“I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally”
In 1937, American writer and California native John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, a classic American novella (works of literature that tend to be written in prose and are slightly longer than a standard short story) that was later adapted into a play and also into a film. The story is about the survival of two California bindle stiffs (migrant workers), George Milton and Lennie Smalls, at a time in which America’s vulnerability to the rest of the world was at an unusual high. The protagonists of the story are referred to as “George” and “Lennie.” At the start of the story, George and Lennie have recently fled the town of Weed because Lennie was falsely accused of sexual assault, so the two men were run out of town along with their jobs. Lennie has apparent (not formally recognized) mental disabilities and has an obsession with touching soft items. George is Lennie’s unofficial caretaker; George has a dream for both him and Lennie that entails owning a large, fertile piece of property with plenty of bunnies for Lennie to pet; Lennie and George will make enough money to retire and “live off the fat of the land.” The time period of the story is unique. The 1930s was an interesting duration of American history squeezed between the Great Depression and two world wars. The 1930s did not hold the same social structure as today especially regarding the treatment of women, minorities, and the disabled; in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck displays America’s social flaws as best seen through two characters: Curley’s Wife, a woman, and Crooks, the black ranch hand.
John Steinbeck’s portrayal of Curley’s wife is one of alienation, insecurity, and loneliness as seen through her crude, shrewd, and sinister demeanor during a time in which masculinity flourished. The United States of America’s economic status in the 1930s was abysmal to say the very least. The year prior to the start of the decade was the infamously deadly Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 occurring on the twenty-ninth day of that October in New York City. Not too long after the economy’s plummet into financial doom, John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men. At the start of the 1930s, fifteen million Americans (approximately a quarter of America’s population at the time) were unemployed (The 1930s). The average median income was a meager $1160 (twenty to twenty-five dollars per week) a year; because of the circumstances, for the most part, the men of the house were considered the “bread-winners” of the household mostly due to having a higher chance of finding work than most women, so the woman of the house kept up with maintaining the family’s day to day needs (Lehrman).
Although the employment status of American women drastically changed the moment the United States became involved in the Second World War, women’s employment was relatively limited and menial compared to men. Female careers were usually limited to nursing, bookkeeping, sales, and the like (Women and Work). In fact, during the Great Depression, there were twenty-six different states that prohibited the employment of a married woman because, presumably, she had an employed spouse with a sufficient wage from his place of employment to support themselves, so having two employed spouses in one household was deemed unnecessary and supposedly limited employment opportunities for other married men (Women and Work).
The facts about the economy of the Great Depression help express and explain America’s sentiment about females in the setting for Of Mice and Men because gender defines roles in almost every culture. Females were itemized subordinates that served a practical purpose as a homemaker; this sexist mind-set was not just limited to manifestation within the home of the average American family; this heavily criticized sentiment was also carried into literature worldwide (Critics’ Views on the Female Characters in John Steinbeck’s Works). Nineteenth century American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne who is known for such works as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Marble Faun (1860) invariably portrayed his female characters with an innate goodness about them, but lacking any sort of intelligence capable of discerning good and evil (Critics’ Views on the Female Characters in John Steinbeck’s Works). John Steinbeck’s works are seemingly not excluded from this unpopular and anti-feminine, misogynist writing trend. In the words of literary critic Shu-Fang Liang, Steinbeck’s female characters are “inadequately developed” and are usually not “average” women like their “average” male counterparts but rather streetwalkers and solicitors.
Although not a prostitute, in Of Mice and Men, Curley’s Wife serves as fuel for the fire of the depiction for this unpopular sentiment. She is the nameless, promiscuous, troublesome, and malicious spouse to the owner of the ranch’s son that Lennie Smalls and George Milton are working for in the story. His wife is thought to be a tramp or a “tart” that parades around the property in her sexy and alluring dress and red high heels and does nothing but make snide remarks and stir trouble for the workers and ranch-hands; she plays the seductive serpent in Steinbeck’s Garden of Eden. Curley’s Wife does not even have a first name or surname in the story, in fact, the only woman ever named throughout the course of the work is Lennie’s Aunt Clara who was his previous caretaker before passing away allowing George to take on the role; this furthers Steinbeck’s supposed portrayal of women as being nothing more than speed bumps and forks in the road leading to happiness with dreams of “living on the fat of the land” for George and Lennie. Curley’s Wife constantly taunts Lennie with complete disregard to his evident disabilities; and at one point in the story, in an argument between the two, she reminds Crooks how easily she could have him lynched if he were to cross her because he is black.
