Of Mice and Men – Prejudice and the Meaning of Lonliness in Society
In John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, two migrant workers, George and Lennie, travel together in search of work; but the friendship that binds them is neither typical of men like them nor a typical friendship at all. George is a small, sharp man, intelligent and resourceful; enough so that he is not obliged by nature to work as a laborer and migrant worker – and yet his relationship with Lennie makes it impossible for him to have other dreams and ambitions, much less achieve them, than those few he can have that include Lennie. Lennie himself is a gigantic bear of a man, burley, possessing immense strength; and yet his mind is that of a dim-witted, dependent child inside a strong man’s body. He is entirely dependent on George and as obedient and compliant with his orders as a trained – if not very bright, and prone to unintentionally stirring up trouble – dog. At the start of the story, the pair have recently fled from their previous job after Lennie is wrongly accused of raping a young woman, an accusation which puts his life – and quite possibly George’s by association – in danger; they are making their way towards Salinas, California, for a new job bucking barley. In the short span of a few days – and a few chapters – John Steinbeck manages to create not only a gripping, moving tale but one that offers an insightful view into the society of the time and the way it leaves so many of its members behind, unwanted and alone, for want of conformity to what is seen as good and normal and for want of ease in survival.
One of the characters who portrays this characteristic of his society best is Crooks, the black stable-hand living in an isolated room adjoining the main barn of the farm, tending the horses and living in a state of general loneliness and bitterness. The source of his name is his crooked back; his real name goes unmentioned or unknown – after all, he is not addressed often about subjects unrelated to work. And so Crooks lives alone with his books, his back, and his horses, occasionally playing cards with the other migrant workers – before dark, of course. Then all of the workers go to play inside their bunkhouse. As he says to Lennie on page 61, “I ain’t wanted in the bunk house….
‘Cause I’m black. They say I stink.” In this chapter, Lennie comes into Crooks’ room unbidden when all the rest of the workers have gone into town, leaving behind those of the farm’s inhabitants who are unfit to accompany them: Crooks, because he is black, Lennie, because he is mentally challenged, Candy, because he is handicapped and old, and Curley’s wife, because she is a woman. Although at first Crooks’ guard is up, and he pretends to be displeased with Lennie’s unexpected companionship, he soon abandons pretense and indulges Lennie’s presence, a rare treat in his isolation. He then proceeds to define to Lennie – the one person he is sure will not go and babble to the other workers, simply because he will most likely not remember a word – the meaning of loneliness. Crooks gives account of a comparatively prosperous, happy, carefree childhood, during which he often played freely (save for his father’s disapproval, which he would only understand later on, in adult life) with the white children of his neighborhood and lived in apparent equality with them.
He also confesses the toll being unable to confide in another companion and measure himself and the world by another takes on him: “A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or stuff like that,” he explains. “Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so….he can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by.” (Page 73).
This, to Crooks, is loneliness: want of companionship not chiefly for talk or amusement but as a link to society, to other humans, want of another person to measure one’s thoughts and impressions by. This loneliness, he knows, is imposed on him by race and not by character, by prejudice, not by judgment based on actions and behavior. And yet Crooks, although he does not seem to be able to see this, is not the only inhabitant of the farm who is rejected because of prejudice: Curley’s wife is rejected as well, this time because of her gender – for she is a woman, and that makes her inferior in the eyes of her companions. She is a woman, but she knows that being a woman does not define her, just as being black does not define Crooks and being handicapped does not define Candy. Like Crooks’, Candy’s wife’s real name goes unmentioned.
The apostrophe that reduces her to just the wife of a certain man is not mere grammar but a true mark of fictitious possession accepted by society: she is spoken and written of as Curley’s wife, not “the unique woman”, “the independent human being”, :The person in her own right with a heart, mind, and soul”. She, too, remembers a happier, promising past: as a younger woman, she was promised a glamorous, attention-getting future as an actress, her image and name known to thousands instead of forgotten even by her daily companions: on page 89, she tells Lennie that “[I] Coulda been in the movies, an’ had nice clothes….An’ I coulda sat in them big hotels, an’ had pitchers took of me….because this guy says I was a natural [actress].” Instead of this future, Curley’s wife is left to crave the attention she was promised as an actress as a flirting, bordering-on-unfaithful woman, and that attention is neither the kind she wants nor in the quantity she wants; not even from the audience she wants, but from a handful of labor-hardened, prejudiced men who notice her only to gossip about how much of a flirt, how despicable and unworthy, they believe her to be. Like Crooks, Curley’s wife lives a life of loneliness and pining-turned-bitterness after a past that promised a future but provided none.
The ironically named Lennie Small shares in Crooks’ and Curley’s wife’s loneliness, although he does so in a different, unaware way. He believes himself to be content with George’s companionship and friendship, which is, truly, a friendship disguised as the rare pity and empathy of one man for another in a hard, compassion-free world; a symbiotic and beneficial relationship to both parties, disguised as the symbiotic relationship of a parasite and a provider. As is proven by Crooks’ torture of Lennie regarding George, in which Crooks at once exerts a newfound power over one even lower in society than him and tries – a little too successfully, foreshadowing what will happen to George after he is left without Lennie – to show Lennie the misery and loneliness of a companion-free world, Lennie would be nothing without George. In Weed, George saves Lennie from horrible death or imprisonment as a freak and beast after the incident with the girl in the soft red dress; in Salinas, he saves him again, this time not from death but from torture or agonizing lynching. Without George to protect him, Lennie would be alone: Crooks states that frightening fact on page 71: “S’pose George don’t come back no more. S’pose he took a powder and just ain’t coming back.
What’ll you do then?” George, Crooks and Lennie all know what would become of him without George – the former two factually and clearly, the latter instinctively, just as a child knows he is in danger when he is lost and unable to find his parents in a crowded place. Lastly, George himself is, although accepted by society, almost alone in the world. As he states, “Guys like us…are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place….
They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.” “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.” (pages 13-15). Although he may not admit it to himself and as much as he may pretend that the dream is Lennie’s, George is, although differently, quite as dependent on Lennie as Lennie is on George.
Whether by nature or because he is so used to Lennie, George automatically looks to him for the companionship he tells himself is forced; he looks to him for illusion and innocence, for hope and for the ability to dream, an oasis to George in a hard, disillusioned world. Crooks, Lennie, Candy, his dog, and Curley’s wife are all rejected, spurned, left out of many and most aspects of their companions’ lives; all because of what their culture considers faults and unforgivable weaknesses. This, at the time, was most likely a more pronounced characteristic of society because of the harshness of life at the time, during the Great Depression. Those who could not survive on their own, often left alone, either died or had to satisfy themselves with a bitter life with little joy and little kindness, tasting only an extremely limited part of what others, who were strong enough to survive, did. And yet, a little more kindness would have benefited not only those who received it but also those who gave it; giving to others and letting themselves feel compassion would have been a sort of therapy, as it was for George, a way to relieve themselves of the hardness and cruelty of their worlds. And yet kindness and tolerance remained too rare.
John Steinbeck saw this, and it seems he tried to convey it through Of Mice and Men; all of the characters and scenes described above are not only elements in the making of an unforgettable story, but also elements used to portray all of the injustice then – and somehow still today – alive in modern society.