How Does John Steinbeck Present the Theme of Violence in Of Mice and Men?

How does Steinbeck present the theme of violence in ‘Of Mice and Men’? John Steinbeck’s short novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ presents the desolate nature of 1930s America, in particular Soledad, close to where Steinbeck himself grew up and worked during this time. Notably, Steinbeck focuses on the life of migrant workers who were forced to travel from ranch to ranch in search of work as a result of the simultaneous occurring disasters ‘The Great Depression’ and ‘The Dustbowl’. Due to the economic crisis, the percentage of unemployment rose and money became increasingly tight so violence became a cheap form of entertainment for the men of America, the mentality becoming very much ‘every man for himself’ which created a hostile environment, turning men mean and protective of themselves. Upon the ranch we this mentality presented mainly through the male characters as they all defend what little they have and through various scenes of violence. Arguably one of the most violent characters in the novel is Curley, the boss’ pugnacious son who even upon his first appearance to the novel is described as ‘bent at the elbows and his hands closed in fists’ a stance of boxer which appears openly violent. Possibly, Steinbeck uses Curley’s ‘tightly curled hair’ to symbolise his unpredictability , suggesting he would be ready to pounce into a fight at any moment. Moreover, this need to prove himself could be consequence of his insecurities of his small height as Candy tells George ‘he’s alla time picking fights with big guys’ which possibly could be a foreshadow for the later fight scene with Lennie in the bunkhouse ‘get up ya big bastard’.

The fight scene is significant to the novel because it reveals just how the hostile environment turned the men mean, Curley is continuously searching for his wife and blames the other men on the ranch, this provokes annoyed reactions from all the men and creates an uneasy mood between them, leaving them constantly on edge around each other. Steinbeck says Curley’s ‘rage exploded’ suggesting he is quick to react to any threat of violence, always attempting to be the greater force in a fight. Another poignant character for the theme of violence is Carlson who perhaps epitomises the violent men of 1930s America. He appears unconcerned about shooting Candy’s dog and even callously cleans his gun in front of Candy before shooting the dog for him, ‘I’ll shoot him for you’ this gives the impression that Carlson is a sadist who takes pleasure in violence perhaps as a result of the monotonous life where entertainment was scarce . When he hears that Curley is looking for Slim he immediately jumps in ‘I’d like to see the fun if it kicks off’ giving the impression he is keen to join the violence. Furthermore, at the end of the novel he is excited by the thought of chasing Lennie down to kill him ‘I’ll get my Luger’ demonstrating how he sees killing as a game and does not care much for the consequences. During the novel we see two main types of violence, needless, intentional violence and unintentional violence.

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Whereas both Curley and Carlson contribute largely to intentional violence, Lennie possesses no self-control and undoubtedly is unintentional in any acts of violence. Throughout the climactic scene in the bunkhouse, Lennie does not even think to defend himself against Curley’s persistent attacks, ‘make ‘em stop George’ this suggests that although Lennie is the biggest and strongest of all the men on the ranch, he is mentally weak and perhaps is not at all a violent person, despite his appearance. It’s only when George shouts to Lennie to fight back that he is able to stop Curley and accidentally crushes his hand. Notably, we can infer from this scene that like his features, Lennie is comparable to a big bear, powerful but thoughtless and his appearance gives the impression of a violent threat. Poignantly, the scene which leads to Curley’s wife’s death, shows how as the novel progresses, Lennie’s violent acts get bigger. This could possibly be foreshadowed from the beginning when George pries the dead mouse from Lennie’s hand, and when he accidentally kills the puppy in the barn ‘he was just so small’ this implies Lennie has no control over his actions. Ironically, it is Lennie’s strength and violence that attracts Curley’s wife after he crush’s Curley’s hand, but instead leads to her untimely demise.

Steinbeck perhaps uses the blunt sentence ‘Lennie had broken her neck’ to reflect the harshness everyone suffered in these times, consequently becoming immune to effects of violent acts. It could also be argued that Lennie’s downfall – ultimately leading to his own death – is he is unaware of his own strength which often leads him into troublesome situations. Furthermore, there is a recurrent theme of nature versus violence throughout ‘Of Mice and Men’ as Steinbeck presents nature-filled scenes as tranquil and beautiful, disrupted by the threat of men. The first scene shows the nature and animals being disturbed by ‘sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves’ of George and Lennie’s arrival, this perhaps initiates the on-going battle between man and nature through the novel. The setting of the ranch also stands out in stark contrast to its natural surroundings, the bunkhouse is always described as bare, ‘white washed walls’ the barn appears to be the only setting which blends in to both the natural world and man’s. Similar to this is Lennie, who holds characteristics similar to an animal, ‘big paw’, Steinbeck perhaps uses Lennie as a bridge between both of the world’s to show they are not always in constant battle and possibly could co-exist. Nonetheless, the novel also demonstrates how despite the harsh nature of 1930s America, not all acted out of violence and there are some humane acts. In particular, George’s desire to protect Lennie during the course of the novel, and even before they arrived in Soledad. Although George says ‘nobody gives a damn about anybody else’ which depicts the mentality of most men at these times, however, George continues to ensure Lennie is safe and secure with him. Moreover, there is the example of kindness and companionship between Candy and his dog.

From the whole novel, we can infer that the lonely guys among the ranch are the violent ones, generally Carlson and Curley, despite being married he is never seen with his wife until she is dead. Unable to kill him, ‘maybe tomorrow’ he tries to put it off, this suggests that friendship is what keeps Candy from being violent himself, perhaps which is why he is reluctant to allow Carlson to shoot him. He is afraid of being lonely, scared he may turn bitter and mean without the support of his dog. In conclusion, the novel as a whole portrays a hard, lonely life led by the migrant workers on the ranch, causing them to turn mean, bitter and often violent. It is clear in the novel, the men derive enjoyment out of the other’s misery, ‘Candy paused and relished in the memory’ when thinking of the Christmas they used the violence inflicted on Crooks’ this gives the impression that violence was very much the best entertainment around at these times. At the end of the novel, after George kills Lennie out of mercy, Carlson wonders ‘Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?’ this clearly reflects how men were immune to violence, they shared no compassion and no sensitivity, unable to understand how George is so inflicted with pain for committing a violent crime, when all they see is a killing game.

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How Does John Steinbeck Present the Theme of Violence in Of Mice and Men?. (2016, Sep 25). Retrieved from