One of the many joys of teaching Of Mice and Men is being able to engage in discussion all around characters due to Steinbeck’s masterly 360 degree characterisations. Curley’s Wife is a victim of gender oppression, and yet she is also shown to use racism as her only means of exerting power over the only member of the community who can be said to have less power than her. That said, assuming the Stable Buck is good at his job (and he must be in order to have kept it), there are reasons to assume that his leaving would pain the boss rather than the death of his daughter in law. Candy is a figure of pity as he loses his companion (dog) and yet he is a deeply unpleasant and vicious gossip – the first to enshrine Crooks as ‘other’ by his use of the N-word in chapter 2. George’s response to this is non-committal – if Candy is seeking affirmation of his racial views, he must be disappointed.
That said in the narrative around the Christmas fight, Candy’s excitement and his casual use of the N- word ( 5 times in a single short paragraph) rather than Crooks’ name makes it clear that he does not view his colleague as an equal member of the human race – he is clearly objectified and has his humanity removed by Candy. George does not challenge this – apart from anything else his position as an itinerant is too vulnerable to change. Candy is no more charitable about the other outsider on the ranch – Curley’s Wife, and Steinbeck makes the reader complicit in his libel on her character by presenting her through his eyes and through those of the males on the ranch all the way until Chapter 5. We should note that George has every right to be warning Lennie away from her following ‘Weedgate’ – any pretty young female might be an unwitting threat to their safety.
After this introduction to Crooks, he is at most peripheral to the novel, and has little place in the vignettes of bunkhouse life due to his outsider status. In his brief appearances it is obvious that he and Slim can be seen as a unit in some form. Slim does not seem to treat him disrespectfully, though Crooks’ use of the servant/master form ‘Mr Slim’ would certainly indicate a hierarchy and one which Crooks has no wish to challenge, presumably fearing consequences – a crippled old man is not going to find alternative employment, as Candy makes clear. A crippled old black man stand seven less chance.
Candy has a moment when he might be used to show the emergence of recognition of the inherent wrong in Crooks’ treatment in Chapter 5: ‘I been here a long time… an’ Crooks been here a long time. This is the first time I ever been in his room’. There is no reason for this comment other than to suggest that Candy’s eyes are opening to the idea that Crooks might exist as a person, and Crooks’ response: ‘Guys don’t come into a coloured man’s room very much’ is a clear jibe at the prevalent attitude of the men on the ranch -especially given that Candy and he have shared employment for ‘a long time’. ‘Candy quickly changed the subject’ presumably because he knows this is not a subject he wishes to explore – why he would never have visited Crooks in the normal state of things. An old man, in 1937 will probably be 60+ years of age. He has likely lived through the Civil War and its aftermath. His racial views are indelibly hotwired.
Yet Crooks is a similar age, we are lead to believe. He too has seen the War and its aftermath from the opposite position. In his room he has the California Civil Code for 1905 – the year in which the right of equality of living condition was enshrined in law:
‘All citizens within this state are entitled to full
and equal accommodations, advantages^ facilities, and privileges of inns, restaurants, hotels, eating houses,
barber shops, bath houses, theaters, skating rinks, and all other places of public accommodation or amusement, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all citizens. En. Stats. 1905, 553.’
Whilst it is the case that the Jim Crow laws separated black from white creating the idea of ‘Equal but separate’, California enacted few of the Jim Crow laws whilst generally enacting harsh state legislation far more assiduously against Hispanic and Asiatic immigrants than against the Black community at this time. This is not to say that there was not widespread discrimination against blacks on account of their skin colour, but it seems to be not on a state legislation level. Indeed the men seem happy to play with Crooks and even to see him win their cash when playing horseshoes. The Christmas fight seems to be a one off rather than a comment on the ideas of the men as a whole. The affair seems to tell us more about Candy than about the attitudes to race seen on the ranch.
