “they were in some way one thing and one purpose”.
When Kino finds the pearl the whole town of La Paz is in uproar, some villagers who are excited and happy for Kino, others who are given hopeand start looking for pearls of their own and others like the doctor and the priest who are jealous of Kino’s rare discovery and plot in ways to steal it. “All the manner of people grew interested in Kino…” “…and the brush house was crowded with people”. As soon as the news of the pearl travelled to the priest who before disliked Kino thought of “certain repairs necessary to the church”.
The priest doesn’t really like Kino, but now he is wealthy, he thinks how it could benefit him and lets his greed for money get the better of him. The doctor, who is racist and refused to see Coyotito at the start of the story, rethinks the situation and “sees himself sitting in a restaurant in Paris”. He decides to visit Kino and tells him a lie about why he wasn’t able to see Coyotiti earlier, but now he is able to see Coyotito who is now actually better. By making Coyotito ill again and then well, the greedy doctor asks for a payment for his dishonest services. The doctor only went to Coyotito because he was greedy for money.
Many of the characters in Of Mice & Men have dreams like Kino and Juana in The Pearl. They have these dreams and ambitions in order to escape their desperate situations. In Of Mice & Men, the dream of Lennie and George is kept a secret between them. The dream is repeated and recited at several parts of the book, telling us how much it meant to them. Lennie dreams of “tending the rabbits” and George and Candy dream about all the benefits of working for themselves, having privacy, “livin’ offa the fatta the lan”. They dream about being self sufficient and “canning tomatoes”. Having a dream or an ambition to fulfill, gives hope to people, it gives them something to look forward to, making them aim higher and realise that life is worth living.
On the other hand in The Pearl the dream of Kino and Juana is only revealed after his discovery and is quite different to George and Lennie’s dream. All Kino wants is the basics of life, new clothes, to get married in a church and to send his son, Coyotito to school. Although the dreams are different in both stories, they both end in tragedy and the dreams never come to true.
Lonliness is one of the strongest features of both books. In Of Mice & Men, many of the characters are lonely and this allows them to search for another way of life. I think that this is the main reason behind the fact that they are “drifters” searching far and wide, not knowing what to look for. George is lonely because his only companionship is with Lennie who is dumb and innocent. George “ain’t got no people” and thinks that “ain’t no good” and boring. Crooks is lonely because he is black and nobody mixes with him so he seeks his companionshipin his pride, books and his skill in pitching horseshoes. “It was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger”. Candy suffers lonliness after his dog is shot in the head by Slim. Candy is forced into losing his only companion, “Candy lay rigidly on his bed staring at the ceiling”. Curley’s wife has dreams of a better, fulfilling life-being an actress in Hollywood. She is lonely because Curley really doesn’t pay attention to her and prefers to prove how tough he is, so she flirts and gives “the eye” to other men.
When Kino and Juana find the pearl, I think it drives a wedge between them and their close bond is broken, they are not as close as they were before. They don’t make the decisions together and Juana’s ends up listening to Kino’s orders to run away. “I am afraid. A man can be killed. Let us throw the pearl back into the sea.” “Hush”, he said fiercely”. “She knew there was muder in him”.
George looks after Lennie partly out of pity, partly out of affection and partly for companionship. In many ways I think that George and Lennie are one person- half weak, half strong. Lennie you could say is George’s “shadow”. The way he copies his dress style. “Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly”. George knows how Lennie behaves and does on odd occassions mistreat him. “George looked quickly and searchingly at him. “I been mean, ain’t I? “No you stay with me. Your Aunt Clara wouldn’t like you running off by yourself even if she is dead”.
Juana and Kino are a very strong couple, they work together in raising their baby son and make their decisions together. She is a very good wife and listens to her husband with awareness, although he does have a short temper and has struck her before. He hits herin the book when she trys to throw the pearl awayand doesn’t let her do it although he does still love her, but only wants the best for his family. She does forgive him and agrees to runaway from town with him.
The books stand together in trying to teach us that dreams cannot always come true so you shouldn’t rely on them and get carried away or obessed with them. Although this doesn’t happen in the stories, this is the message that comes out of the books. They are similar because both dreams end in tragedy.