John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California. He came from a family of moderate means. His native region of Monterey Bay was later the setting for most of his fiction. Steinbeck’s father was a county treasurer. His mother was a teacher and Steinbeck learned to love books. Of Mice and Men is a novel set on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was the first work to bring John Steinbeck national recognition as a writer. As a young man, Steinbeck learned about migrant laborers, usually unmarried men recruited to work during harvest seasons, from his own experience as a worker on company-owned ranches
During the late 1930s, California was struggling not only with the economic problems of the Great Depression, but also with severe labor strife. Labor conflicts occurred on the docks and packing sheds and fields.
By the time that Of Mice and Men was published huge combine harvesters harvested almost half of America’s grain. Five men could do what would have taken 350 men a few years earlier. George and Lennie are some of the last of the migrant farm workers. Huge numbers of men traveled the countryside between the 1880s and the early 1930s harvesting wheat. They earned $2.50 or $3.00 a day, plus food and very basic accommodation. During the 1930s, when there was very bad unemployment in the United States, agencies were set up under the New Deal to send farm workers to where they were needed.
It was even harder for black people as they had the weight of segregation to carry. Blacks were separated, kept away from whites. Black people wanted the right to vote to have equal job opportunities and pay because they worked equally as hard, they wanted the right to go to equally good schools as white students to have equal education. They wanted an end to segregation in cafes, swimming pools and buses as it was demeaning. They also wanted the right to be protected and not be attacked by the police. Black People wanted equality; not something better but equality. The South was much worse for racism and segregation than the North.
Of Mice and Men tells the story of two simple men who try to escape homelessness, economic poverty, and emotional and psychological corruption.
George Milton and Lennie Small, two ranch workers, dream of one day owning a small farm so they can harvest their own crops and not take orders from anyone. They will also have a bit of privacy. George has promised Lennie that he can look after rabbits. . The two friends find work from a farm and start saving money for their future. Lennie Small and his friend, George Milton, were forced to leave their homes because Lennie was accused of raping a girl from another town.
The major theme of the story is loneliness. In the 1930’s nearly all the ranch workers traveled alone and never made friends as they were gone from the ranch a few months later. Ad Slim acknowledges in the novel, “Hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never seen two guys travel. You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then they quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody.” Slim explains how the ‘hands’ come and work get their pay and leave. And George then says “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.” Even though George complains about Lennie and even though Lennie always gets in trouble, George is happy to be with him because he knows what happens to ranch workers that have nobody. All the characters in the story are affected by loneliness. They have all become bitter in different ways. We find out that Slim drowned four puppies, but in his defense, he explains that the dog could not feed all of them. But he did it without even thinking about it, which could show that he has become bitter from loneliness.
Two key characters that are mainly affected by loneliness are Candy and Curley’s wife. Candy is an old swamper that has no hand and the only real company he has is his ‘ancient dog’. The other ranch workers cannot stand Candy’s dog. Carlson says “That dog of Candy’s is so God damn old he can’t hardly walk. Stinks like hell, too.” Carlson hates the smell of the dog and he is trying to persuade Slim that the dog should be put out of its misery and Candy should be given a new pup to raise. In his defense Candy says “I been around him so much I never notice how he stinks.” But Carlson does not back down and keeps saying that he is not any good no more and how he should be put out of his misery. Candy starts panicking and does not know what to say. He eventually says, “Well-hell! I had him so long. Had him since he was a pup. I herded sheep with him.”
But Carlson still does not back down. He offers to shoot the dog so it is not Candy that does it. Candy is an old man and he does not have enough in him to argue with Carlson. In the end Carlson takes the dog and shoots it. As soon as Candy hears the shot in the distance he blocks himself out from everyone. He feels alone now that the dog that he raised from a pup is gone. But later that day after all the ranch workers leave and Candy, George and Lennie are left alone, Lennie starts talking about their dream and the land they are going to have, Candy is suddenly interested. Steinbeck says, “Old Candy turned slowly over. His eyes were wide open.”
