For the first time in around 15 years of teaching Steinbeck’s text, I had a strange experience today with year 11. We are revising/revisiting the text for Edexcel IGCSE. It was read in Year 9 and now we are going back to say hello. Today we entered the bunkhouse. The great anti-natural rectangle built to house the itinerant workers and on which no expense has been spent.
We spent a while looking at setting and had moved to character and the boss. Usually I am rathr repulsed by the boss, but this time I found myself being quite nice about him.
‘Lennie was just finishing making his bed. The wooden latch raised
again and the door opened. A little stocky man stood in the open
doorway. He wore blue jean trousers, a flannel shirt, a black,
unbuttoned vest and a black coat. His thumbs were stuck in his belt,
on each side of a square steel buckle. On his head was a soiled
brown Stetson hat, and he wore high-heeled boots and spurs to prove he
was not a laboring man.
The old swamper looked quickly at him, and then shuffled to the door
rubbing his whiskers with his knuckles as he went. “Them guys just
come,” he said, and shuffled past the boss and out the door.
The boss stepped into the room with the short, quick steps of a
fat-legged man. “I wrote Murray and Ready I wanted two men this
morning. You got your work slips?” George reached into his pocket
and produced the slips and handed them to the boss. “It wasn’t
Murray and Ready’s fault. Says right here on the slip that you was
to be here for work this morning.”‘
We see all the descriptors – the little layers of information Steinbeck typically gives- he is short, he moves like a ‘fat legged’ man -all that chafing taking its toll, and he is evidently well-fed and well looked after, He dresses to impress in a manner no way practical for a worker -but then he isn’t one -he’s the boss and a bit of a short-arse. So why did I like him today?
Let’s think: George and Lennie were due the previous evening to begin work early this day. George decided in section 1 that they would not bother to go to the ranch but would ‘jungle up’ to enjoy their last night of freedom, so necessary to frame the narrative. On a practical level, however, at a time of recession, their behaviour does little to suggest reliability. Indeed we see George lie to the boss about the driver -yes they were let off wrongly, but not by 10 miles – they could have reached the farm in a timely fashion. Candy has said that the boss was ‘sore as hell’ when they were not ready to work in the morning -he had every reason to be, yet his conversation does not suggest this -he is mild mannered and polite, at least until he feels he is being somehow duped by Lennie’s reluctance to speak. Indeed his behaviour seems very fair, all told.
As he and George talk, it is clear that it is George’s behaviour which riles him: he never raises his voice, addressing Lennie ‘suddenly’ to ask him what he can do – a quesrion which causes George to reply ‘loudly’ suggesting a rising confrontation. The boss ‘turns on’ George as a result, yet there is no suggestion of unfairness or of his using his authority in any inappropriate way. He seems patient. He has also been generous -the gallon of whisky fuelled an utterly distasteful scene involving Smitty and Crooks – but the gift was generous, the abuse none of his doing.
I think the final element was his hat -the ‘soiled brown stetson’- the true cowboy hat. This is the early 30s. The boss may not work now, but the hat suggests he has earned the right not t work. We are given no history, but assuming he is in his 50s, then he may well have been the originator of this ranch – the hard working cowboy who followed his own American Dream out West. He has a farm and it works, but it is struggling in this new era. Not only that but he has brought up a right wrong-un as a son – an aggressive little bully with a chip on his shoulder as big as the Gabilan mountains. His hat was the clue – a working cowboy’s hat.
So there we are – I liked the boss today. There’s a first.