In this coursework I have learnt about America in the 1920s-1930s from reading Of Mice and Men. Of Mice and Men is a book written by John Steinbeck which revolves around certain themes such as racism, sexism but in particular the main theme; The American Dream. Two migrant field workers in California during the Great Depression come to a ranch near Soledad to find work. They hope to achieve one day a dream of settling down and owning their own farm.
Steinbeck also conveys the life on ranches and what it would be like to live in the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a era in which the economy in the United States and throughout the world was extremely bad. It began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 as the prices on the stock market fell dramatically in just five days. Many people lost their jobs and atleast a third of America was unemployed People became homeless and poor, and resorted to more manual jobs such as farming and labourers. People from the southern states immigrated to California as the soil was more long-lasting due to the longer growing season and farmers bought more land to keep up with income so they required more labourers. Steinbeck lived near the setting of the location and also worked as labourer showing experience in this life style which may reflect upon validates of the story and if it really were fictional.
The Great Depression was a tough time for America’s economy. This caused relationships to collapse because of blunt gestures and signs such as ‘no help wanted’ to people who were once friends. This is perhaps why George and Lennie’s friendship, and indeed their travelling together, was so unusual. Future plans changed because couples declared marriage rapidly as they could not afford to live separately. This explains the concept of Curley and his wife’s marriage. Poverty started to arise which led to death. This is cleverly symbolised in the novel; the relatively insignificant death of the small mouse at the beginning grows into the murder of Curley’s wife. It was also difficult for non-Americans, who were accused and blamed much like the character ‘Crooks’ in Steinbeck’s novel. He was portrayed as an ethnic minority because of the colour of his skin; because of this he was not at all powerful, whereas Curley was. Steinbeck included his own experience into the novel to give these characters their own personality and demeanour as he did work upon a farm similar to the setting during this period.
Women in the 1930s were married off to rich men so they could survive the Great Depression. Even though they were allowed to vote, they were still considered the inferior sex, and there words and actions were considered not as important as the men and even the suffrage campaign couldn’t change societies views on women even now, they are still the weaker sex, even though they can vote and run for Parliament and Britain has a Queen as opposed to a King. Women are still thought second to men.
It was only in the 1920s women had earned their right to vote, which is not to far from when the novel was written. This is why Steinbeck showed a lot of misogyny toward woman and hatred towards Curley’s wife. She is used as a object for Curley to show readers that women’s inferiority in the 1940s and how life was very unfair. The 1940s was a very male dominated time. We can see this from the quotes of the novel but also from the title. Steinbeck purposely chose the title to Of Mice and Men. This already foreshadows the reader that the novel is very male dominated.
Curley’s wife is the only female character in the novel shown. She is the wife of the ranch owner’s son. She is known as the ‘tart’ around the ranch. She is shown to be hated by all the character in the novel. The men in the novel seem to dislike the fact that she is a woman and walking around the ranch. Steinbeck carefully develops her character that the reader can see both sides of the misogyny help towards her. He also lets the reader decide weather they feel sorry for her or hate her for her actions. Upon this, there is no other mention of a woman in the novel apart from Aunt Clara who is a motherly figure upon Lennie. Curley’s wife is the one of the antagonists of the novel because she caused the plot as well as the ending.
Curley’s wife is first introduced when George and Lennie come to the ranch.
‘A girl was standing there looking in. She had full, roughed lips and wide spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung like rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.’
As a married woman, she has her limits to men, so she uses her husband as an excuse to see the new men. Steinbeck said she wore a lot of ‘red’, red being the colour for love, passion and also a colour to seeking sexual attention. Steinbeck purposely repeats the colour ‘red’ to tell the reader that she is really trying to grab attention of the men on the ranch and she wants to look pretty.
But it is also a colour of danger. This may foreshadow her affect on the characters or even her own death. She also wears a lot of make up, most people wear make up to look pretty and some wear it to grab attention, she was wearing make up to do both, as a married women not many men would look at her in the way they would look at a single girl, so she is trying to act and look as if she was single.
“Well what the hell was she doin’?’
This tells us Curley doesn’t trust his wife at all as they reply to they had just seen her . The only reason she married him was to make a living, during the 1920s was the Great Depression and the only was to making a living as a girl was to marry some rich someone who will feed you and give you shelter to live in. Curley’s wife causes Curley to feel jealous which causes a lot of conflict between lots of people. This also causes a fight between Curley and Carlson, which involves Lennie. At that point Steinbeck shows how people who weren’t smart enough to think for themselves. She lets others think that Curley can let her do whatever she wants and it makes him mad, he suspects something is going on between his wife and Slim because he doesn’t trust her at all, to him she is something he can call his own. Steinbeck shows male pride in Curley and that he doesn’t want a wife, but he just wants his wife as a trophy to show others that he is manly and that he can get the ladies they can’t. To him his wife is just an object. Even the lack of her having a name makes the reader think that she is Curley’s wife and Curley only.