We later find out that Candy has money and he wants to come with Lennie and George and buy the land and live with them. Candy says “I ain’t much good with on’y one hand. I lost my hand right here on this ranch. That’s why they gave me a job swampin’.” Candy knows that the ranch is not going to want him much longer since he is old and has no hand. When they start discussing it they are all amazed that this dream might actually come true. Before they only had it as hope, but now it is a possibility. Candy explains that as soon as he cannot swamp they will “can” him and he will be left alone with no job and no money. He also says that he wishes he would be put out of his misery, the same way his dog was. But Candy has some new hope now and has created an odd relationship with Lennie and George.
Curley’s wife is another character that has been affected by loneliness. Candy briefly describes her and tells George what he thinks of her, “Well I think Curley’s married…a tart.” Candy explains that after being married only two weeks to Curley, she has got the ‘eye’. This means that she likes to flirt with other men. Candy also says that she gives the eye to nearly all the men. She is also labeled as a ‘jail bird’.
George says, ” Don’t you even take a look at that bitch. I don’t care what she says and what she does. I seen ’em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be.” He means that she is the sort of woman that will lead a man on and then get him in trouble and thrown into prison for various reasons, for example she could say he harassed her. George has seen her type before and he knows how much trouble they can be. He warns Lennie to stay away from her because he knows that if Lennie does not then something bad will happen. But Curley’s wife has reasons for fooling around with other men and trying to hang around them. Curley’s wife says “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?”
Curley’s wife shows that she feels lonely and is fed up of being stuck in that house all the time while Curley is out working or going to town. She has no other women on the ranch and the only people to talk to are the ranch workers. So it could be argued that she does not give everyone the eye, but is just trying to get their attention so they will chat to her. We can tell that she has become bitter, just like all other ranch workers who travel alone. When Crooks he tells her to leave his room, she says, “Listen, Nigger,” ” You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?”
Crooks instantly backs down because he knows what she can do, but she keeps on attacking by saying “Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” Curley’s wife is annoyed that Crooks has ordered her to leave. The reason for this could be because she does not believe that she should take orders from a Negro. Or it could be that she is upset that she is not wanted and that she will have to go back to the lonely house and have to wait for Curley to get back from the brothel.
Near the end of the novel we find out that she a very lonely person and she has no one except Curley who she did not even want to marry! She goes on about how she could have been a model or actress. She then out of spitefulness married Curley because she wanted to get back at her ‘ol’ lady’ who she thought has stole an important letter and before that had not let her go with some actors. She then says to Lennie, “Well, I ain’t told this to nobody before. Maybe I ought’n to. I don’t like Curley. He ain’t a nice fella.” She reveals that she does not like Curley and the only reason she married was so she could get back at her ol’ lady and it might have also been because his father was a ranch worker. All through her conversation with Lennie she keeps saying how lonely she is and how would he like it to be that lonely!
However, Crooks is the one affected the most by loneliness. He has the loneliness of a ranch worker but even worse he has to put up with segregation. Black people suffered as badly as white people as far as work was concerned, and in Crooks case much worse. He does not have any friends and is kept away from everyone by segregation. Jim Taylor says, “Crooks does not live with other hands…instead, he is isolated in his own room in the barn.” The other hands have each other and they can play cards together or talk together. But Crooks is stuck in his little room by himself with only the horses for company because he is black. When Lennie comes wondering round and comes into Crooks room, Crooks instantly goes defensive and tells him to leave. But then he realizes that Lennie is dumb and so he takes advantage of this and talks about his life.
Crooks is jealous of Lennie and George’s close friendship and starts teasing Lennie that George might not come back. But he soon warms up to the frightened Lennie and comforts him by saying that George will come back. Crooks says gently “Maybe you can see now. You got George. You know he’s goin’ to come back. S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk-house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that?” Crooks explains how his life is so very lonely and because of segregation it is even worse. Crooks also says, “Books ain’t no good…A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” He states that books are not merely good enough for company, a guy needs another guy to chat to. Everybody also calls Crooks ‘the nigger’.
Steinbeck gives some idea of how common racism was by fact that the ranch-hands do not deliberately intend to insult Crooks as a man when they call him ‘nigger’; they are constantly reminding us that black people were degraded in this way every day, and, like Crooks felt the hatefulness of it even when it was used casually. He is not allowed to come in to the bunkhouse and play cards. All he can do is pitch horseshoes and he beats everyone at that but when it goes dark he has to go back to his enclosed room with horses for company. We also find out from Candy that the boss gave Crooks a hard time because Lennie and George arrived late.
