Approaching Of Mice and Men as a societal critique

I often pursue aspects of a novel with a question such as “why did the author write this text in this way at this time in their life or in the context of the worlds in which they live?” I am concerned that it is often hard for students to approach an essay about the significance of a certain character unless they can see how the character fits into the overall vision of the writer. Instead, they often resort to focusing on the action rather than looking at a wider perspective rooted in the intended function of the character and thus how they are presented by their words and deeds.

In OMAM this can be an issue. I want to take as a starting point the this novella houses a critique of American Society at the time of the Great Depression. If this is accepted, then I want to explore the notion of a divided society at a crossroads – the moment of balance from which society can develop in either direction – dark or light.

As ever, this is not intended as a formal essay but rather as a stimulus for thought for the students I teach – an invitation for debate, if you like.

If we start with power, it seems to me that the dichotomy between the two models of power seen in Slim and Curley is clear. If Slim represents the “light” and Curley the “dark” side, then a clear choice exists between an unforgiving but fair ruler, who uses his intuition to judge and whose word is “law” and a ruler who imposes authority by the force of his fists and who suppresses any challenge to his rule by the threat of “canning”. Thus the reader is in the place of George and Lennie, arriving as outsiders and being required to navigate through the novel whilst deciding which path to follow. The ending is splendidly ambiguous, as though Steinbeck is requiring all who come into contact with the book to decide whether society should be based around support and friendship or whether, like Carlson, they simply do not understand what is “eatin’ them two guys”.

After the initial spell in their own private Eden where society can not trouble them, George and Lennie have to move into the world of the Dark Side, like some mythological pair of innocents being put to the test. Once they arrive at the ranch, which surely is symbolic of the new society that has developed since the Crash, they meet an elderly guide, crippled and full of information who acts as the guardian of the inner sanctum. In this role Candy is a figure recognised as the Gatekeeper of Mythology – just as Charon in Greek Myth, he is an elderly cripple who carries the new arrivals into the kingdom of the Dead. Now, it is going too far to suggest that the ranch is a “Hell”, but the idea of limbo in which the souls are somehow processed is not too far fetched. Candy is a gossip with a cruel tongue, though at first he is taken at face value as he defends the cleanliness of the soulless and prison-like bunkhouse.
His primary function, once the newcomers are settled is to lead them to the presence of the ruler – an old man who seeks to hide his dwarfishness behind a pair of high heeled boots with spurs. This man plays little part in his world but has abrogated command of the ranch to his son – Curley- who takes on the role of a Dark Ruler, with the elderly “king” left in his ranchouse as Curley’s new world unfolds.

From his first appearance in the novel Curley’s savagery and brutality is evident. Steinbeck uses a semantic field riddled with power and violence : “glanced coldly, fists, stiffened, crouch, calculating and pugnacious, lashed, stared levelly” in a mere two paragraphs. In the face of this onslaught, the innocent but flawed hero – Lennie – can only “squirm” and “twist with embarrassment”. From this first meeting, the lines are drawn up – Curley is a clear challenge to the two new arrivals, yet they will have to find a way to live within his world if they are to be able to carry on a normal and successful life.

As in any good mythological story, the Dark World is not all it seems at face value and there is a test for the innocents when Curley’s wife is introduced. We will look later at her role as temptress/trapped and repressed feminine.

The alternative path which can be followed is that embodied by Slim. Steinbeck does not pull his punches when he introduces Slim. In contrast to Curley, the language is so purple in the description as to provoke a sense of disappointment when Slim finally speaks – no one can be that good! However we are told that Slim is “God-like, the Prince of the ranch, majesty achieved only by royalty and master craftsmen”, not only that but he “invites confidence” and will be seen as a priest-like figure when he allows George to salve his conscience and confess the truth about the events in Weed.

Slim is good – the “light”, but he is still a harsh and occasionally cruel ruler. He discusses the drowning of his excess puppies with ease and takes no part in any hope of saving Candy’s dog. When it is right to kill, he will kill. He will not, however, abuse his power and accepts George and Lennie at face value with ease. In the same way, he seems relaxed around Curley’s wife who is an object of lechery and fear for everyone else on the ranch -“hey, good looking”. He is portrayed as being prepared to use his own power to ensure that the weak are not bullied or treated badly when he offers to stop Curley’s thuggery towards Lennie, yet he is never going to intervene to stop his eventual death and will take his place in the posse. At this stage the choice of Light or Dark will still end in death for the innocent fool, but there is a clear sense that the choice is between swift and fair judgement for a clear sin, or a painful and sadistic response to the same event. All Slim will do to try to weight the scales in his favour is to suggest to Curley that he remains with his wife. He is rebuffed and leads the posse out to search for Lennie.

