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Power and Powerlessness in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

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Wednesday 21st November 2012 Quaiyum Miah Explore how Steinbeck presents the theme of power and powerlessness in the relationships between characters in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Focus on the events in chapter 4.

The theme of power and powerlessness in chapter 4 of ‘Mice and Men’ is presented by Steinbeck in various ways. For example power is displayed though imagery, characterisation and dialogue. The main theme of power in Steinbeck’s novella includes seduction, physical strength and maintenance of hierarchy. The power of seduction is bestowed upon Curley’s wife as she is the only women on the ranch.

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The power of strength flourishes in Lennie (who is somewhat of a simpleton and very child minded), he is portrayed as a figure of immense physical strength. Also another character that is embedded with power is George. Even though he is not present until the very end of chapter 4 he is still regarded with great power, a high echelon of power. Lennie is subjugated by George, hence the reason he acts like a subordinate to George.

Crooks, Lennie, Candy, Curley’s wife and George are all attributed by Steinbeck with unique forms of power. At times power which raises them to a high position but other times great powerlessness. In this essay I will be mainly focusing on Crooks and argue that he has slight yet not a lot of power compared to some other characters.

Firstly I notice that Steinbeck always starts with the setting in each chapter ‘Of Mice and Men’. There are sundry links between power and how the setting and characters are introduced in the chapters by Steinbeck. To some extent Steinbeck gives the reader a foreshadowing of the power the character grasps. This can be shown though the beginning of chapter 4.

The chapter begins with a significant clue of Crooks power in the novella. ‘Crooks, the Negro stable buck had his bunk in the harness room; a little shed that learned off the wall of the barn. On one side of the little room there was a square-four paned window, and on the other, a narrow plank door leading into the barn.’ This proposes that Crooks is being concealed and confided to a small place, treated like some sort of “dog” and given hardly any respect. In 1930s America’s most racist white people stereotyped blacks as being domestic pet and did not value them.

Steinbeck makes this stereotype have some reality to it. Furthermore there is a substantial link between the book and circumstances of 1930s America. During 1930s America it was the time of the great depression, there were still a lot of racism against black people. ‘The negro stable buck’ – these words imply that Steinbeck is clearly admitting to the blatant discrimination of black people. ‘One side of the little room… a narrow plank door leading into the barn.’ The imagery created here by Steinbeck is that of a diminutive room with a long constricted opening.

Mentally the image set off in the reader’s mind is that Crooks’ power and status is a great remoteness from the barn. The word choice Steinbeck uses is ‘narrow opening’, generating the idea that to get to that level of the boss who owns the barn. It is a hard path to endure and to get through for Crooks due to the concept that he is very distant from “the top of the food chain.” In addition the introduction to chapter 4 brings forth the proposal that the barn is where Crooks wants to end up and have power but he has to get though this ‘narrow opening’. Hence I think that scenery and the manner in which the characters are introduced to the reader is of vital importance in finding the power Steinbeck beholds for the characters, in this case Crooks.

After we examine the beginning of chapter 4, we get a better perception of the power Crooks possesses. The words Steinbeck carefully chooses to puts into the description of Crooks are ‘proud, aloof man’ these deliberate words creates the fallacious image of an isolated man who is allegedly proud. I think that deeply within Crooks feels miserable because he is rejected by the rest of the barn. As a result of that thought he is very weak in the sense that he has no power of companionship. (Except that Slim contradicts this view seeing as he has allocated himself as an associate of Crooks). As we journey through the narrative of chapter 4, we see that the power of physical strength thrives in Lennie. The way that Lennie is introduced into chapter 4 by Steinbeck displays a remarkable theory of power in 1930s America. ‘Noiselessly Lennie appeared in the open door way and stood there looking in, his big shoulders nearly filling the opening.’

This suggests that Lennie, who is a newcomer, is almost on the same level of power as Cooks. I can say this because the word Steinbeck uses is ‘nearly’ The imagery triggered from that word builds up an impression in the reader’s mind that Lennie who is not greatly respected, is almost on the same hierarchy level as Crooks (even though he has been at the ranch a short time.) Thus displays that in the 1930s America black people were endanger at work of fraudulent respect due to the harsh racism towards them. Such that a newcomer could just waltz in and easily gain the same respect as “coloured” person, being on the same equality as a black person even though the black person may be an experienced worker. It seems as though Steinbeck indirectly wants us to know that in 1930s America power for black people weren’t as abundant as white people (such as Slim).

