Naturalism was rampant during the 1930’s. The characters tended to be poor and hopeless. The authors themselves tended to be pessimists. The genre merely reflected the thoughts and circumstances of society. Black Tuesday crushed the nation and the once fertile fields of the Midwest were not yielding enough crops to feed the hungry and poor nation. With its bundle of lonely bindle stiffs and unattainable dreams, Of Mice and Men fits perfectly into this desolate and dreary genre and yet did not belong at all.
The book covers the trifecta of prejudices featured in the genre: women, African Americans, and the mentally handicapped. What makes Of Mice and Men atypical is that the plights of its characters cause the reader to question their beliefs attached to these groups rather than reinforcing the prejudices like typical Naturalism literature. In the novel, Steinbeck creates a proud black man, a woman as capable of emotion as men, and a lovable mentally handicapped man. These portrayals cause the same emotional connection to form between the reader and the profiled characters like Curley’s wife, Crooks, and Lennie as the bond between the other characters and the reader.
The cognitive dissonance experienced by the reader may lead to a sea change that alters their negative feelings into a more positive light. This change is comparative to Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol but not on as grand of a scale. By truly analyzing and reading the novel, the reader’s prejudice may be affected from emotionally connecting with the characters over their plights.
During the time of the novel’s publication, society made African Americans out to be dumb buffoons. Their speech was unsophisticated and broken. Even beloved characters such as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, were cartoonish and distorted. In the book, which was written merely a year before Of Mice and Men, Mammy is described as “a huge old woman with the small, shrewd eyes of an elephant. She was shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras” Mammy merely fit the mold of set by hundreds of characters before her, stemming even so far as Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Steinbeck wrote Crooks differently. He was a proud man standing among a sea of meek, timid African Americans personalities commonly featured in writing. Crooks was capable of conversing with as eloquent of a tongue as his fellow workers and was educated, but he knew his place in society. He longed to be bunked with the other ranchers and he knew he had a right to equal accommodations because Section 51 states of hi “mauled” California Civil Code of 1905 (70), “All citizens within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations”. Yet he knew that because of the “Separate but Equal” laws that he would never be accommodated in the same quarters as the other ranchers (A Brief History). The ranch hands hurled racial slurs at his misshapen spine and only weathered his presence on Sunday afternoons when his horseshoe playing skills (46). Regardless of his ill treatment, he endured because he had nowhere else to go.
He was an African American in America during an era where few jobs are present. Preference was given to white men for the rare open positions. Because of racism exhibited by most of America’s employers, African Americans unemployment rate compared to whites was two or three times as high (Lynch). In addition, Crooks had a debilitating back injury that prevented him from searching for any other job. Employers would have passed over him for another young man that could perform more laborious tasks than simply mucking stables and fitting horses with shoes. He was lucky to have the job given to him.
These circumstances created a lonesome curmudgeon. He found it easier to embitter himself against the actions of others and to push them away than to allow himself to hope for a friend. He was jealous of the camaraderie of the other ranch hands and yet when Lennie came to him when all the other men were at the cathouses, he became more concerned about Lennie invading his living space than being able to have someone to talk with. After he overcame his immediate reaction and he realized that he had someone who would talk with him, Crooks began to talk about his past.
He was not always alone. He had a family and a ranch, but that is in the past and now he is the only one of his kind on a ranch where no one deigns to interact with him. Through this conversation, the reader gains insight on Crooks desperate need for companionship when Crooks begins to falsify a future in which George does not come back for Lennie (71-75). Ironically, Crooks did not want to feel alone in feeling alone. Misery loves company.
Steinbeck displayed racism throughout the novel in the form of derogatory phrases, but he did not mold Crooks in the standard of African Americans that blotted the pages of literature in the past. Steinbeck showed how a “sub-human” could have human emotions. Crooks had the capacity to feel lonely and bitter. The reader realizes that the only difference between the ranchers and Crooks is the color of his skin.
The details of the novel reflect the treatment of women in those times. Women belong to their husbands. Women should stay inside the house. Women do not belong in a workplace, especially a ranch. Every initial detail of the book reinforces the prejudice against women, but when a reader continues reading the novel, they begin to realize that Curley’s wife is more than this.