Despite Curley’s wife being seen as a cancer to every man’s future plans in the story, John Steinbeck does invoke a certain amount of sympathy and pity for Curley’s Wife. Approximately half way through the story, right after Lennie breaks Curley’s hand in self-defense, Candy, Crooks, and Lennie are fantasizing about their future after working on the ranch, Curley’s Wife makes an entrance into Crooks’ room initially to cause trouble by making accusations about Curley’s hand, but just a few moments after her entrance, Curley’s Wife admits that she is indeed severely lonesome living on the ranch and incredibly miserable with her nuptial arrangement to Curley. “Seems like they ain’t none of them cares how I gotta live” (51). She is so broken that all she wants to do at the moment is converse with the workers in the room to rid of her loneliness. What is somewhat ironic about the room the scene is taking place in is that it is filled with “inferiors”: Crooks is black, Candy is old and is missing a hand, Lennie is mentally impaired, and Curley’s Wife is a woman. At this moment, observers of the story discover and understand the reasoning behind Curley’s Wife’s crude, shrewd, and sinister demeanor. Perhaps, John Steinbeck is putting to light the fact that America was indeed a male dominated society effecting oppression among women that creates the mentality that women are inferior, unimportant, incapable beings that are hypersexual trouble-makers.
The mind-set for most writers in the 1930s might have been layered with sexism, but there is no explicit evidence that indicates that Steinbeck had any sort of extensive disdain for women; he happily grew up with three sisters in Salinas, California, which happened to inspire Steinbeck’s setting for Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck Biography). It is not unreasonable to conclude that Steinbeck sympathized with women and their unfavorable treatment as a whole while drafting Of Mice and Men, however; regardless of how John Steinbeck intended to depict Curley’s Wife in the story, he does, in fact, show that women living during the time of the story’s setting were clearly perceived as inferiors to society as evidenced by the facts provided about the 1930s as well as a simple observation of Curley’s Wife’s demeanor throughout the work. It is also reasonable that this sympathetic sentiment was not only limited to women.
Steinbeck’s plot may contain a very strong anti-feminine presence amongst the characters, but women are not the only array of people in Of Mice and Men that are discriminated against in order to expose major social flaws in American culture. Crooks could also serve a similar purpose. Because of Crooks’ discrimination in the story is more blatant than Curley’s Wife’s (in addition to an assumed knowledge of African Americans’ timeless struggle for equality in America upon reading the story), it is easier for the story’s observers to recognize and to understand Crooks’ lonesomeness and constant pessimistic attitude. Near the halfway mark of the plot, leaving behind a select few, the employees of the ranch go out on the town; Lennie unintentionally wanders into Crooks’ room; and upon his entry, he almost immediately scolds Lennie for entering his space when Crooks knows very well that he would, without fail, be scorned for entering a white worker’s room on any given occasion. However, Crooks is lonely and also acknowledges Lennie’s innocence and allows him to enter and the two begin to converse with one another. Crooks’ explains his lonesomeness to Lennie, but Lennie is incapable of comprehending the topic of their own conversation; instead, Lennie fantasizes about the abundance of bunnies he will be able to pet on his future farm with George. “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? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick” (80). Crooks goes on to talk about his hard-ships and struggles of living as a black man with Lennie and makes it clear that (not taking into account his mental capacity) Lennie will never understand Crooks’ hardships. In Crooks’ early youth, he was taught that the key to staying out of trouble was to keep a solid distance from the white man. Crooks’ family’s skepticism about white people did not even permit him to play with the neighborhood kids because they were all white. In Of Mice of Men, Crooks takes on the role that displays Pre-Civil Rights racism, yet, more times than not, in almost any American story that one can recall that was published or was based in a setting prior to the Civil Rights movement that involves an African-American character will maintain an evident subordinate status when compared to the rest of the characters for the sake of the observer’s understanding of the story’s climate just like Crooks.
When attempting to identify such American literature, works such as Sounder (1969) by William H. Armstrong or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) might come to mind, but one can effortlessly find several more examples of works (or instances in works) that pertain to this subject-matter because of America’s unfortunate history of racism that was prevalent in society for years. Even before America became fully colonized, examples of animalistic treatment of minorities can be seen in literature. In The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953) a work set in seventeenth century North America about the Puritans’ witch-trials in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the first characters used as a scapegoat for the “witchcraft” occurring in Salem all of a sudden was a black slave from Barbados, Tituba; according to any God-fearing colonist, the non English-speaking heathen from the Caribbean is obviously the better candidate to be burned alive at the stake than a fellow “infallible” Puritan. Of Mice and Men is not an exception to the literary practice of African-American characters in works that serve the story’s plot by acting as a blatant subordinate to the rest of the characters and to the observers of the story that can shed as much light as the writer wants to shed upon the matter depending upon how much he or she wants the observer to be exposed to the setting’s presumably harsh social environment. However, Steinbeck’s implication of the practice was unique.
