Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” was set in the Great depression in 1930s America. The characters reflect the struggles and harsh times many working Americans faced in that era. Isolated, lonely, marginalised and mistrustful, people had to create new lives for themselves. In the novel Steinbeck describes several characters that are vulnerable due to the social context of that time; Crooks and Curley’s wife face particular hardship which result in them being outsiders in the place they consider home. Steinbeck implies early on in the novel the views other characters have of Crooks and Curley’s wife may differ from the modern reader. Though both women and black people had progressed in their rights by the time of the setting of the novel, old attitudes and mistreatment of black people and to an extent women were still present. Steinbeck immediately emphasises Crooks and Curley’s wife’s low status via their introduction.
They are both introduced in such a way to highlight their low regard by others and how they are viewed by society. Steinbeck describes Crooks’ low status very early in the book through the “old swamper” Candy. Candy describes how Crooks gets abuse from the boss for things that are beyond his control. “An’ he give the stable buck hell too.” “Ya see the stable bucks a nigger.” The initial comments depict Crooks as an outsider as he is the only character described to have been getting abused by the boss. It also shows how Crooks is used as an outlet of the boss’s frustration. Candy then describes Crooks using a racial slur. This represents Crooks’ isolation further as Candy’s initial description of Crooks is through his colour and not his personality or other features.
The use of the racial term reflects also how society sees Crooks and that this type of language was acceptable to the people of these times. Steinbeck uses a similar ploy when initially introducing Curley’s wife, as he introduces her again through Candy. We see early on how Curley’s wife is regarded on the ranch and this gives us an early view of why she is isolated as such. “well- she got the eye” “well I think Curley’s, married . . . a tart” Candy’s initial remark about Curley’s wife elicits the potential idea that she behaves in a flirtatious manner towards other ranchers, which has caused the ranchers to avoid her and therefore caused her segregation. The second remark by Candy suggests the opinion of her by other ranchers. The use of the strong derogatory term for her evidently suggests that she is isolated out of hatred towards her coquettish attitude.
We see early on the Curley’s wife’s body language backs up what is said about her by Candy. She is described as trying to gain attention via her body. “Leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward.” It shows the vainness of Curley’s wife which can easily lead to her exclusion due to her being self-obsessed and unable to relate to the other workers. The line also shows how she is more inclined to use her body to gain attention from the others and this shows how she has become desperate for attention due to her isolation. The language used in the line about how her body is “thrown forward” which allows Steinbeck to clearly illustrate the extent of which she is going to gain attention, depicting early on the effects of her loneliness.
In the novel we see how Steinbeck suggests Crooks also demands self-segregation, we see this when Lennie initially tries to talk with Crooks. “You got no right to come in my room”. This conveys how Crooks being subjected to so much isolation has become accustomed to it, possibly suggesting he has become an introvert. It also shows how Crooks puts on a defensive front due to his marginalization on the ranch. Crooks talks about his “rights” on several occasions. “Nobody got any right in here but me” The first comment shows how Crooks claims instant owner ship of his quarters, this reflects how his constant seclusion on the ranch and society has made him need to protect and claim things that are his.
Steinbeck in the novel symbolizes through Crooks’ possessions how he seeks a way of removing his isolation. “A tattered dictionary and a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905” The use of the dictionary and civil code allows Steinbeck to convey to the reader how Crooks is a learned man and also is not someone to quickly accept being excluded. It evokes sympathy and a degree of empathy for Crooks as we see how he tries to find a way for him to be accepted and also we see he is not a simple a rancher but a man of slight intellect. The use of the civil code also suggests how Crooks may not have initially understood the reasons for his segregation.
Both Crooks and Curley’s wife are seen to feel as though no-one understands their situation of being alone. Steinbeck does this through the use of rhetorical questions in their dialect. “ S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunkhouse and play rummy ‘cause you was black. How’d you like that?” This remark by Crooks explores how he understands that his seclusion is due to his colour. Steinbeck by using a rhetorical question also allows the reader to sympathize with Crooks and also picture what he describes.
Steinbeck’s reference to the word “black” as opposed to “nigger” also shows how Crooks though secluded tries to maintain his dignity and self-respect. When Curley’s wife is talking with Lennie, Steinbeck does the same thing as he did with Crooks. “Aint I got a right to talk to nobody?” The use of language in this remark also allows us to sympathize with Curley’s wife as it allows the reader to empathize how frustrated she may feel from being shunned on the ranch.
Steinbeck shows how Curley’s wife’s attitude and derogatory remarks about the ranchers has led to her being disliked and shunned on the ranch in chapter 4 when she is in the stables. “ Standin’ here talkin’ to a bunch of bindle stiffs- a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep- an’ likin it because they aint nobody else.” This quote shows her low regard for certain ranchers and how she is forced to try and socialize with people she doesn’t like out of desperation. It also shows how her remarks about the ranchers “bindle stiffs” may have caused her to be isolated and marginalized by the workers. It also evokes the idea she lacks the ability to communicate with the other workers in a way where they respond in a positive manner. The quote also indirectly suggests Curley’s wife is not really meant on the ranch as she says “they aint nobody else” which illustrates how she has no-one, with whom she can properly relate to.
Both Curley’s wife and Crooks are partly subjected to isolation due to the social context of the time period in which the book is set. Crooks being a black man in 1930s America would have suffered large amounts of seclusion and racial violence. Steinbeck conveys this through the threat made to him by Curley’s wife, “I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny”. The use of the threat allows Steinbeck to explore and clearly depict how Crooks can’t escape that in this society he will also be second class and looked upon as different and an outsider. The line shows explores the idea that due to him being classed as different, he is susceptible to being lynched or suffer some sort of violence so easily as it is accepted in society. The use of such a powerful image paves the way for Steinbeck to show the reader the extent of Crooks’ seclusion. Similarly he does same for Curley’s wife, as being a woman in 1930s America she would have not had many rights.
Steinbeck however when conveying this message uses more subtle imagery as a white woman had slightly higher regard than a black man. Steinbeck references how women were usually meant to be in the household, “she wore a cotton house dress” and “Think I like to stick in that house alla time?” the first quote describing her attire allows Steinbeck to suggest early on that her marginalized on the ranch is partly due to her gender, the use of the house dress implies that she is not meant to be on the ranch and is out of place. It secondly suggests that she constantly tries to avoid being isolated at home and is further out-casted for not fully compelling her role. The second remark also implies how society was such that people were meant to accept their place and, she is shown to not accept her place and therefore caused her to be shunned because it.
The marginalized characters in the novel have several things in common and, ironically, if these characters could look beyond their own issues they might find some mutual trust and support. Steinbeck portrays Crooks and Curley’s wife (alongside George and Lennie) as having dreams of a better future. Curley’s wife wanted to be a film star “ Coulda been in the movies” and Crooks desires a better life as represented by the civil code. However as with the American dream it only happens for a few and it consists of loneliness and despair. At the end of the novel there is not apparent freedom from isolation for Crooks, yet Curley’s wife gains some freedom in death. “the meanness and the planning’s and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face”