Candy says, “He was sure burned when you wasn’t here this morning.” “An’ he gave the stable buck hell, too.” Crooks is the stable buck. He is called Crooks because he got a crooked back from where a horse hit him. Then Candy says, “The boss gives him hell when he’s mad.” We now know that the boss takes out his anger on Crooks, but Candy also says that Crooks does not mind. This could mean that he is used to it and it happens to him all the time, or, he expects it because he is black and the easiest and weakest one to pick on. His place on the ranch is permanent; he is not a migrant worker and so if the boss abuses him then there is not a chance of him leaving and the boss losing out on a worker.
The first impression that we as the reader get from Crooks is a black worker that has got a crippled back. Then we find out that the boss takes out his anger on the ‘stable buck’. Crooks is the only black person on the ranch and he is segregated from every body else. The impression of loneliness creeps up on us and we have to also feel some sympathy for him. We are then told that for Christmas he was allowed into the bunkhouse, but he ends up the victim of a fight with another ranch worker. The other ranch worker was not allowed to use his feet since Crooks was crippled from his back. We now know that Crooks will stand up for himself. He beat the other ranch worker but the ranch worker said afterwards “If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the nigger.”
We get the impression that the ranch worker was sore from losing to a crippled black person and would have killed him if he could. We later find out that Crooks can pitch horseshoes really well. Carlson says “Jesus, how that nigger can pitch shoes.” Then Crooks gets complimented by Slim and Carlson as they say how he is really good and does not give any body a chance. The first description that we get of Crooks is when he pops his head into the bunk house to inform Slim that he has warmed up the tar for the mule. The description we get of him is “…a lean negro head, lined with pain, the eyes patient.” We get a clue of how his life must be when it says ‘lined with pain’, we get the impression that he has a hard life and that he must be a patient person. He even offers to do the job for Slim, which shows a hidden respect for Slim, and maybe even some kindness. All the ranch workers keep saying ‘nigger’ when they talk about him.
As I said before the ranch hands do not call him that because they mean to insult him as a man but to constantly remind us that black people were degraded in this sort of way everyday. Steinbeck does not keep using the word ‘nigger’ to insult but to remind us that black people were called this on a daily basis and this was the way it was in the 1930’s. Lennie and George are given many impressions of Crooks, similar to our impression as the reader. They are told that he was crippled by a horse, that he is beaten and used as a stress toy by the boss, that he is segregated from everyone and that he will stand up for himself.
In section four we are finally introduced to Crooks and to his room. We learn that his room is at the back of the stables and there is a small square four paned window. There is only one way out and that is through the stables. “Crooks’ bunk was a long box filled with straw, on which his blankets were flung.” We now know that for a bed he has a box filled with straw. He does not only have to live with the horses but he has to live as a horse! He has lots of small handy tools and stuff that is to be mended. Steinbeck tells us that, “Crooks possessed several pairs of shoes, a pair of rubber boots, a big alarm clock and a single-barreled shotgun. And he has books too; a tattered dictionary and a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905. There were battered magazines and a few dirty books on a special shelf over his bunk.
A pair of large gold rimmed spectacles hung from a nail on the wall above his bed.” The reason why he has so many possessions is because he is on the ranch permanently. He is not a migrant worker therefore he has been able to collect them over periods of time. His possessions tell us something about him, both as an individual man and as a representative of black people at that period of time. We have the impression that he is pretty clever and likes to read.
All the other ranch hands have Pulp magazines while Crooks has a dictionary, the California civil code and some other books. It is tragic that Crooks is segregated, he might have gone to University, and he might have had a good job with good pay. But because of segregation he has been limited to living and being treated like a horse. The other interesting possession that he has is the California civil code. Crooks is a smart man and he knows that he might not have many rights, but he ‘sure as hell’ knows that he does have some. But it could also be that the boss or a worker gave him that civil code book to make sure he does not step out of place and remembers where his place is. Crooks also possesses a shotgun, which is out of the ordinary. It might be something that makes him feel safe.