We know that in the 1930s America black people encountered hardship and did not get the respect owed to them. But despite this obvious fact Lennie confirms his greatest weakness, knowledge. His mentally struggling side becomes apparent, when he asks the foolish question of ‘why ain’t you wanted’ (later on in the dialogue between Crooks and Lennie). An educated answer would be ‘cause I’m black’ as responded by Crooks. Steinbeck here indirectly tells the reader that Lennie is ignorant and not bright. Also in 1930s America many people had hardly any schooling and had to find any kind of work. Steinbeck cunningly deploys Lennie in the novella to illustrate this connection. This brings us to the link to their power the workers had. They were powerless towards the boss they worked for. In my opinion I believe that Crooks is powerless and is stuck behind a bit of a fata morgana. ‘I ain’t wanted in the bunk, and you ain’t wanted in my room’, ‘cause im black… they say I stink, well, I tell you, you all stink to me’.

Steinbeck shows that Crooks was in a skeptical, angry and upset mood. Up to now Steinbeck has deceived us into thinking that Crooks feels ‘proud’, happy and does not care about what people say. However we see that is not the case. I also think Crooks has some traits of a charlatan. The reason why I assume that claim is because in reality Crooks is trying to confide into this kind of mirage, because later into the conversation Crooks talks about his history. He says his family owned a ranch of their own and he played with the white kids. ‘Crooks leaned forward over the edge of the bunk. “I ain’t a southern Negro,”“I was born right here in California. My old man had a chicken ranch, ‘bout ten acres. The white kids come to play at our place, an’ sometimes I went to play with them, and some of them was pretty nice. My ol’ man didn’t like that. I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that. But I know now.” He hesitated, and when he spoke again his voice was softer. “There wasn’t another colored family for miles around.

And now there ain’t a colored man on this ranch an’ there’s jus’ one family’. When Crooks realises the reason behind his father not wanting him to play with the white kids, Steinbeck deliberately uses the words ‘he hesitated … he spoke again his voice grew softer’ suggesting that Crooks’ tone was that of anxious and fearfulness. He was uttering a taboo memory and was not meant to be declared, to a decree one may say it’s a dark secret. Crooks is a charlatan, he is deluded into thinking that he doesn’t like white folks but in actual fact he is psychologically damaged and does not want to be black. In the 1930s America black people were bullied, terrorised and loathed because of their colour of the skin. Crooks doesn’t want to be black because he desires and seeks power for himself, he doesn’t want to be kept to himself and be lonely. For that reason he is powerless. Steinbeck causes the imagery of a lonely man who has positioned himself into some sort of charade, fantasy, hoax, to some extent even a fair bit of a fallacy. This delusion that Crooks has formed, almost puts forward the idea that he couldn’t bear being black. It is psychologically damaging for him so much so that he thinks up this figment of imagination.

Steinbeck produces a sturdy bond of similarity between Crooks and Lennie. Crooks thinks he has power and does not care that other people think he is in another world whilst Lennie solely relies on George and situates himself into a pleasant fiction that George will make his dreams of the farm come true. When later on he is shot and dies reality kicks back in (for a few characters such as George and Candy). After a while into the conversation between Lennie and Crooks, Steinbeck makes the theme of power directed at Crooks. ‘Crooks face lightened with pleasure in his torture.’ Steinbeck includes this dialogue to display the lack of power Crooks has. Crooks uses this chance to make himself feel better about being powerless. He tries to mentally break down Lennie by saying hurtful comments to him about George (as we know Lennie idolises George). ‘Jus s’pose he don’t come back’ – this illustrates how pathetic and feeble Crooks is. Furthermore we can observe how worried Lennie is about these misleading claims in the word Steinbeck thoughtfully picks, ‘with apprehension’. This phrase reveals that Lennie is conned into believing Crooks is right, this torture gives Crooks the power he so badly desires. As well as that Crooks finds another pleasure he so
greatly missed, that pleasure of having companionship. Lennie use the power of his strength, which is the only power he has. ‘He stood up and walked dangerously towards Crooks.’ ‘Who hurt George?’ he demanded’. Now Crooks is powerless against Lennie, he does not want to end up how Curley did. Steinbeck puts the fight scene in before this chapter to show that Lennie is a person not to mess with. Also the word Steinbeck uses to describe Lennie is ‘dangerously’. Steinbeck includes this word to emphasise the fierce strength Lennie has. Crooks does not want to be pulverized by Lennie so he tries to slither out of the tone he was using to hurt Lennie, which was a persuasive tone. Crooks changed his tone into a more gentle one ‘Crooks said gently’. This shows that power in that situation obviously went to Lennie.

After a while into chapter 4, Steinbeck shows the relationship between Crooks and Slim. ‘He paused and looked toward the open door, for the horses were moving restlessly and the halter chains clinked. A horse whinnied. “I guess somebody’s out there,” Crooks said. “Maybe Slim. Slim comes in sometimes two, three times a night. Slim’s a real skinner. He looks out for his team.” He pulled himself painfully upright and moved toward the door.“That you, Slim?”He called’. This narrative shows that Crooks thinks highly of Slim and respects him, the only ‘white’ person Crooks is fond of. So Slim has a little regard of power even though he is not present this whole chapter.

