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‘Of Mice and Men’ has been described as a novel about the harshness of the time. What justifications can you find for this? ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set in 1930’s America, an extremely prejudiced area of history. It is a time that criticises and excludes women, black people, disabled people and old people, deeming them useless within a utilitarian society. In the novel, Steinbeck represents the harsh prejudices, poverty and injustice with the life of itinerant workers, a microcosm of American society at this time.
Firstly, the way in which Steinbeck describes the bunkhouse of the ranch immediately seems to suggest a harsh environment in which people are forced to live and work in: “… the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted… a solid door with a wooden latch… ” This description of the ranch suggests a purely utilitarian approach to life, showing a living area with no aesthetic appeal whatsoever. It shows no dignity towards the workers, and what’s more they don’t complain about its lack of appeal.
This gives the impression that ranch workers live with no inspiration, seemingly being forced to live a life purely to survive it rather than enjoy it. The “door with a wooden latch” and general unloved atmosphere gives a prison-like sense to the bunkhouse, conveying a sense of loneliness and isolation. This lack of communication and friendship could be interpreted as an extremely harsh thing to deal with. In addition to this, the severe racism portrayed by Steinbeck through the character Crooks is just one example of the harsh prejudice that disadvantaged people face in this novel: “…
he [the boss] give the stable buck hell, too… ya see the stable buck’s a nigger. ” Crooks is constantly referred to as “a nigger”, and characters in the novel react to this as a completely normal comment to make, which we see when George reacts to this name with “Nigger, huh? “. The fact that the ranch is racially segregated is quite surprising for numerous reasons. The novel is set in the West where racism was considered to be less intense, as well as the fact that Steinbeck conveys the ‘American dream’ as a theme in the novel, suggesting that anyone can make it in America and “live off the fatta the land”.
However it is clear that black people are restricted from succeeding here and this irony merely emphasises the harshness of reality for black people during this period in time. In addition to this, the prejudices that women face present the times the novel is set in to be extremely harsh, often through Curley’s wife: “She put her hands behind her back and leaned against the door frame so that her body was thrown forward”
The novel does not even dignify Curley’s wife with a name, as she is merely referred to as the wife of Curley or simply just “a tart”, which suggests that they live in a somewhat patriarchal society where women are seen as purely sex objects. This would suggest that women are not allowed to aspire to better things, and live their lives as commodities of men. Another problem that they face is the fact that the only power they can achieve is through their sexuality, but if they choose to expose this, they are criticised for being promiscuous, emphasising the harshness they have to cope with.
Furthermore, Whit’s story of “Bill Tenner” who got his letter put into a magazine is one of great interest to the ranch-workers, especially Whit, which tells us something about their dreams and aspirations: “Bill Tenner? Worked here about three months ago… That’s the guy! Here, Steinbeck portrays a certain excitement within Whit, which we see from the exclamation “That’s the guy! ” and this has arisen purely from the fact that one man who he barely knew (as ranch-workers moved from place to place often) had accomplished something that he had dreamed of.
This shows a huge lack of ambition among the workers, from the fact that the only excitement for these workers has come from a mere acquaintance of Whit’s name being printed in a “pulp magazine”, which was a piece of inexpensive fiction. This is not only quite pathetic, but also extremely saddening to see grown men become energised by something so seemingly trivial. Although people living in this time period and circumstances would not necessarily see this as harsh, looking at it from today’s perspective, in contrast it most definitely seems like an austere environment.
In conclusion, the harsh living conditions, inhibitions and prejudices that the majority of the disadvantaged ranch-workers must live with have a clear correlation to the state of American society during The Great Depression of the 1930’s. Steinbeck seems to have created a character for each type of harshness that was experienced, for example, Curley’s wife corresponds to sexism, and Candy corresponds to old and disabled people, all of which creates an accurate impression of the harshness of the times that ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set in.