Crooks is a proud man, but also a remote man due to his isolation from the others. “This room was swept and fairly neat, for Crooks was a proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs.” Crooks is not ashamed to be black and does not regret being black. But he is a victim of segregation and this is what he hates. He stays away from people because he does not want any problems with them. No one has the right to go into his room, and even though he hates the black rights he has, he is glad in a sense that people have to leave him alone. He keeps his room tidy because he has dignity and he is slightly grateful for having his own room and not having to sleep or stay somewhere worse.
When Lennie first appears at Crooks door, Crooks does not notice him but as soon as he does he is not happy. Steinbeck says, “Noiselessly Lennie appeared in the open doorway and stood there looking in, his big shoulders nearly filling the opening. For a moment Crooks did not see him, but on raising his eyes he stiffened and a scowl came on his face.” Crooks is instantly annoyed that Lennie is there. He is not used to company and as I said previously he is a very remote man. When Lennie smiles to him to attempt to make friends he sharply replies with, “You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me.”
He knows that Lennie has no right to be there and wants him to leave straight away. But Lennie keeps trying to make friendly conversation with him. He is bitter because he is not allowed in the bunkhouse, so why should people be allowed in his room. He feels that others cannot just come in to his room and ignore his rights when he has to obey rights that are unfair as they already are. Lennie asks him why the other ranch hands do not want him. Crooks replies by saying, “‘Cause I’m black. They play cards in there, but I can’t because I’m black. They say I stink. Well, I tell you, you all of you stink to me.”
The impression that we get of Crooks at the moment is that he is a very bitter person. But he has a point, why would he smell different to them? Just because he is black it does not mean that he stinks, he might stink because he lives in a stable, but they are all humans and why should he be different? If he stinks to them then they stink to him. Lennie explains that all the workers have gone to town for the night. Crooks then picks up his glasses and starts saying that Lennie has no right to be there and that he has to go. Crooks eventually gives up and lets Lennie come in and sit down. His tone is a bit more friendly now which shows that he has warmed up a little bit to Lennie.
Crooks starts telling Lennie about his childhood because he knows that Lennie is dumb and will not understand and will probably forget straight away. He just needs someone to listen for just a while. He explains that he was not born in the South but in California.
Crooks then says, “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. But I know now.” He starts off by saying that he used to play with the white kids and colour did not matter. But his dad was not happy with this. But now he now understands why. He explains there was not another black family for miles.
Crooks is jealous of Lennie and George’s friendship, they have each other for company but he has no one. Crooks says, “S’pose George don’t come back no more. S’pose he took a powder and just ain’t coming back.” Crooks is spitefully teasing Lennie and winding him up. Steinbeck tells us, “Crooks’ face lighted with pleasure in his torture.” This is a good example of how segregation has turned a intelligent and happy man into a sour and bitter man. He only teases Lennie because he is jealous and is trying to explain to Lennie how lonely he is. Steinbeck is attempting to show us how a black person must have felt at that period of time and how segregation affected black people. When Lennie says that he is going to go and check if George is back, Crooks panics and says he is fine and nothing has happened. He does not want Lennie to leave, he is enjoying having someone round and someone to talk to.
Crooks first reaction to Lennie’s dream is that it is Lennie is “nuts”. He has probably seen all these migrant workers and how they all have dreams of finally having some land. And he knows that they are just dreams and nothing more. It is just hope that the workers have that keeps them going on. He says “I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their brindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it.” He has seen it all before and he can tell between dreams and reality. He says that it is just in their heads and it is their way of coping with life.
When Candy first comes to the door and attempts to speak to Lennie about the rabbits, Steinbeck says, “Crooks said irritably, “You can come in if you want.” Even though he said it irritably he said it pretty quickly which must mean that he is glad that all these people are here with him. “It was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger.” Crooks is happy to have people around him who do not treat him differently but as an equal. Lennie is dumb and does not understand too much about segregation and does not mind anyway. And Candy has a kind personality and he must not mind segregation.
