Compare and contrast the ways in which the theme of disability is dealt with in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Hardy’s The Withered Arm.
Disability is defined by the Collins dictionary as a ‘Physical or mental incapacity or illness that restricts someone’s way of life’. Given this there are a number of characters in both Of Mice and Men and ‘The Withered Arm’ who could be labelled as disabled. The ‘Withered Arm’ by Thomas Hardy was written in 1818 and set in the 1820’s in Dorset. John Steinbecks Of Mice and Men was written and set in the 1930’s in California.
The most obviously disabled characters are those with physical handicap. Gertrude in Thomas Hardy’s story, develops a withered arm in her twenties. The cause of this is very unusual – her disability develops over night when Rhoda Brook has a dream in which she grasps Gertrude’s arm. Although Gertrude has grounds for hating Rhoda (her new husband farmer Lodge is the father of her illegitimate son) she doesn’t put a curse on her on purpose. So her withered arm is a mystery.
There appears to be no medical cure for it. The doctor cannot help her and she has to resort to potions but to no avail. Gertrude’s happiness is ruined by her disability. Her husband no longer loves her because her arm is disfigured – “I shouldn’t so much mind it,’ said the younger, with hesitation, ‘if – if I hadn’t a notion that it makes my husband – dislike me – no, love me less. Men think so much of personal appearance.'” Gertrude’s marrige is very unhappy and her life is ruined by her disability – she dies seeking a cure. Hardy’s story shows that there is little sympathy for those with physical disability in the 1800’s.
Curley, in Of Mice and Men gets an injured hand, and once again the person who has done this to him did not mean it. Lennie only hurts him because George tells him to and George doesn’t mean him to do that much damage but Lennie doesn’t know his own strength. Curley is treated by a doctor, which reflects the progress in medicine and the change in attitude in the hundred years gap between the texts. However, there is evidence that medical treatment has not advanced dramatically. The black ‘stable buck’ Crooks was kicked by a horse and is crippled. His back is only treated with lineament. It is not properly braced, as you would expect today. Candy has a stump instead of a hand – ‘He pointed with his right arm, and out of the sleeve came a round stick like wrist, but no hand’. Candy is also physically disabled by his age and is unable to get work other than sweeping up. He says ‘I ain’t much good with o’ny one hand. I lost my hand right here on this ranch.
That’s why they give me a job swampin’. An’ they give me two hundred an’ fifty dollars ’cause I lost my hand.’ This might sound like a lot of compensation money but if Candy can’t work he can’t earn money for himself. He’s old and feels worthless and knows that he doesn’t have long to work at the ranch – ‘They’ll can me purty soon. Jus’ as soon as I can’t swamp out no bunk houses they’ll put me on the county’. Candy’s dog is also old and decrepit and is shot by Carlson because it is thought of as useless and just a nuisance. The similarity between Candy and his dog reminds us that on the ranch there is no room for anyone who cant work – ‘When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me….I can’t get no more jobs.’ In both texts the characters show disgust towards those with a physical disability. Gertrude tries to cover up her arm while Crooks hides in his room.
Lennie by contrast is physically strong and fit. However, his mental disability is certainly an incapacity that restricts his way of life. It has as much of a damaging effect on his life as a physical disability. The other characters do not understand his mental condition. They think that because he appears gentle and loves petting the small puppies that he is like a child. They underestimate his physical strength and his ability to be violent. Curley’s wife says to him, ‘but you’re a kinda nice fella. Jus’ like a big baby’. Shortly after this Lennie breaks her neck and kills her without meaning to. There are no special homes for mentally disabled people like there are today and Lennie wouldn’t get special treatment in prison.
However, it is not just Lennie who is mentally disabled – other things can also mentally disable you, for example jealousy, fear and other people’s attitudes. Curley in Of Mice and Men has an inferiority complex – he is the boss’s son and is short. He wants power but he can’t get it on his own terms. He is jealous of Slim because he has power and of Lennie because of his size. In ‘The Withered Arm’ Rhoda Brook is also jealous. She envies Gertrude because she is married to Farmer Lodge and her life is very unhappy.
