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Of Mice and Men: A Social-Historical Analysis of the Motifs of Loneliness and Justice
Of Mice and Men is a staple of American high school literature that has come to define student’s perception of classic literature and the significance of historical developments in society. Written in 1937, the book is centered around a time in which a drastic economic downturn led to despair for millions of American citizens. From a surface level overview, the book demonstrates a story of betrayal and friendship, of love and defeat. Its careful descriptions of contrast in characterization and setting provide hidden symbolism and themes that are often overlooked. Throughout the novel, there are many times where it seems that John Steinbeck writes to include his interpretations of loneliness and justice that he wants readers to take away from reading.
The majority of the story takes place on a ranch in Soledad, California. In English, the Spanish word “Soledad” translates to loneliness, a careful, intricate detail Steinbeck seems to have intentionally included. He uses this concept of loneliness as a motif to stress its symbolic significance within the life of a California ranchman in the times of the Great Depression. He emphasizes this by exploring how the American Dream, discrimination, childhood, and weakness impacted the character’s feelings of isolation. It seems as if all the characters within the story face some feelings of neglect and abandonment from their surrounding environment whether they are good at hiding it or not.
Within the exposition of the novel, the author opens up this motif of loneliness through a conversation between George and Lennie about the life of a California ranchman is like. At one point George states, “‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go to town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tails on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to” (Steinbeck, 31). For these men, the chase for the glittering American Dream of affluence and success seems to be a perpetual loop of downfall, defeat, and hopelessness. The fact that Steinbeck uses George’s character to express this seemingly “relatable” sense of loneliness reflects upon the average American of the time. George’s despondent attitude shows that for the average American farmer, the American Dream is very distant from reality. It seems to be that because of George's feelings of loneliness and lack of fulfillment, he clings to this false hope of one day achieving the American Dream which helps him get through the daily grueling tasks in labor that he must perform to get by. The author follows this up by emphasizing the loneliness of the times through Slim and George’s dialogue where Slim comes to find out more about George and Lennie and their past. In conversation, Slim relays his feelings of shock in seeing Lennie and George with each other in such times by saying, “I hardly never seen two guys travel together” (Steinbeck, 39). Looking at the issue from a social-historical context, during the time of the Great Depression, it was every man for himself in terms of trying to get money, find a job, get food, tend to their families, etc. It was a desperate time that made living a very difficult thing to do. Self-sufficiency and dependence on one’s abilities to get by seemed to be the most important means of survival for one’s self-interest. This is likely why in Slim’s eyes, going through the world with someone is more dangerous. With this seemingly one-sided beneficial relationship between Lennie and George where Lennie depends on George at such a far-reaching point, it’s almost as if Lennie has lost the ability to become independent and therefore now relies on the presence of George to get by. This is a reflection upon George as well as he allows himself to be surrounded by Lennie despite his demonstrated aggravation through his harsh scoldings. Lennie’s presence seems to have no avail upon George’s sense of social company. The author shows George’s feelings of loneliness metaphorically by stating, “George stacked the scattered cards and began to lay out his solitaire hand” (Steinbeck, 91). Since solitaire is a game of cards in which one plays alone, George playing it shows that ultimately, even though he has Lennie in his life, he still feels alone because Lennie lacks the maturity and ability to hold a conversation without forgetting everything. It is not the kind of normal friendship one would want to have, especially when that person is the only one you are surrounded by 24/7.
This feeling of loneliness is also shown through Crooks’ character and how the color of his skin and childhood lead to his feeling of inferiority and distrust of other White Americans. It leaves him secluded and hidden in his room from the rest of the other ranchmen throughout the novel. This is shown through his dialogue from when he states, “‘The white kids come to play at our place, an’ sometimes I went to play with them, and some of them was pretty nice. My ol’ man didn’t like that. I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that. But I know now.’... ‘There wasn’t another colored family for miles around. And now there ain’t a colored man on this ranch an’ there’s jus’ one family in Soledad.’” (Steinbeck, 70). As a result of the discrimination Crooks faced in his childhood and being forced to live as an outcast, he is now distrusting of others and lives a life of isolation away from the other ranchmen. He has no family, no friends, no hope, and little motivation for a future where he is happy and fulfilled.
Through this character description and development, Steinbeck makes readers realize just how much of a basic necessity human interaction is for living, just as much as shelter, food, and water. Getting compliments and attention from others validates human existence, making human beings feel worthy, providing us with purpose and reason to go on. It’s interesting to see when looking back upon the Great Depression that even today, in the midst of a global pandemic, the need for validation is within human nature and continues to affect mental health and the feeling of existence as a human being. We are not made to be independent creatures.