This brings us to the room in which he lives and its contents. It may well be that he has been denied the right to live in the bunkhouse along with the rest of the men, but if Steinbeck had wished to make this point, surely he would have done so. It is just as plausible to suggest that the Stable Buck, any stable buck in any ranch, would live as close to the stable as practical – after all, his role is vital to the success and prosperity of the farm. He needs to be with his horses. Thus the contents of the room would support this view – a mixture of personal and professional belongings which enable him to work and to look after his charges. Quite apart from anything else, there would be no room for this equipment in the bunkhouse. And so he is isolated from the rest of the men – he gains some privacy from this – would he really have a ‘special shelf’ for his ‘dirty books’ in the more public forum? – and also is at risk from loneliness. He is barred from the bunkhouse – ‘they say because I stink’ – and knows that this is because he is ‘black’. It may be so, but it is clear that no one is saying so. His response is to bar all comers from his room -except the Boss and Slim who by their position would have the right of authority to enter any room. Crooks knows his rights and hold to them – his right to control entry to his room which he maintains in the face of all comers until Lennie’s childish naivety simply blows this away.
Crooks is clear that ‘A guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick’. His sickness manifests itself in his cruel taunting of Lennie, as surely as Curley’s Wife’s racist attack on Crooks can be seen a as a manifestation of the same ‘sickness’. Steinbeck’s point here is the wider issue around the fragmentation of society for all – coloured or white, male or female. The message is clear: American Society is at a crossroads as to whether to follow the Darwinian route of ‘every man for himself’ or a more socially responsible route which protects and supports the less fortunate and the weak in society. Even Crooks, one of the less fortunate on many levels is not able to escape from the social sickness of cruelty which pervades the novel. And yet he has in some way contributed to his own loneliness by the force with which he tries to repulse visitors. Yes, this is a defensive mechanism designed to give himself the illusion of power over his own demesne, and it is highly likely that the transient workers might not wish to enter his room anyway, yet it is also self punishing.
Steinbeck shows us a character who is secretly thrilled to have these visitors and who, for the first time, is treated as one of the men, simply by being able to engage in conversation. His undoing, in a book which is so much about power, comes about when the only person on the ranch with a worse dose of the sickness of loneliness enters the room. Her initial olive branch is rebuffed: I am certain that in the line ‘they left all the weak ones here’ she includes herself as an invitation to talk as equals. The men, fearing Curley and despising his wife, reject her. For the only time in the novel she uses her power – the power to abuse and threaten a man because of his colour. His response is to withdraw and here Steinbeck shows the reality of life for a black man in the USA – he can only withdraw: ‘no personality, no ego – nothing to arouse either like or dislike’. He shrinks and is beaten by the assault which is lead by the only time in the book that the N- word is used as a weapon in direct address – a proper noun used as an attack. The imagery reflects slavery as she waits for ‘him to move so she could whip at him again’. Crooks has been given a brief glimpse of a better future before the status quo has been harshly asserted and he is forced to retreat in order to protect himself.
Clearly Crooks is a victim of the careless racism of society in the 1930s as depicted, yet we must see nuance here – neither Slim nor George, the pair who will represent Steinbeck’s ‘good’ vision of society at the end of the book treat him with disrespect and Steinbeck is at pains to show how his suffering due to his colour has been exacerbated over time – we know nothing of his father’s farm either in terms of when it was lost or even whether he owned it or was a tenant farmer, though the implication is ownership. We do not know how it was lost.
What we do know is that one of the few educated characters in the book, one of the few whose speech is not dominated by dialectical impreciseness is brought down by one of the least educated (her dialect is the most at variance from standard English) and that Steinbeck is not going to let himself be sidetracked from his central message in such a short work by allowing Race to become the central issue of the book. Whether rightly or wrongly, his focus is society as whole as he saw the USA in danger of total collapse in the depression era. Crooks is a victim of discrimination, undoubtedly, and Steinbeck briefly makes enough reference to slavery and suffering over time to bring this out clearly before he moves on into his exploration of the potential collapse of society as a whole.