John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” was set in California during the early to mid 1930’s, a time of economic depression and high unemployment. It is a famous story about the harsh realities of life for the poor and unskilled workers who were disrupted by the Depression.
Large numbers of migrant workers came to California from other parts of America in search of work. Two of these workers are George and Lennie.
They are two very different men, who together search for work. The action takes place at or around the ranch where they eventually find work.
The main themes in the story are friendship and loneliness. Migrant workers found friendships difficult to establish at that time as they were thrown together in difficult circumstances, often competing for a single job and were not in the same place for very long. This competitiveness was a common cultural aspect amongst the migrant workers who were mostly men. Men had to leave their wives and families behind and mostly travelled alone, roaming from ranch to ranch, farm work being the only type of work available to them. Against this historical background, the friendship between George and Lennie is all the more special because it is so rare. Steinbeck often shows this by displaying how other characters question and react to their friendship which they find unusual and even distrustful. This can be seen at the ranch when George and Lennie have just arrived and the boss is suspicious as he has never seen “one guy take so much trouble for another guy”. He presumes George must be exploiting Lennie by taking away his pay.
The two very different men are dependant on each other, but for different reasons. Lennie is physically strong but mentally weak and relies on George to keep him going, literally, to keep him alive. Without George as his guide, Lennie would be unable to find any work due to his severe lack of intelligence and would most likely have spent time in some form of mental institution. George takes responsibility for Lennie partly out of pity, partly out of affection and partly for companionship; being with Lennie is far better than being lonely, something which most other workers had to put up with. George is looked upon as Lennie’s mentor. This is shown in the way Lennie copies George’s actions when drinking from the pool on the way to the ranch:
“Lennie, who had been watching, imitated George exactly. He pushed himself back, drew up his knees, embraced them, looked over to George to see whether he had it just right. He pulled his hat down a little more over his eyes, the way George’s was.”- (Line 3, page 21)
Lennie’s lack of intelligence to think for him self is displayed here. However, the way in which he imitates George could be due to Lennie’s lack of exposure to other people. George is the only person who Lennie actually knows and their constant travels in search of work would not help Lennie’s skills in interacting with others. This very point is displayed at the ranch towards the end of the story. Curly’s wife is alone with Lennie in the barn while the rest of the ranch workers are heavily involved in a bet in another room. She is telling Lennie about what she could have done with her life, expecting Lennie to talk back and perhaps comfort her. However he is not at all concerned on what she has to say but is completely focused on his obsession with his rabbits and his and George’s dream of their own plot of land.
“Don’t you think of nothing but rabbits?”- (Last line of page 125)
Lennie even dismisses this question which has been asked angrily by Curly’s wife and continues to describe his and George’s dream, something which George had told Lennie to keep a secret!
Despite Lennie’s fault in revealing his and Georges “American dream”, something which Americans commonly shared at that time, to Curly’s wife, he did in fact remember to meet with George at the camp site by the river. This is the place where George tells Lennie to go if anything went wrong. Also, it is the exact same location where the story first opened, showing George and Lennie’s friendship as they stumbled together across the plains.
At this final point in the story, the two companion’s friendship is displayed perfectly. George knows that the other workers, in particular Curly, are coming after Lennie to punish him for the death of Curly’s wife, and knows that when they catch him they will either brutally kill him or send him to a mental institution as he would be viewed by the society at that time as unsafe . George feels entitled to shoot Lennie himself as he realises the harsh realities that would befall Lennie if Curly caught him. At this point, historical and social aspects affect the outcome very much. If Lennie was captured today, he’d be taken to a court case and would most likely be committed to a caring institution because of his mental instability. However this is not the way it worked in the society of the 1930’s. Immediately Lennie would be labelled insane and sent to jail or to an institution which would differ very much from one in today’s society. George therefore takes it upon himself to kill Lennie at the peaceful scene where the story first began and makes his death as humane as possible. He dies a quick, clean death, blissfully unaware of what is happening to him, but happy in George’s reassurances of their future.
In contrast to the obvious friendship between George and Lennie, Steinbeck portrays the lack of friendship between Curly’s wife and the men on the ranch. A noticeable point is the way in which she is “labelled”. Throughout the whole story she is never given a proper name other than “Curly’s wife”. This is not because she is unimportant in the story – she is one of the key characters whose fate is the same as Lennie’s – but more to do with the way in which she is despised by the ranch workers. She is seen as a piece of “jail bate” who will only cause trouble due to the way she flaunts herself around the ranch in inappropriate clothing; “She wore her bright cotton dress and the mules with red ostrich feathers”. This was certainly not typical ranch wear. She constantly flirts with the ranchers.
Steinbeck suggests the flirting that caused her to be ignored may be caused by factors other than her natural personality. With no real companionship on the ranch, it is not altogether surprising that she looks for company in the way she does. She is named as “Curly’s wife”; defined by her relationship to Curly, not as an individual. This may also have something to do with the way women were looked upon at that time. Between the 1920’s and 1930’s there was a “sexual revolution” where women, just like Curly’s wife, became more confident in their appearance and became far more aware their sexuality. However some men frowned upon this. Men on the ranch would see women like this as a distraction more than anything and this is evident in the way they do everything they can to ignore her as she only brings trouble;
“Cause she’s a rap trap if I ever seen one” – (Bottom of page 54).
Crooks, the only black ranch worker is described by Candy as “a nice fella”. He is first introduced into the story when the boss of the ranch is angry and, because of Crook’s race, takes it out on him. While Curly’s wife is lonely because of her attitude and general appearance, Crooks is lonely simply because of the colour of his skin. The way in which he is segregated from the rest of the ranch workers because of the colour of his skin is to do with the way blacks were looked upon by society at that time.
Black Americans, then called “negro’s”, were seen as an inferior race, and many laws drastically affected their freedom. This is shown in the way Crooks is not allowed to mingle with the rest of the workers apart from on special occasions like Christmas, but, even then he ends up as the victim of a fight. Despite this, he is resigned to being separated from the rest of the group and has a great interest in books, his only true friends. His bunk where he spends most, if not all of his time while he isn’t working is his territory over which he has grown to be very protective. This is shown when Lennie, totally unaware of the racial boundaries of that time, enters his room uninvited. Crooks, out of pride, use his only right, that being in the privacy of his own room, and taunts Lennie with stories of George not returning from his night out. Crooks does this to show Lennie what being lonely is really like but soon realises that Lennie didn’t come into his bunk to cause harm, but just to have somebody to talk to.
Unfortunately, just as Crooks is beginning to open out and reveal himself to Lennie about how he is constantly lonely, Curly’s wife enters. Her presence causes anger and tension inside the room but due to there deficiencies, Crook’s being black and Lennie suffering from learning difficulties, they are both powerless and cannot retaliate to her abuse. Her anger is caused by the common bond that all workers have, loneliness.
Steinbeck portrays friendship that seems to be fixed in male companionship. This true to the historical context of men being thrust together by historical circumstances. This friendship is more than just the absence of loneliness. It has positive aspects such as the sharing of the “American dream”, common to the society of the 1930’s, and the solid trust which is based purely on companionship and not on any duty or commitment to one another. This friendship between males does not seem to cross the racial or gender boundaries. This accurately depicts the situation of the women and black people of the time.