Then Candy enters, he shows that he is not of a superior position just to barge into Crooks’ room. ‘Candy stood in the doorway scratching his bald wrist and looking blindly into the lighted room. He made no attempt to enter’. This displays that Candy knows his place and has similarities with Crooks. Candy and Crooks both have experience, disabilities and are not vastly respected. Steinbeck shows the connection between the two characters and some of the ordinary people of the 1930s America. Crooks is black, facing segregation and Candy portrays the elderly people and how any work was sufficient work. Candy is in my view superior to Crooks because he shares the same similarities but the only difference is that Candy is white.

In the early 1930s America it was thought that people weren’t equal. The main ideology was that whites were more dominant then “coloured” people. Hence
the reason why Candy is superior. But Candy does show some limitation when considering the other ranch workers. Steinbeck arranges the scene about the killing of the dog to show how Candy was powerless to peer pressure and what a coward he is. Candy is a coward because he couldn’t put his own dog out of his misery; someone else had to do it for him. Carlson overpowers Candy and killed his dog without consent, showing the lack of power Candy has. Crooks shares virtually the same rank as Candy. However overall Candy is far more powerful then Crooks purely due to his colour.

Eventually Curley’s wife decides to join the gathering. Steinbeck always likes to enter her with the phrase ‘any you boys seen Curley?’ She carries the power of seduction with her, she is irresistible to men. This phrase she chants it is as if she is selling herself to men, she knows Curley’s not there so she uses her charms and sexuality to tow with men. However Crooks and Candy are immune to her poison whereas Lennie is not. ‘She stood still in the doorway, smiling a little at them, rubbing the nails of one hand with the thumb and forefinger of the other’. This attempt to entice them does not work so she gets frustrated and annoyed because she is not getting the attention she seeks. ‘Lennie watched her, fascinated; but Candy and Crooks were scowling down away from her eyes’ The wiser ones know she’s trouble. In the narrative of her death, it shows that she is an obstacle because when she’s dies the plan about the farm comes to an abrupt finish. Also it proposes that she is powerful figure, for her death was peaceful. ‘The sun streaks were high on the wall by now, and the light was growing soft in the barn. Curley’s wife lay on her back, and she was half covered with hay. It was very quiet in the barn, and the quiet of the afternoon was on the ranch. Even the clang of the pitched shoes, even the voices of the men in the game, seemed to grow more quiet’. Steinbeck creates this imagery to explain that she was in a high position in the hierarchy of the ranch because even the ranch felt to give respect and condolence to her. Curley’s wife and Crooks are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, she has some power while Crooks has hardly any. Even at the time of her death Steinbeck chooses not to reveal her name. This is virtual piece of evidence that she has no power of her own. Steinbeck instead portrays her as a property of Curley by always referring to her as ‘Curley’s wife’. In the 1930s America women were pressured by society to become housewives when they got betroved. Also women were forced to obey and serve their husbands. However Curley’s wife goes against this stereotype and tries to hunt for power in weaker people. Another reason as to why she’s powerless is that she gets her power from Curley, almost as it was second hand power she has. She steals power from the respect of Curley’s name. Then when Crooks decides to intervene Curley’s wife uses the only ace in her pocket, his colour. ‘Crooks stood up from his bunk and faced her. “I had enough,” he said coldly’. The word Steinbeck uses to display the power Crooks has is ‘faced her’ this creates the effect that she is kind of monster and he has the power of valour on his side. ‘She turned on him in scorn. “Listen, Nigger,” she said. “You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?…Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself…Nigger I could get you strung upon a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.’ In those days black people still could get lynched. So the only way Curley’s wife can be more powerful than Crooks is to threaten to have him lynched.

Finally George turns up. Steinbeck restores power and dignity back to the three men. ‘It’s George,” Lennie cried. And he answered, “Here, George. I’m right in here.”In a second George stood framed in the door…What you doin’ in Crooks’ room? Crooks nodded. “I tol’ ‘em, but they come in anyways… I di’n’t care much,” said Crooks. “Lennie’s a nice fella.” Now Candy aroused himself. “Oh, George!’ The tone Steinbeck uses for the three men shows that they were relieved and happy because the woman who made them all realise how powerless they were, went due to George’s arrival.

In conclusion Curley’s wife is the most powerful in the chapter. Then its George and after him is Candy. I would say that Lennie and Crooks have around the same amount of power but Lennie has one over Crooks. The reason why is because he has a strong bond with George which gives him the power of friendship. So Crooks is the person with the least amount of power.

Cite this Power and Powerlessness in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

Power and Powerlessness in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (2016, Nov 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/power-and-powerlessness-in-steinbecks-of-mice-and-men/

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