Since death is the only possible outcome for Lennie, given the nature of his crime, it is appropriate that George should deliver it alone – as the only true supporter and friend that we have seen. Slim re-emerges at the very close of the novel to offer George the hand of friendship and a drink. He comforts George and the pair walk off. Had Steinbeck closed the novel here, we might discern the outline of a possible “happy ending”, albeit, not one with a resonance of the “rags to riches” storyline that has occasionally developed. However, the last words are given to the “dark” side and it is this ambiguity that gives the novel its strength. Ultimately each reader needs to decide where to position themselves in terms of this question. Doubtless, many will side with Slim and George and mentally try to explain to Carlson the error of his ways, but many will not. There is no happy ending. Even with Slim as a friend, surely George is at risk of being canned now that the harvest is in, and even if he is not, Curley still rules over this microcosm of society. I sense that Carlson and Curley in their “might is right” manner are the predecessors of great self-driven characters from American fiction or film from the later 20th Century such as a Sherman McCoy or Gordon Gecko.

It seems that the dark side in the novella has lost touch with nature and with humanity. The settings of the story make this abundantly clear as soon as the second section opens with no narrative prelude but a description of the alien world that the ranch represents: “the bunk house was a long rectangular building.” There is no room for the rich palette of colours or for the peace and calm of the natural world here. All is bleached of colour, lacking in soul and essentially entrapping. As the gatekeeper welcomes the two travellers to this world, there is a sense that the peace and inner content of the previous night is about to be lost. It is not that nature is soft and gentle – it isn’t, after all it is the setting for death and for anguish, but it has a humanity which is absent from life in the ranch. Slim, through his job and through his “good” character has not lost his humanity. Most of the other members of this small community seem to have lost or to be losing theirs.

Candy is slightly enigmatic. He is a gossip who seems keen merely to ingratiate himself with George and Lennie on arrival whilst trying to deflect George’s criticism of the ranch. He is complimentary about the Boss, yet his further comment that “You got to take him right” suggests that the Boss’s good nature is not something that can be relied upon. It seems that Candy has been so long a servant of this world that he fails to see its faults clearly. Once his only companion is removed he does “come over” to the Light, for as long as he feels his own ends can be met. The last memory of him, however is his tirade of unjustified abuse delivered to the corpse of Curley’s wife. Steinbeck has been at pains to use her death as a chance to re-establish respect and affection for this misunderstood girl and shortly after her brief “requiem” – “a moment settled and hovered… for much, much more than a second”- Candy attacks her and blames her for the loss of his dream future. This is not a world where femininity has any chance of survival, indeed so strong is the masculine in the ranch that the body is left alone in the straw – the pursuit and capture of Lennie being more important that respect and care for the weak.

Curley’s Wife, the only female in the story, has already made this clear when she arrives in Crooks’ room saying that “they left the all weak ones here”. She is included in the statement as much as any of the three men, yet she has no access to their support, so much have they lost touch with their Light sides. Curley’s Wife shows this more clearly than anyone. She is denied a name, is the possession of a violent husband who we are told is obsessed with the fear of being a cuckold and is so denigrated by the men that no one addresses her with anything other than contempt. Apart from Slim. She is assumed to be a flirt, though this probably bears as much relation to the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of the bunkhouse that to anything else. Only as she dies do we learn of her sad past, her broken dream and her pathetic attempts to maintain her femininity in her new world. Her colour is red – danger and passion and also the extreme feminine end of a spectrum dominated by harsh male blues in the denim worn all around her. Her initial introduction sees her clearly portrayed as a temptress or some form of dark feminine character who will lure men (Lennie) to his death. This illusion is maintained deliberately by Steinbeck who ensures that the reader believes this tale and shares the fears of the dark characters. This new world is, afterall, a heartless, man’s world. One in which the weak are free to be targeted by the strong. One in which everyone takes their chance to exercise what little power they have. In her single moment of power, she behave atrociously in Crooks’ room. Her vile racism and the invocation of possible lynching can not be defended, though there should be an open mind to a degree. Is this her view or is it the effect of living on the ranch for even a short period?

I began by stating that I intend this to be provocative and to encourage students to respond with their own ideas. Hopefully many of my readers will use this as I intend. Look closely at the text, find further examples and allow the thought process to develop from here. When faced by a “what is the significance of the setting…?” or a “how does Steinbeck use the character….?” essay, consider what he is trying to do in terms of the social context of his readership and then answer the question.