This seemingly ubiquitous and cliché idea apropos of African-American characters in literature that one can find in more than a handful of works is displayed differently in Of Mice and Men because John Steinbeck upheld a superbly polished code of standards that nobody at the time could even conceive of; it looked and dissected further into moral issues relevant to the times much more so than any of his contemporaries or, for that matter, any other Americans (The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck). In The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck, the non-fictional analysis discusses Steinbeck’s strong moral convictions. Literary analysts praise Steinbeck for his adamant, thorough, and extensive search for truths; one analyst, Richard E. Hart, claims that John Steinbeck was the “conscience of America” for his time; with a mutual agreement among the book’s editorial board headed by Stephen K. George, Steinbeck’s view of morality was so powerfully profound that the moral questions that arose in his works “were as compelling as they are inevitable” for the given circumstances of each plot. Equal treatment for all was a large part but not the entirety of Steinbeck’s philosophy.
Throughout the course of Steinbeck’s writing career, almost every aspect of a nation ranging from world wars to racism to financial crises to other moral issues had each been dealt with to a notable extent. In fact, one of the most famous examples used to understand the discernment of morality in American Literature is the very last scene of the story when George shoots Lennie to ensure a painless death that would eliminate the torture he would have otherwise endured from the other ranch workers for accidentally killing Curley’s Wife. All the matters that Steinbeck analyzed occurred within a relatively short span of time, so dealing with changes in circumstances was nothing new or problematic for Steinbeck as he continued to expose America’s fallibilities with each of his works. However, if the importance of the issues discussed in this essay could be weighed based on factors which include: significance and relevance to its time, how sensitive of a topic the matter was to the nation as a whole, and the duration of time an issue had consistently remained a problem for the hope of national equality, human rights, mainly racism, would weigh more than any other issue discussed in this essay due to its origins during the time of the creation of the United States.
Slavery had long been abolished for about seventy years and membership to the notoriously heinous racially based terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan was on a downward spiral in many parts of the South where the organization was mostly based, but racial tensions still ran very high due to the plans in place to keep the nation’s economy afloat (Issues of Race in the 1930s). Because the Great Depression was taking its monstrous financial toll across the nation and America was beginning to fight in the war abroad with the Allies, all of which is taking place very abruptly and almost consecutively after one another, as anyone would guess, the stability of the nation was questionable to say the very least; the conditions of the time called for many blacks from the South to migrate outwards in order to seek employment opportunities as a result of Roosevelt’s newly passed New Deal that was formed in hopes of promoting the nation’s economy by creating numerous job opportunities around the country to maintain a flow of the nation’s currency (Issues of Race in the 1930s). The North was far from hospitable and was by no means open-minded to the new employment migration patterns circulating throughout the country; the citizens of the North felt that they were the only ones worthy to live in the non-Southern portions of America and began to view blacks in the North as more than unwelcomed intruders (Issues of Race in the 1930s). To further the occurring racial tension, at this time, in Washington, the Democrats were in a heated political quarrel with its own party members because the traditionally Southern-drawn party was parting ways with its traditionally racially-biased ideologies to instead make a strong effort to appeal to black voters, which infuriated Southern Democrats leading to major tension and controversy within the same party; to provoke the matter even more for the Southern Democrats, the President himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the catalyst for the recent efforts to appeal to the new constituency (Issues of Race in the 1930s).
Learning about the current events at the time of a story’s setting is crucial, especially for a ethically-embedded work like Of Mice and Men that uses fictional characters to critique real-life issues in a fictional setting in order to fully understand the general outlooks of each character because every real-life event affects each character differently. A prime example are the newly formed employment migration patterns at the time traveled by black Americans in the 1930s; nowhere in the story does Steinbeck explicitly say that Crooks is a result of this pattern; but because of the given real-life circumstances, it is more than likely that Crooks is in California as a result of the New Deal job migrations as explained in the previous paragraph. Upon learning of Crooks’ possible situation, one can further sympathize with Crooks who travels from far away to California in hopes of a better life but still remains as discriminated and second-class as he was before moving. John Steinbeck perfectly displays the emotion and strain for black people at this time through Crooks’ character, and by doing so, Steinbeck is also bringing to light the issue of racism in America but, moreover, the issue of flagrant inequality in the land of the free.
Of Mice and Men is a great display of the hardships of living in the 1930s from multiple perspectives. Steinbeck uses his work to manifest his strong code of standards that also bring to light the major social flaws of inequality and racism that creates a mirror that is a direct reflection of the fallibilities in an American decade that suffered greatly in almost every aspect of the word and that witnessed evil that was unmatched in any point in history. The times may have been rough and the nation may have felt beyond defeated, but John Steinbeck still upheld his moral convictions in hopes of attaining a more peaceful world
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