She is not portrayed as women of the period are typically described as in literature. Typically, they were either a warm and caring mother or a desolate prostitute (McGehee). When she meets George and Lennie, she is isolated. The town and other women are miles away. The men will not even have a simple conversation with her for fear of the son of the ranch owner catching them (29). She has no one to turn to. Unlike Crooks, Curley’s wife reaches out to the ranchers with an attempt to be friendly, but they frequently refuse her attempts. This hardened her: a quality not normally portrayed in a prominent young wife in literature. She becomes callous and lashes out in anger in order to protect herself from the hurt and loneliness caused by the men. They decided how she was to be treated rather than how she would like to be treated.
Moments before her death, the reader learns more about what shaped Curley’s wife’s life. Steinbeck burdened her with shattered dreams and loneliness. He gave her true emotions. Emotions that all of the male characters feel. She feels bitterly because they know their dreams are largely unattainable while Curley’s wife allowed hers to pass her by for this deplorable future. She could have lived her American dream. She could have lived a life of luxury. She could have been in pictures. However, it is merely a fantasy to help her cope with life now. “Even in pursuit of her personal vision, she has no solid notion of herself as a worthwhile person. Her dream is to become a cinematic image that occupies no space in the real world. (Hadella)”
The heartbreak felt for Curley’s wife cause them to rethink their prejudice against women. Women should not have a hedge placed around them, secluding them from the outside world regardless of what society believes. By attempting to protect her, Curley’s wife was hurt worse. Curley’s wife experienced the same emotions as the men and more and yet she could not express them because no one would let her. The one person who allowed her to be herself was her downfall.
Groups began forming across the nation with the goal of eradicating “feeble-minded” people through sterilization, increasing the fear and stigmatism of mentally handicapped people. Society began to view mentally disabled people as dangerous, unfit for society, and a drain on the American economy (Remsburg). The education systems proved this belief by moving the “mildly retarded” in separate classes and the “severely retard” were removed from school all together (Minnesota). This made it harder for people like Lennie get jobs and increased the amount of fear delegated to people who are different.
When George and Lennie first meet the ranch owner, George commands Lennie to “jus stand there and don’t say nothing,” (6) George was concerned that Lennie would reveal his mental capacity before he was given the chance to prove himself. Yet it was when Lennie speaks that he captured the reader’s heart. He was pure and child-like, eager to please. He was not the menace to society that eugenic clubs led America to believe. All he wanted in his life was to be gentle and to pet soft things.
Out of the three characters discussed, Lennie is the only one harmed because of the prejudice against him. While the majority of the ranch hands became endeared to the man and attempted to protect him from those that meant harm, Curley saw Lennie merely as an opportunity prove his dominance over the bigger man and the rest of the ranch hands.
As Curley attacked him, Lennie begs George to help him like a child reaching out to a parent in time of need. When George almost sadistically tells him to defend himself, Lennie almost instantly obeys his order, staring with wide, terror-filled eyes at what he has done (66-67). This reaction proves how peaceful and gentle Lennie truly wants to be and the reader begins desperately wanting Lennie to live, to achieve his dream, but, as the title foreshadows, this could not happen.
If it were not for the prejudices held against Lennie, he might have had a chance to survive. He might have been able to defend himself to the law enforcement in Weed. He might have also been given leeway for his treatment of Curley’s wife if he could have explained himself, but George knew that if Curley caught Lennie, then either he would kill or institutionalize him. George performed a great mercy on Lennie by killing him. He allowed Lennie the brief moment to live his dream and take care of his rabbits before he removed him from the world that would deny him and force a worse fate upon him.
One of the only stereotypes used in the novel is the killing of Lennie like many other famous characters such as Richard III, Tiny Tim, and Ahab (Chivers). This treatment of people with disabilities in stories is so prevalent and unjust that the reader is forced to question if there are others like Lennie in the world who do not deserve the treatment of society because of their prejudice.
By simply incorporating the characters into the plot, Steinbeck, whether intentional or not, draws attention to the intense feelings of the characters resulting from the harsh treatment and discrimination of their real-world counterparts. The reader must then concede that they are as capable of hurt as white men and should be treated as such. Richard Hart says in his article published in the Steinbeck Review, “If an author approaches a story with honesty and renders characters in their totality without bias, the moral issues emerge on their own” Steinbeck makes no direct criticisms on the social construct and yet, by giving his characters life, the story demands the issue to the forefront of the reader’s mind leading them to reevaluate their own prejudices.