‘Why don’t you keep her at home where she belongs’
Everyone around the ranch think she is a pain and they don’t like the way she tries to seduce them. This sentence shows pure stereotypic views. The men label Curley’s wife into something they think women should do, though hypocritically they visit the whore house regularly.
In the 1920s, women were only seen to be good at two things, in the kitchen and in the bedroom other than that there was no use to women. George’s reaction to Curley’s wife, however, makes the reader realise that she is a potential threat to the two men. George sees her as ‘poison’ and ‘jailbait’. He is angry with Lennie’s admiration of her and fiercely tells him to stay away from her;.
‘They left all the weak ones here.. .’
But what she doesn’t realise is that she is also one of the ‘weak’. She is the ‘weak ones’ because of her gender; her being a woman is the weakest bit about her. Steinbeck shows that in the1920 women had no power, no rights, so they had to live in the world where all the men controlled their lives. She is weak because even though she has a husband she has to try and please other men to get the attention she wants, her husband visits the brothel making her think she isn’t good enough for him. This makes the reader become emotionally and feel empathy towards her. It’s also a Saturday night, comparing these times to our modern age; people go to clubs or go out with loved ones. Curley’s wife is left all alone, the reader holds sympathy for her because her life is worse than the dog that is old and ill, and at least he has Candy who loves him.
Every time Curley’s wife tries to talk to someone she is always answered rudely and often given dirty looks. She is never spoken with respect or replied with a good reply, the men on the ranch just see her as someone who walks around the barn house being an attention seeker. They don’t like her and its clear, because her nicknames around the ranch are ‘tart’ ‘jail-bait’ and ‘poison’. Most of these nicknames are given to her because of her actions and speech towards them. She doesn’t have a name, her significance, her existence isn’t important, because she is married and now she is out of the league to talk to, because she holds nothing for the bachelor men to see.
The reader holds some bit of sympathy for Curley’s wife. ‘Think I don’t like to talk to someone ever’ once in a while’ The reader feels sorry for her and thinks maybe she tries to grab the men’s attention because she wants someone to talk to because she is the only woman on the ranch so really has no other company than the men themselves.
On the other hand, the reader sees a different side to Curley’s wife.
‘An’ what am I doin’? Standin’ here talking to a bunch of bindle stiffs- a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep- an likin it because they ain’t no body else’
She has just become really nasty, because they don’t talk to her like they are meant to or look at the way she wants to be looked at, Lennie does, but he does have mentality problems. Crooks is a ‘nigger’ so there is really nothing that she wants from him, not even a few words that could help them talk, not even him looking at her in the way she wants men to. Candy is an old men, who she really wants nothing to do with.
‘Listen nigger you know what I can do if I open your trap.’
She just becomes really racist because she was asked to go away. She threatens to accuse him of doing stuff he shouldn’t have, the consequence is that he would be lynched and burnt alive on a tree. On the other hand ‘open trap’ would also refer to her because of her personality and her attitude towards other people. Curley’s wife is shown a lonely person who has no one to talk to, which makes the reader feel sorry for her, and the way she gets treated by others, but then her reaction towards her loneliness if no better than how she gets treated. She is very picky about who she talks to, she is very rude towards people who are ‘bindle stiffs.’ Steinbeck lets the reader sympathies with her to a certain level where you think its Curley’s fault but then takes a new twist on how she treats other and because of this the reader is confused whether they should feel sorry for her or not. Steinbeck gets the reader ready for what is going to happen next, start off by the death of the puppy Lennie is going to have.
She comes in slowly so Lennie doesn’t hear or see her. Curley’s wife gets angry when she is told that George told Lennie not to talk to her, so she tries to make a conversation with him and is told that Lennie can’t talk to her which makes ‘her face grew in anger’. She interests Lennie by telling him how she wanted to work in the movies. This is why she wore so much make up, to look as pretty as the people who worked in the movies. She is shown a bit selfish, because when Lennie tries to tell her about his American dream, show quickly intervenes and introduces her own American Dream of becoming a actress. Curley’s wife states that ‘she never liked Curley’ so she flirts to meet the guy she wants to really be with and marry.
Apart from sexism, racism was also a key theme in the novel. As this book was set in the 1930s, the Black Civil Rights campaign would still have been in thirty years time and racism would have been a part of everyday American society. Due to the American Civil War, in which the North and the South of United States went to war with each other as one opposed slavery and the other supported it, American society was very racist towards black people addressing them with racial slurs. It was not until the Civil Rights campaign did the majority of Americans start to respect black people.
