I have studied John Steinbeck’s book Of Mice and Men in my coursework, which explores the time period of the 1920s-1930s in America. The novel delves into themes such as racism, sexism, and most importantly, the American Dream. It revolves around two migrant workers in California during the Great Depression who strive to find work at a ranch near Soledad. Their ultimate goal is to obtain a permanent home and own their own farm.
Steinbeck’s depiction of life on ranches during the Great Depression offers insight into the difficulties faced in this era, characterized by a severe economic decline in the United States and worldwide. The onset of the Great Depression was triggered by a significant drop in stock market prices during the Wall Street Crash of 1929, resulting in widespread unemployment that affected approximately one-third of Americans. As a result, individuals were thrust into poverty and had to rely on manual labor such as farming and working. Many people from southern states migrated to California in search of better opportunities due to its fertile soil and longer growing season, both requiring additional laborers. Steinbeck’s firsthand experience as a laborer himself lends authenticity to his portrayal of this setting and raises questions about its fictional nature.
During the Great Depression in America, there were profound economic struggles that caused relationship breakdowns and signs of poverty like ‘no help wanted’. These circumstances had an unusual impact on George and Lennie’s friendship, prompting them to make the uncommon decision to travel together. The financial strain also led couples to quickly marry in order to live together, similar to Curley and his wife in Steinbeck’s novel. Poverty became more widespread during this time, symbolized by the death of a small mouse at the beginning and later evolving into the murder of Curley’s wife. Non-Americans also faced hardships during this period, as seen through the character ‘Crooks’ who belonged to an ethnic minority and lacked power compared to Curley. Drawing from his own firsthand experience working on a similar farm during this period, Steinbeck shaped his characters’ personalities and behaviors.
Despite the right to vote and a suffrage movement, women in the 1930s were compelled to marry affluent men for survival during the challenging era of the Great Depression. Despite their political agency, society regarded women as inferior, devaluing their opinions and actions compared to those of men. Today, although women have voting rights and hold positions in Parliament while Britain has a Queen instead of a King, they are still perceived as weaker than men. The notion persists that women remain subordinate to men.
Steinbeck exhibits misogyny and disdain towards women, particularly Curley’s wife, in his novel, which was written during the 1920s when women had only recently gained the right to vote. He utilizes her character as a symbol of women’s inferiority and the prevailing injustice of life in the 1940s, a period heavily dominated by men. The title “Of Mice and Men” itself provides a hint to readers that the novel revolves around male characters, further reinforcing its male-centric themes.
The only female character in John Steinbeck’s novel is Curley’s wife, who is the wife of the ranch owner’s son. Throughout the story, she is labeled as the ‘tart’ by everyone at the ranch. The male characters demonstrate a strong animosity towards her due to her gender and presence on the ranch. However, Steinbeck skillfully develops her character to present both sides of the misogyny directed towards her and leaves it up to the reader’s interpretation whether they sympathize with or despise her for her actions. It is important to note that besides Aunt Clara, who acts as a motherly figure to Lennie, no other women are mentioned in the novel. Ultimately, Curley’s wife serves as one of the primary antagonists in shaping the plot and its outcome.
The introduction of Curley’s wife occurs when George and Lennie arrive at the ranch.
Standing there was a girl, peering inside. Her lips were plump and chapped, and her eyes were spaced far apart. She wore heavy makeup and had red-painted fingernails. Her hair was styled in rolled clusters that resembled sausages. The girl donned a cotton house dress and red mules with small bouquets of red ostrich feathers on the insteps.
Being a married woman, she has her boundaries with men. Therefore, she utilizes her husband as a pretext to interact with new men. Steinbeck mentioned that she frequently adorned herself in the color ‘red,’ which signifies love, passion, and an alluring appeal. By repeatedly mentioning the color ‘red,’ Steinbeck explicitly conveys that she is determined to attract the attention of the men on the ranch and present herself as attractive.
Red symbolizes danger, possibly hinting at her influence on others or foretelling her downfall. Furthermore, she applies a significant amount of makeup. Although some individuals use cosmetics to enhance their beauty and draw attention, she employs it for both these reasons. Because she is married, men perceive her differently than an unmarried woman. As a result, she strives to act and look as if she were not married.
“What was she up to?”
This passage emphasizes Curley’s lack of trust in his wife, evident when they mention seeing her recently. In the 1920s, due to the Great Depression, girls had to marry wealthy individuals to survive, which is likely why she married Curley – for financial security. Her actions provoke jealousy in Curley and result in conflicts with different people. This leads to a fight between Curley, Carlson, and Lennie. Steinbeck uses this situation to demonstrate how easily those lacking intelligence and independent thinking can be manipulated. She pretends that Curley allows her freedom, provoking his anger and suspicion of an affair with Slim due to his complete distrust of her. To him, she is merely an object he can possess as his own. Steinbeck showcases Curley’s male pride and desire for a trophy wife – someone who displays his masculinity and superiority over others. With no name given, she is portrayed as an object solely belonging to Curley.
‘Why don’t you keep her at home where she belongs’
Everyone at the ranch finds her annoying and disapproves of her attempts to seduce them. This sentence reflects stereotypes. The men categorize Curley’s wife based on their own expectations for women, despite their hypocritical visits to the brothel.
