Every piece of literature created is influenced by the time in which it was written. A particular text is a reflection of the era or period in which it was born. An author is contained within a specific time in history, and his writing becomes the result of the social, economic or political milieu of that time. This is the reason why it is extremely important for a reader to determine the context of the story in order to fully understand a piece of literature. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a great example of how a text reflects a particular era.
It is a novel written in the 1930s and revealed what was happening during that time in California. Hence, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a reflection of California during the 1930s. Of Mice and Men is a story about the friendship between George Milton and Lennie Small. The two men are remarkably different from each other. Steinbeck (1994) described George as “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features” (p. 4). He depicted Lennie as the opposite of his companion; he was “a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide sloping shoulders” (Steinbeck, 1994, p.
4). However, their differences were not limited to physical appearances. George is intelligent, but his friend Lennie is mentally challenged (Steinbeck, 1994). The mental condition of the latter forced him to depend solely on the former. While George often expressed displeasure about the burden of being Lennie’s companion, he proved to be a dedicated friend. He served as Lennie’s guardian. Unfortunately, Lennie’s disability caused him to be involved in great trouble. He was unable to discern his own strength, accidentally harming and killing others in the process.
In the end, George continues to fulfill his role as Lennie’s protector; he killed Lennie himself to spare him from death in the hands of Curley (Steinbeck, 1994). While the friendship between George and Lenny is the main focus of the story, the history of California plays a bigger and more significant role in the novel. Of Mice and Men is also a story about California and the problems which plagued it during the 1930s. John Steinbeck wrote three books which delved into the situation in California in 1930s; Of Mice and Men is the second book in the trilogy. The other two novels were In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath.
In On Mice and Men, the relationship between George and Lennie is set against the backdrop of 1930s California. Both men are migrant workers with a single dream: they wanted to own a piece of land and farm it themselves. George said, “Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs” (Steinbeck, 1994). This dream was influenced, if not completely defined, by the problems of the state at that particular time. In the Introduction of the On Mice and Men, Shillinglaw (1994) described California in the 1930s.
During the 1930s, the main problem in California was agricultural labor. Since the 1900s, most of the agriculturally abundant valleys were located in California. Produce such as broccoli, lettuce, sugar beets and strawberries were only some of those harvested in plenitude. The vast farms in California required many laborers for its harvest. Meanwhile, the Southwest region of America suffered from drought. Due to the drought, the once bountiful lands became similar to deserts. As a result, laborers left what was known as the Dust Bowl to try their luck in California.
Since 1935, an estimated 350,000 people from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas stormed the Golden State in hopes of finding jobs in the farms. While it was true that California had enormous agricultural fields which supplied most of the country’s produce, the employment of workers were still a problem. There were too many people to accommodate for jobs in these farms. Workers from the Dust Bowl wandered throughout the state in search of crops to farm, as they were desperate for work. By 1936, California was faced with a major problem: the constant flow of poor and hungry migrants from the Southwest.
The situation of wandering farm workers was illustrated in Of Mice and Men. The novel began with the arrival of George and Lennie in the Salinas River. George was upset that the bus driver did not drop them off at the proper location. He said, “Didn’t wanta stop at the ranch gate, that’s what” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 6). The two men exemplified the situation of all the other migrant workers in California during the 1930s. Agricultural laborers such as George and Lennie were directed from one ranch to another, in search for work.
George asked Lennie, “You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets? ” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 7). Murray and Ready had provided both men with the cards and tickets, then sent them to the next ranch. According to the novel, the last ranch they worked for was called Weed. The plight of the itinerant laborers was best expressed by George’s words: “They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 15).
The novel also portrayed the difficult life of male migrant workers and their need for human company. It was said that majority of the migrant agricultural workers in California were single men. Since the 1870s until 1930, the fruit and wheat crops of the Golden State were harvested by single men. These men were modern day nomads, for they constantly moved from one place to another. They carried bindles whenever they went. George confirmed the situation of male farm workers in California: “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 15).
The solitude of the farm workers resulted in the constant need for companionship. In the absence of wives and families, the male itinerant laborers develop friendships instead. The friendship between George and Lennie was the kind of relationship created due to the circumstances of the migrant workers. Despite his complaints about having Lennie around, it was apparent that George was just as dependent on Lennie as Lennie was dependent on him. Whenever Lennie threatened to leave, George told him that he wanted his friend to stay. Their bond was so strong that they did not consider themselves as similar to the aforementioned lonely guys.
George said: “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 15). The novel revealed how agricultural laborers were marginalized in California society. All of them were misplaced and lived on dire conditions. Despite the unfortunate circumstances which befell them, there are those who remained optimistic and ambitious. However, even the ambitious laborers also fail. They would simply leave the ranch and proceed to another place. In the novel, George and Lennie went to the bunk house of the next ranch they were supposed to work for.
When George asked Candy why the former occupant of his new bed quit, this was the response: “He…just quit, the way a guy will. Says it was the food. Just wanted to move” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 20). George and Lennie were also ambitious. They have grown weary of working from one ranch to another, and working for people like Curley. They dreamt of having a piece of land they can personally attend to. The dream was revealed early on in the novel, and was continuously mentioned throughout the story. Candy overheard the two taking about their desire for their own (Steinbeck, 1994).
He responded positively, and even offered his savings to both men so that he could also live on their land. Crooks also learned about the plan to buy land. During one night, Lennie spoke to Crooks about his plan to own land with George. Unlike Candy, Crooks had a different response to the plan. He discouraged Lennie by insinuating that his dream will never come true. Crooks said: “I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads…every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head.
An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 75). The character of Crooks was right; in 1930s California, many workers did not achieve the success they originally hoped to find there. By the end of the novel, George and Lennie proved to be unsuccessful as well. The dream of George and Lennie to obtain their own land did not come true. Lennie has a fondness for petting things which are soft; it was this fondness which guaranteed his demise (Steinbeck, 1994). Lennie and George were forced to leave the ranch in Weed because Lennie’s petting had gotten them in trouble.
In the ranch in Soledad, Lennie accidentally killed a puppy because he was too strong. By accident, he pulled the hair of Curley’s wife and also broke her neck, causing her to die. When Curley and the rest of the men in the ranch found out that Lennie killed the wife, they form a mob and went to search for Lennie. Before they arrived at the ranch, George told Lennie to return to the Salinas River in case he got in trouble. George told his friend, “Lennie—if you jus’ happen to get in trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an’ hide in the brush” (Steinbeck, 1994, p. 17).
After he killed Curley’s wife, Lennie proceed to the brush and George met him there. George began to speak of the land they would own together and the rabbits that Lennie would take care of. Afterwards, he shot Lennie on the back of his head (Steinbeck, 1994). The farm was a representation of every migrant worker’s dream: to own a piece of land and be in control of their own lives. The farm served as a symbol of freedom and independence. For George, the death of his friend was also the end of their dream. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was truly a representation of California during the 1930s.
Through the story of George, Lennie and the other characters, Steinbeck was able to illustrate the agricultural labor problem that existed in the Golden State during that decade. The novel revealed the displacement of workers, the harsh realities of living as a nomad in California, their isolation and need for companionship and the broken dreams that come with the journey. By reading this novel, one is given a glimpse of California in the 1930s. Reference Steinbeck, J. (1994). Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Classics.
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