This is seen throughout Of Mice and Men with Crooks, the black stable buck and his relationship with other members of the farm. The usage of the N word today is generally a taboo; however in 1920’s white America, it was commonly used towards the blacks.
Curley’s wife uses her status as a superior white women to abuses him verbally and also threatens him;
“Listen nigger, you know what I can do to you if you open your trap?”
“Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny”
From the quotes we can see that Crook’s had a lower social position and had to obey his superiors or else.
Being black, Crooks constantly abused by the whites at the ranch.
“If I say something, why it’s just a nigger sayin’ it”
Being oppressed has made him seem cruel and gruff, but also has turned him to self-pity and that he is an inferior human. He says to Lennie as he is white;
“You got no right to come in my room…..You go on get outa my room. I ain’t wanted in the bunkhouse and you ain’t wanted in my room.”
We can see from this that he is not wanted in the bunkhouse and he seems to not want Lennie in his house. We can see from the text that he was educated as he had books. Even the aspect of education given to a black at that time still never levitated their social position amongst people.
It is apparent that the treatment of Crooks has made him cynical. Whenever the American Dream is mentioned, he dismisses it.
“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches with their bindles on their backs an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on……An’ never a god-damn one of ’em gets it.”
This stark comment gives the reader the idea of there being no hope left for Crooks and has little faith in Lennie and George.
Loneliness is a significant aspect in several characters’ lives. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband doesn’t treat her the way she wants. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. The author further reinforces this theme by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means “solitude” in Spanish. This loneliness feeling seems depressing and matches the era it was set in, where unemployment was high, hunger was great and money was scarce.
Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Although Candy’s dog is seen as unimportant, his death means more than is depicted. This relates to the ‘Great Depression’ as his life is so easily taken, which some people in the 1930’s wish theirs was due to the vast predicament they were in. The dog is described as ‘stinky’ and ‘no good’ suggesting he’s of no worth and useless. Carlson then says ‘put the old devil out of his misery’ which is significantly interesting: he implies that by killing the dog he’d be a lot happier which relates to the people of the 1930’s most likely wishing that they were put out of their misery. It could interpret that the weak weigh down society and it is then better to kill them and move on.
Candy doesn’t seem to have many possessions and if he does his dog appears to be the most important; to have that taken away from someone is unquestionably dreadful. Candy then becomes understandably defensive of his dog and this, in a way, shows what he might be thinking: if anyone is going to relieve his dog it should be him and not a stranger. Candy feels the dog is his responsibility and to let another man kill his dog is shameful and regretful.
This is also the concept of George and Lennie’s relationship. George was silently appointed responsible for Lennie a long time ago hence Lennie is dependent on him. So George sees it fit that he should kill Lennie in the most humane way possible at that time: a bullet to the nape of his neck. He does this because if Curley finds Lennie, George doesn’t know what he’d do to him.
‘I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.’
As George recalls his own experiences of working in a farm, he also talks about what loneliness can do to a man, and how he overcame it by keeping Lennie with him.
Reflecting upon Crooks too, he also experiences loneliness too, due to the fact that he was the only black man upon the ranch;
‘S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you were black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick’
Though he tries to ignore the fact that people are racist towards him and reads books, keeping himself occupied, he still argues that humans need a form of social interaction otherwise they would slowly start to go mad.
Overall, to summarise I have learnt about life in the 1930s through the characters and their backgrounds. Different character aspects have given me a broader and more moderate view of society back then. The relationship between Lennie and George was unique as they were both brought together by their selflessness and their need for each other. Also they differed from the other ranchmen; they stuck with each other during a time of great misery and lonesomeness when others generally kept themselves apart.
This novel demonstrates how people who lived during the Great Depression were treated in society. Curley is a good example of an individual who isn’t financially affected by the Great Depression due to his father’s wealth. Other ranch hands who work for his father may not be financially stable and have to work for everything that they have. Curley also feels like he is a cut above the rest of the people who work for his father. George and Lennie are very good examples of people who have lost everything and must work very had and do things that they may not want to do in order to gain back what they have lost and chase the American dream and start their own ranch. So as you can see, Steinbeck has been able to get across the point of how the attitudes and actions of people were during the Great Depression.
We can also learn that people had hope at that time and pursued their dreams in search of prosperity. Life was hard and people did what they had to do to survive, if it meant marrying men you never intended to or migrated from farm to farm for just a few dollars a week. I have also learnt that it wasn’t much different from today either as women still are considered the inferior sex and racism is also still very much a cancer to society today.
At the end of the novel, we are left with an understanding that people had to do things to survive that they may not have wanted to do and that was very hard for them to do, in George’s case this would have been to shoot Lennie.