In the 1920s, women were limited to being proficient in the kitchen and the bedroom. They were not deemed useful beyond these roles. Nonetheless, George’s response to Curley’s wife implies that she poses a potential danger to both him and Lennie. George perceives her as a harmful presence and refers to her as ‘poison’ and ‘jailbait’. He vehemently instructs Lennie to keep his distance from her.
‘They left all the weak ones here.. .’
The text highlights that Curley’s wife is considered one of the ‘weak’ individuals despite failing to realize it herself. Her weakness stems from her gender as being a woman is seen as her weakest aspect. Steinbeck portrays the lack of power and rights women had during the 1920s, leaving them at the mercy of men who controlled their lives. Despite having a husband, she has to seek attention from other men to feel validated, as her husband frequents a brothel. This portrayal evokes emotional responses and empathy from the reader. Additionally, the mention of it being a Saturday night emphasizes the difference to modern times where people typically go out or spend time with loved ones. In contrast, Curley’s wife is left all alone, leading the reader to sympathize with her. Her life is depicted as even worse than an old and sick dog, who at least has Candy who loves him.
Whenever Curley’s wife attempts to engage in conversation, she is often met with rudeness and contempt. People consistently treat her disrespectfully and give her disdainful looks. The men at the ranch view her as an attention-seeking individual who roams around the barn. They do not like her, as evidenced by the derogatory nicknames assigned to her, such as ‘tart’, ‘jail-bait’, and ‘poison’. These labels stem from her behavior and how she speaks to them. Her marital status renders her insignificant and unimportant, causing bachelor men to lose interest in conversing with her.
The reader empathizes with Curley’s wife, understanding that she desires conversation and attention. The text suggests that her actions may stem from her lack of companionship, as she is the only woman on the ranch among a group of men.
However, Curley’s wife reveals another aspect to the reader.
“I am standing here and talking to a group of bindle stiffs, including a nigger, a dum-dum, and a lousy old sheep. I actually enjoy it because there is nobody else.”
Recently, she became upset because people are not treating her the way she expects. Lennie treats her well, but he does have mental issues. Crooks is a racial slur, so she has no desire for anything from him, not even a conversation or the way he looks at her. Similarly, she wants nothing to do with Candy because he is an older man.
‘Listen n-word, you know the consequences if I hear a word from you.’
The woman’s attitude becomes racist after being asked to leave. She threatens to accuse the person of inappropriate actions, which could lead to them being lynched and burned on a tree. Additionally, the phrase “open trap” also applies to her due to her personality and treatment towards others. Curley’s wife is depicted as a lonely individual with no one to talk to, evoking pity from the reader. However, her response to loneliness is no better than how she is treated. She is selective in who she interacts with and behaves rudely towards individuals referred to as “bindle stiffs.” Steinbeck manages to elicit sympathy for her initially, placing blame on Curley, but then confuses the reader by revealing how she treats others. In preparation for upcoming events, Steinbeck foreshadows the death of Lennie’s puppy.
Curley’s wife discreetly enters the room to avoid catching Lennie’s attention. However, she becomes upset when she discovers that George has instructed Lennie not to interact with her. This prompts her to try and initiate a conversation with him. Nevertheless, Lennie reminds her that he can’t talk to her, which only intensifies her anger. She captivates Lennie by discussing her dreams of working in the film industry, which explains why she wears excessive makeup trying to resemble glamorous movie stars. In an act of self-centeredness, she quickly interrupts Lennie when he talks about his American dream and redirects the conversation towards her desire for acting. Additionally, Curley’s wife confesses that she dislikes Curley and flirts with other men hoping to find someone who she genuinely wants to marry.
The novel delves into the themes of sexism and racism, with a focus on the 1930s when the Black Civil Rights movement was still three decades away. In that era, American society remained deeply affected by racism as a result of the aftermath of the American Civil War. The war’s impact divided Northern and Southern states regarding slavery, resulting in widespread racism towards black people and the use of racial slurs. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights campaign that many Americans started demonstrating respect for black individuals.
The novel Of Mice and Men delves into the dynamics between Crooks, a black stable buck, and the rest of the farm’s inhabitants. It is crucial to acknowledge that although in present times, the term “N” is deemed offensive and unsuitable for discussions, it was frequently utilized during America’s white society in the 1920s to denote individuals of African descent.
Curley’s wife uses her status as a superior white woman to verbally abuse and threaten him.
“My friend, are you aware of the repercussions that speaking up can have?”
“You should know your place, Nigger. It would be effortless for me to have you hanged on a tree, it’s not even amusing.”
Based on the quotes, it is evident that Crook’s society placed him in a disadvantaged position, requiring him to comply with his superiors or face consequences.
Crooks, as a black man, is regularly subjected to mistreatment from the white individuals at the ranch.
“I face disregard for my thoughts or opinions solely due to my ethnicity,”
The experience of oppression has made him appear cruel and gruff. It has also nurtured feelings of self-pity and an inferiority complex in him. When speaking to Lennie, he brings up his own racial background.