After Candy has explained about the land and the money and the animals, Crooks starts believing him and starts to wonder. He says, “I never seen a guy really do it.” How close Candy, George and Lennie actually are amaze Crooks. He then asks, “…If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing-just his keep, why I’d come an’ lend a hand. I ain’t so crippled I can’t work like a son-of-a-bitch if I want to.” Crooks is sucked in to George, Lennie and Candy’s dream that might actually become reality. Crooks for once is not thinking about segregation and how it tortures his life, he is thinking that he will be free and have people for company and people that will not degrade him for being black!
That dream is shattered nearly as soon as it started for there is a familiar nasal voice, “Any you boys seen Curley?” Straight away all the men swing their heads towards her. Candy answers sourly towards her trying to give the hint that she is not welcome. She then says, “They left all the weak ones here.” This is not a very good way to start a conversation and she even more unwelcome now. Candy suggests that she leaves and goes back to the house. We then see a sensitive side of her, “Think I don’t like to talk to somebody ever’ once in a while? Think I like to stick in that house alla time?” We now feel some remorse for her and that she does have a point of how she stuck in that house all by herself. And that is her excuse for being sour and “foolin'” with other men. She then starts wondering about Curley’s hand and starts asking. She then starts arguing with Candy as she does not believe the story they tell her.
After a while Crooks get annoyed and finally stands up to her and tells her to leave. He says, “You got no right comin’ in a colored man’s room. You got no rights messing around in here at all. Now you jus’ get out, an’ get out quick. If you don’t, I’m gonna ast the boss not to ever let you come in the barn no more.” She instantly turns on him and we see her bitterness all come out at once, “Listen, Nigger,…You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?” Crooks backs down because he knows she is not joking and that she could easily get him lynched. Even after he backs down she keep on attacking and to add salt to the wound she says, “Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” Any sympathy that we might have had for her immediately evaporates.
After she has left Crooks is still quiet and in his protective shell until he at last says, “Maybe you guys better go,” I ain’t sure I want you in here no more. A colored man got to have some right even if he don’t like ’em.” This goes back to what I said before that even though he does not like the rights he has got to have them otherwise he has not got anything left.
Segregation ruined so many black people’s lives. It made them hard, unfair, sad, bitter and even violent. Black people did not have equal rights as they should have. Black and white people are all the same except for our skin colour. Black people should not be degraded the society by being named and classed as ‘Niggers’ or ‘Negro’. The Civil Rights Deal took place between the early 1950’s and late 1960’s. Along came Martin Luther King, James Foreman, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and many more. They all campaigned, marched, protested, gave speeches in all their different methods. Even after Martin Luther King was assassinated, black people still protested and fought for civil rights for equality with whites and freedom. During the 1960’s the end to segregation was getting ever so close.
Crooks was one of the millions of victims of segregation. He never got a chance to show his full potential; he never got a chance to use his intelligence and have a good education and a good job, instead he ended up living in a stable and living and being treated like a horse! Segregation has crippled him, and not physically but mentally. As a result he become a remote, sorrowful and bitter man. He has no one to speak to or play cards or even to see. He is secluded in his little room with only books for company. And as he explains, “Books ain’t no good…A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” He has only got books and he has experienced the feeling of going nuts.
He is overwhelmed, even though he tries to cover it up with anger, when Candy and Lennie come into his room and start talking to him. And for a brief moment he gets dragged into their dreams and he feels that the dream might become a reality. But then Curley’s wife interrupts. She then backs him down into his little protective shell when she starts threatening him. And he backs down because he knows all she would have to do is accuse him of rape or harassment and he would be lynched without even having a word in. When she leaves he tells Candy that he is not interested anymore in the land and farm. But deep down he is but he thinks that because of his colour he will never be allowed an equal and peaceful life.
Steinbeck has purposely included Crooks’ story in the novel because he as a young man, learned about migrant laborers, usually unmarried men recruited to work during harvest seasons, from his own experience as a worker on company-owned ranches. He experienced segregation and he saw how it affected black people. He has tried to explain about segregation throughout the story. The characters keep repeating the derogatory term ‘Nigger’ throughout the whole story, but this is only to remind us how racism was common and black people were degraded in this way on a daily basis. Even though that word was used casually people like Crooks felt the full hatefulness of it. Steinbeck believes that segregation was morally wrong and that black people shoud have had equal rights. They never asked for more, they only asked for equality…