In the two texts, gender is also something that restricts some of the characters lives. There is evidence to support the fact that the lives of the women in Of Mice and Men and ‘The Withered Arm’ are restricted by their gender. Curley’s wife is just a possession; she has no identity of her own and no freedom. This is reflected by the way she has no name in the novel, she is just referred to as ‘Curley’s Wife’. Although she comes across as a ‘tart’ she is quite lonely and chases after the men for company and attention.
Gertrude feels she has to please her husband, he shows her off purely for her beauty. Rhoda’s son describes Farmer Lodge’s new wife in church wearing ‘A white bonnet and a silver covered gownd. It whewed and whistled so loud when it rubbed against the pews that the lady coloured up more than ever for the very shame at the noise’. Gertrude feels uncomfortable in her noisy dress but her husband is very pleased to show her off. As soon as she loses her beauty he rejects her. Neither Curley’s wife or Gertrude feels their personality is valued. Rhoda was also used by farmer Lodge. She has an illegitimate son so no other man will touch her. She still only values herself in terms of her looks.
Both Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck seem to be showing the way women are victims of the way men treat them.
Responsibility for others is also something that ‘restricts someone’s way of life’. Both George and Rhoda have responsibility for someone else. Having to care for Lennie means George cannot do a lot of ordinary things – ‘God a’ mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble….Why, I could stay in a cat-house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of.’ In the same way, Rhoda’s son means she doesn’t have the freedom of a single woman. However, you get the impression neither George or Rhoda would swap their responsibilities for freedom. George apologises to Lennie ‘No – look! I was jus’ foolin’ Lennie.
Course I want you to stay with me’. At the end of the Novel George shoots Lennie not to get rid of him, but to prevent him from suffering more. Rhoda is also relieved of her responsibility when her son is hanged but both deaths are presented as tragedies. This suggests that ultimately responsibility like this is good – it gives you experiences you could otherwise never have. This is also illustrated by Farmer Lodge. He chooses not to take responsibility for his illegitimate son, he is unable to have any other children and he is left with nothing. He says to Gertrude, “I once thought of adopting a boy; but he is too old now. And he is gone away I don’t know where.”
Many characters are disabled by the prejudice of others. The most obvious example is the racial prejudice suffered by Crooks. Crooks is more educated than the other ranch hands and he knows his rights – ‘And he had books, too; a tattered dictionary and a mauled copy of the California Civil code for 1905’. However, as a black man in America in the 1930’s he doesn’t have many rights and he has very low social status. He is treated as little more than an animal. Candy is racist in his attitude and language – ‘They let the nigger come in that night.’ Crooks lives in isolation from the other workers. Because of Lennie’s mental disability he has no prejudice for Crooks but Crooks is unkind to him because he is one of the few people he can have power over. Both Lennie and Crooks suffer from other people’s attitudes. Gertrude is not a victim of racial prejudice but people are suspicious because she is not local.
In both texts characters are victims of real discrimination due to ‘disabilities’ they can’t change. These include racism, sexism and social prejudice against illegitimacy and mental and physical handicap. However, some characters are victims of self-discrimination – they expect people to discriminate against them, so they behave as if they are, which often leads to a self fulfilling prophecy. For example, Rhoda thinks she will be discriminated against, so she behaves as if she is.
But actually it’s only farmer Lodge that does – the dairy workers are quite sympathetic: ‘The dairyman, who rented the cows of Lodge, and knew perfectly the tall milkmaids history, with manly kindliness always kept the gossip in the cow-barton from annoying Rhoda’. Similarly Gertrude thinks her arm is responsible for the state of her marriage. She doesn’t consider more sensible reasons. Her own obsession with her arm makes her probably helped to damage the marriage as well. Curley’s wife also acts in the way other people expect her to. The men treat her like a ‘tart’ so she dresses and acts like one. This may also be the case for Lennie. Today he would be able to have special education to help him be more responsible. In Of Mice and Men the other characters treat him like an idiot and a child and so he never grows up.
Although the tow texts are very different (one is a kind of folk tale set in rural Dorset, the other is more realistic), there are similarities in the way the theme of disability is dealt with. Both texts have characters with physical disabilities and many minor characters who suffer from an ‘incapacity or illness that restricts someone’s way of life’. It’s quite surprising that despite the hundred year gap very little seems to have changed in terms of attitudes towards disability. In both stories these attitudes result in tragic deaths.