“You have no right to enter my room. You should leave my room immediately. I am unwelcome in the bunkhouse, and you are also unwelcome in my room.”
The passage states that he is not wanted in the bunkhouse and does not want Lennie in his own house. It also suggests that he had received an education, as evidenced by the presence of books. However, even with education, black individuals were still socially disadvantaged during that time.
Due to the treatment he has received, it is clear that Crooks has become cynical and dismisses the notion of the American Dream whenever it is brought up.
“I have witnessed numerous men passing by on the road and at the ranches, carrying their burdens on their backs and their thoughts remaining fixed on the same problems. There have been hundreds of them. They arrive, they quit, and they move on…. And not a single one of them ever understands it.”
The reader gets the impression that Crooks has lost all hope and lacks faith in Lennie and George based on this blunt remark.
The theme of loneliness is prevalent in multiple characters’ lives. Curley’s wife experiences loneliness due to her husband’s lack of affection. The companionship between George and Lennie arises from their mutual loneliness. The author strengthens this theme by setting the story near Soledad, a Spanish word meaning “solitude”. This feeling of loneliness is oppressive and reflects the harsh conditions of the era, characterized by high unemployment, widespread hunger, and limited financial resources.
Candy is experiencing loneliness after the death of his dog. Although the dog is considered insignificant, its demise holds more significance than what is portrayed. This parallels the difficult times of the ‘Great Depression’, wherein lives were easily lost, something that some people in the 1930s may have wished for due to their dire circumstances. The dog is described as undesirable and worthless, implying its lack of value and usefulness. Carlson then suggests to ‘put the old devil out of his misery’, which is remarkably thought-provoking: he implies that killing the dog would bring him much happiness, similar to how people in the 1930s may have desired relief from their suffering. This could be interpreted as suggesting that society is burdened by the weak and it would be better to eliminate them in order to progress.
Candy seems to lack many belongings, and if he does have any, his dog seems to be the most valuable to him. The thought of having his dog taken away from him is undeniably terrible. As a result, Candy becomes defensive of his dog, indicating his belief that if anyone is to put his dog out of its misery, it should be him and not a stranger. Candy sees the dog as his own responsibility, and allowing someone else to kill it would be a source of shame and regret for him.
This is similar to the dynamic between George and Lennie. George has taken on the role of caretaker for Lennie a while back, so Lennie relies on him. As a result, George believes it is necessary to euthanize Lennie in the least cruel manner possible: by shooting him in the back of the head. George makes this decision because he is uncertain of what Curley might do to Lennie if he finds him.
‘I don’t have any companions. I have witnessed individuals who work alone on ranches, and it is not enjoyable for them. They become hostile and aggressive after a while. However, even though Lennie can be bothersome most of the time, once you become accustomed to having someone around, it is difficult to separate from them.’
George reminisces about his own farm work experiences and reflects on the negative impacts of loneliness on a person. He explains how he conquered his feelings of solitude by choosing to have constant companionship with Lennie.
Reflecting upon Crooks, he also experiences loneliness as the only black man on the ranch;
If you didn’t have anyone and couldn’t join the others in the bunk house due to being black, how would you feel? If you had to sit outside and only read books, it wouldn’t be enjoyable. Although you could play horseshoes until it gets dark, afterwards you would have to read books. However, books are not satisfying. Every person needs someone to be close to them. If a person is alone, they become mad. It doesn’t matter who the person is, as long as they are with you. I’m telling you, if a person becomes too lonely, they become sick.
Despite his efforts to overlook the racial discrimination he faces and engage in reading books to keep himself busy, he contends that individuals require some form of social interaction in order to maintain sanity.
In summary, I have gained knowledge about life in the 1930s by exploring the characters and their backgrounds. These varying aspects of the characters have provided me with a more comprehensive and balanced perspective on society during that time period. The connection between Lennie and George was exceptional since they were united by their selflessness and dependency on one another. Furthermore, they stood out from the other ranchmen by supporting each other during a time of immense sadness and isolation, in contrast to others who tended to distance themselves from one another.
This novel illustrates the treatment of people during the Great Depression. Curley serves as a prime example of someone unaffected by the financial difficulties brought on by the Great Depression, thanks to his father’s wealth. On the other hand, the other ranch hands working for his father face financial instability and have to toil for their livelihoods. Moreover, Curley considers himself superior to his father’s employees. George and Lennie serve as excellent examples of individuals who have lost everything and must work diligently, even if it means doing undesirable tasks, in order to regain their losses and pursue the American dream of owning their own ranch. Hence, Steinbeck effectively portrays the attitudes and actions of people during the Great Depression.
From this text, we gather that in the past, people held hope and followed their aspirations in pursuit of prosperity. They faced adversity, resorting to desperate measures such as entering into unwanted marriages or migrating between farms for minimal wages just to survive. Furthermore, it becomes evident that present-day society is not significantly distinct, as women continue to be seen as inferior and racism remains a persistent issue.
At the conclusion of the novel, it becomes clear that individuals had to engage in actions necessary for their survival, even if these actions were undesirable and emotionally challenging. A prime example is George’s difficult decision to shoot Lennie.