How does Steinbeck use setting in the novel as a whole to convey important ideas about society and theme? Essay
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Setting plays a pivotal role in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, and it is used frequently to portray central themes, ideas and moods throughout the book to the reader in a subtle understated way. He does this through, for example the setting of the book – which is on the ranch. As readers we don’t go anywhere other than the ranch (and the brush) which summarises the sense of seclusion and isolation enhanced by the town’s name of ‘Soledad’ meaning solitude.
This shows an example of the setting being used to underline one of the key themes of isolation and loneliness throughout the whole book. Steinbeck applies this descriptive formula to other locations in the book like the bunkhouse and the barn.
The bunkhouse is supposed to display the objective and ‘tool-like’ nature about the ranch, and also reveals facts about the lifestyles of the ranch hands on it. The bunkhouse is very elemental and the ‘bare necessities’ attributes it holds emphasises this tool like attitude towards the ranch hands. The description of the structure is that the walls were ‘whitewashed and unpainted’ – just a protective coating on the walls to keep it structurally intact, not for decoration, but for the necessities of keeping the structure whole. The windows, for example are described as ‘small’ and ‘square’, to cut the costs of expensive glass, and to hint at the idea of an enclosed space, like a prison, which signals the lack of hope associated with the itinerant workers, of which Lennie and George both are examples. But, all these cost saving measures add up to an attitude of utilitarianism – absolutely no excess or lavishness.
This theme can be associated with the migrants – who were treated as tools as they were in huge supply, with fewer job vacancies than job seekers. Each bed has an ‘apple box’ shelf – meaning that the shelves to house the migrant’s possessions have been created out of discarded apple crates. This shows the central theme of absolute cost cutting, as well as signalling the worker’s lack of possessions; they have only a few essential possessions because they move about all the time, and have no real opportunity to obtain and collect a large number of items.
Crooks’ Room is another very clear example of Steinbeck using a setting to identify a central theme in his novel. Crooks’ room is a masterpiece of understatement, and its very nature shows how Crooks is different from the other ranch hands. The setting of Crook’s room in contrast to the bunkhouse shows that life is different for him because of society and because he isn’t an itinerant worker – he’s a permanent segregated worker. This segregation is obviously shown through the fact that his room is in a separate room from the other ranch hands, reflecting segregation laws at the time.
His amount of possessions is larger in quantity to those of the itinerant worker or ranch worker’s, showing the fact he’s a more permanent worker than the others – ‘scattered about the floor were a number of personal possessions’. His loneliness is shown through a number of features in the room – many of his possessions are work related items, showing his work influence and the importance of work to him, and the loneliness of his character as work is more important than his livelihood. The close alignment with the horses also reflects the main theme of loneliness.
The room itself is just a shed off of the horse barn, his bed was ‘a long box filled with straw’ much like a manger, his apple box contained ‘a range of medicine bottles, both for himself and for the horses’. All of this shows the loneliness of Crooks because of racism and segregation that at the time was the social norm; and perhaps Crooks was seen as being on a similar level of respect to the horses. The setting of Crooks and his room is a microcosm for the world – and the setting of the room therefore becomes a pivotal role in getting across these key themes.
The setting of the ban in Chapter 5 is also significant for several reasons. Steinbeck’s description of the barn in Chapter 5 immediately follows the scene in which Curley’s Wife argues and tries to flirt with Crooks, Lennie and Candy in Crooks’ Room. This creates contrast to the previous scene’s atmosphere of argument and irritation, with the description of the light filtering through the barn’s cracks. It is a sunny, restful day for most of the men – a ‘Sunday afternoon’, ‘the lazy afternoon humming’. Instead of hours in the field, most of the workers are playing ‘horseshoes’ outside. This peaceful, crisp, soporific feeling is in contrast to the violent encounter between Lennie and Curley’s wife which occurs later in the chapter. The contrast between Lennie sitting in the coolness of the barn with his newly killed puppy contributes to the other view of the barn, and contributes to Steinbeck’s light and dark motif or idea.
The brush also plays a fundamental role in the microcosm of the book, extended metaphors and general themes across the novel. It shows the cycle of settings – all which happen on the ranch or in the brush – the novel ends where it starts. Despite this the values of the settings have changed. Instead of a place of sanctuary, the Garden of Eden, the pool is now a place of death. Instead of animals such as rabbits playing in the brush, the heron is now swallowing the water snake – devouring it. Instead of green leaves and a gentle breeze, there are brown dying leaves and a gush of wind – hallmarks of a storm.
Instead of safety for Lennie, there is death, and for George, a future of loneliness without his companionship shared with Lennie. The key themes and motifs built up by previous scenes in the novel are tied up here – the microcosm of life, the loneliness, selfish, cruel brashness of the world. The fact that the cycle of settings is used, that they’re back in the brush at the end as they were in the beginning shows that nothing has changed for the better in George and Lennie’s life, much the same as itinerant workers just like them. It shows the microcosm of life – everyone is selfish and wants to make it on their own that no one actually in the end ends benefiting – in short, if this attitude is held, everyone’s a looser.