Of Mice and Men – Context

In Section Two of your AQA English Literature exam, you will have to comment on how John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was influenced by its social, historical and cultural context. Essentially, this means that you need to explain how the novel encapsulates the thoughts and feelings of American society in the 1930s. Like much of Steinbeck’s work, and rather a large proportion of American literature at the time, Of Mice and Men depicts the relatively poor working class of men on whom the US economy depended. The novel is set during a time known as The Great Depression, in the state of California.

The Life and Times of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, near the coast of California, 40 km north of the region that became the setting for Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s father passed on a love of nature to his son, which can be seen in the opening paragraphs of each section. Furthermore, his mother was a former school teacher who encouraged a love of reading and writing in her son. As a teenager, he spent his summers working as a hired hand on neighbouring ranches, where his experiences of rural California and its people impressed him deeply and became the inspiration for many characters in the novel. In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied intermittently for the next six years before finally leaving without having earned a degree. For the next five years, he worked as a reporter and then as caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate while he completed his first novel, an adventure story called Cup of Gold, which was published in 1929.

‘Steinbeck’s best-known works deal intimately with the plight of desperately poor California wanderers, who, despite the cruelty of their circumstances, often triumph spiritually. The economic conditions of the time victimized workers like George and Lennie, whose quest for owning their little piece of land was thwarted by cruel and powerful forces beyond their control, but whose tragedy was marked, ultimately, by steadfast compassion and love.

Critical opinions of Steinbeck’s work have always been mixed. Both stylistically and in his emphasis on manhood and male relationships, which figure heavily in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck was strongly influenced by his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway. Even though Steinbeck was hailed as a great author in the 1930s and 1940s, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, many critics have faulted his works for being superficial, sentimental, and overly moralistic. Though Of Mice and Men is regarded by some as his greatest achievement, many critics argue that it suffers from one-dimensional characters and an excessively deterministic plot, which renders the lesson of the novella more important than the people in it.’ (SparkNotes)

The Great Depression

Even with an investment banker for a brother, I am still completely confuddled as to what actually caused the New York Stock Exchange to collapse in 1929, leading to what is known as The Great Depression. Wall Street’s value of shares in companies collapsed drastically, making investors sell their falling shares rapidly, which in fact just increased the speed of the crash. Consequently, businesses went bankrupt, fortunes were lost, and people became homeless, almost overnight. In the following months and years, unemployment and poverty increased dramatically, forcing men to travel great distances to find work.

The Dust Bowl

In addition to this widespread poverty, the problem was intensified by terrible drought and even worse farming techniques. In the mid-West of America, the once-fertile landscape was decimated due to over-farming and low rainfall, meaning the land became eroded and exhausted. This concoction of catastrophes is known as the Dust Bowl. Thousands of poor ranchers (farm workers) headed west to California in the hope of prosperity, just like to novel’s main characters, George and Lennie. This influx of unskilled and uneducated labourers meant they were at the mercy of the bosses, who treated the workers as they wished. Wages were low and living conditions were awful. Steinbeck tries to capture this hardship through certain characters and settings in the novel: the over-populated bunkhouse, the treatment of Crooks and the arrogance of Curley are just a few.

The American Dream

America has always been known as a ‘land of hope and opportunity’, where the likes of Dellboy and Rodney go to become mill-yan-airs. The early migrants to America went to achieve a better and happier life than the hardships they were escaping, and this mentality and faith that hard work will be rewarded with success has been passed from generation to generation. In its infancy, America was a land of rich material resources and copious amounts of space, and its society was not confined to the rigid class system of Britain. As the founding fathers had expressed, it was a land of equality, and possible for anyone to get rich as long as they were willing to work hard for it.

However, as many American novelists have portrayed in the past, in reality there is no society where only a handful of people become rich. In a depressed 1930’s California, the majority of people were poor and had very few opportunities to succeed economically. Nevertheless, the belief that the opportunities existed still created expectations and disappointments. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck cleverly shows the juxtaposition between the ideal of ‘the American dream’ and the reality of widespread poverty, loss and deprivation.

All the main characters in Of Mice and Men acknowledge, at one point or another, to envisaging a different and better life. Before her death, Curley’s wife confesses her desire to be in the ‘pitchers’. Crooks, ‘proud and aloof’ as he is, allows himself the idyllic fantasy of working on Lennie’s farm one day, and Candy latches on desperately to George’s vision of living ‘off the fatta the lan’. However, Steinbeck’s pessimistic view of the harsh reality of 1930s America is alluded to before the story begins: circumstances have robbed most of the characters of these dreams before they could become reality. Curley’s wife, for instance, has resigned herself to an unfulfilling marriage. What makes all of these dreams typically American is that the dreamers wish for untarnished happiness, for the freedom to follow their own desires. George and Lennie’s dream of owning a farm, which would enable them to sustain themselves, and, most important, offer them protection from an inhospitable world, represents a prototypically American ideal. Their journey, which awakens George to the impossibility of this dream, sadly proves that the bitter Crooks is right: such paradises of freedom, contentment, and safety are not to be found in this world.

Racism

Despite slavery being abolished in 1865, from the 1880s into the 1960s, a majority of American states enforced segregation through “Jim Crow” laws (so called after a black character in minstrel shows). From Delaware to California, and from North Dakota to Texas, many states (and cities, too) could impose legal punishments on people for consorting with members of another race. The most common types of laws forbade intermarriage and ordered business owners and public institutions to keep their black and white clientele separated. In Of Mice and Men, the theme of racism is expressed throughout by the character Crooks. The treatment of Crooks is both interesting and startling to a modern reader: he has some social contract with the rest of the ranch workers but is still persecuted by them for being black. In the routinely racist world of 1930s California, Crooks’ colour is his defining feature, as Candy explains, ‘Ya see the stable buck’s a nigger’. However, he follows this definition with an additional description of how he is a ‘nice fella’. We also learn that he is accepted into the men’s game of horseshoes, where he shoes proficiency, yet is entirely isolated in his stable room for the rest of the time. He is described as an ‘aloof’ man with ‘pain tightened lips’ connoting the harsh life of silence and deprivation he has had to endure. Finally, the racism in the novel is driven home dramatically when Curley’s wife expresses how she could ‘get [Crooks] strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. Afterwards, what little hope of Crooks fulfilling his American Dream with George and Lennie has been extinguished, showing he has no rights at all on the ranch.

TASK

Answer any of the following questions in the comments section below. In your response, try to include quotations, zoom in on the language used by Steinbeck, analyse the effect this creates in the reader, and try to link your ideas to the historical, social and cultural context of the novel.

  1. In your opinion, which how did Steinbeck’s life influence the themes, characters and narrative of Of Mice and Men?
  2. How did the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl create the poverty-stricken society that is the background of the novel?
  3. How is racism in the 1930s captured in the novel?
  4. What is the role of the American dream throughout the novel?
  5. How is the novel culturally and socially similar to modern Britain?

Finally, please watch this wonderful video by the English department at Portchester School… it’s spiffing.

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