Steinbeck also takes advantage of this novel to stress the imperfections of the justice system within the government of the United States. The author shows this through the way the ranch operates and the effects of it on the individuals that follow it. Within this system, the ranch workers work under their own set of rules without the worry of involvement of federal higher order. Slim, the local ranch worker, who is respected and seen as the man of wisdom, takes charge in being the jury, judge, and jailor and makes decisions based on his views and feelings of good sense, intention, sympathy, morality, justification, and legal precedent. This has created a hierarchy within the ranch with all White men being on top while women (Curley’s wife) and African Americans (Crooks) are seen as inferior. This kind of system has brought upon many questions on the justification of life and death along with the question of pain and good health for actions performed by the men that seek justice. The author does this by advocating for animal rights through euthanasia, criminal rights, and women’s rights.
Steinbeck first opens up his issues of justice through the question of animal rights, “He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?’” (Steinbeck, 44). By Steinbeck opening up the question of whether or not the dog should be killed because he is old and weak, he is bringing up the question of morality and lawfulness. The debate amongst the characters shows readers that the use of euthanasia to end the dog’s life is a questionable judgment for Carlson to be making. This is because if the dog can’t give his consent, what right does Carlson have to make the judgment of life or death for a dog that even isn’t his own? Why is it fair to take away this dog’s life because he seemingly is weak, old, and in pain (to which a dog could not verbally attest to)? When Candy looks to Slim for his opinion, “for Slim’s opinions were law” (Steinbeck, 45), Slim decides to allow Carlson to shoot the dog, bringing on the question of what rights and qualifications Slim had to make that determination for the entire group? Why should Slim’s opinions be considered supreme?
This intended murder in the best interest of the dog’s wellbeing is just an addition to the “crimes” described in the book. Between Lennie’s unintended murder of the pups and the unintended “situation” in Weed, it raises the question of whether or not a crime should be valued more or less based on the intention of the crime. This question is especially emphasized when George and Slim are talking to each other about Lennie and their “situation” in Weed where they say to each other in conversation, “‘Didn’t hurt the girl non, huh?’ he [Slim] asked finally. ‘Hell, no. He just scared her. I’d be scared too if he grabbed me. But he never hurt her. He jus’ wanted to touch that red dress, like he wants to pet them pups all the time’” (Steinbeck, 41). This makes one contemplate their perspective on justice because if hypothetically, two felons are charged for the same crime and one did it on purpose while the other did the crime on accident or to protect oneself, why should it be fair that the one who did the unintended crime gets the same sentence as the intended one? Steinbeck here is showing the importance of what first and second-degree murder means to the sentencing of an individual for a crime and what that means for justice and integrity in a court of law.
Steinbeck also brings up how those impacted by the crime perceive that victim. It seems to be that the basis of punishment and emotional sorrow is dependent upon the legacy and likability of the victim. This whole idea corresponds with that of women’s rights because of Candy’s line in reaction to Lennie having murdered Curley’s wife where he says, “And when they were gone, Candy squatted down in the hay and watched the face of Curley’s wife. ‘Poor b*st*rd [referring to Lennie],’ he said softly” (Steinbeck, 98). Lennie has just committed murder and is seen as the victim while Curley’s wife receives no sort of sympathy or care towards her death. Even Curley didn’t show any form of sympathy or emotional distress, he just talked about how he wanted to kill Lennie because he saw his wife’s death as destruction of his property. This shows that he never had any emotional connection and just sees his wife as a replaceable object. This whole theme of misogyny and femininity has been shown throughout the novel, especially when George states, “‘You give me a good wh*re house every time,’ he said. ‘A guy can go in an’ get drunk and get ever’thing outa his system all at one, an’ no messes. And he knows how much it’s gonna set him back. These here jailbaits is just set on the trigger of the hoosegow” (Steinbeck, 58). This just comes to show how repressed women were at the time and how they were seen as objects just to fulfill men’s sexual desires. This is why when Lennie murdered Curley’s wife, she is not pitied but instead blamed for ruining Candy’s American Dream. This challenges the idea of justice because even if she is avenged by the death of Lennie, what’s the point if she isn’t looked upon for the good of her name.
Of Mice and Men is an incredible novel that truly depicts the social-historical context of the Great Depression. It covers many themes intertwined within one another to create a convoluted yet accurate understanding of loneliness and justice. Throughout the novel, loneliness was often described around the American Dream, discrimination, childhood, and weakness. The most prevalent demonstration of loneliness that stuck out to me was the relationship between George and Lennie. Despite George always having Lennie around, he never felt like he had a true friend and someone he could relate with due to Lennie's immaturity and lack of understanding. This was a likely reason why George was able to coldly shoot Lennie at the end of the novel (although there could be an argument he was trying to protect him from the wrath of Curley and the other ranch workers, I believe a true friend would have run away again and done anything to protect the other). Likewise, justice was often described around animal rights, euthanasia, criminal rights, and women’s rights. The most prevalent demonstration of justice to me stood around how the victims of intentional and unintentional crimes throughout the novel were always mourned senselessly by most of the ranchmen. When Candy's dog is shot due to the ranchmen's pressure to do so, they bury him and go within their day complacent and unaffected. The same can be said with Curley's wife. Lennie is pitied and given more sorrow than his murder victim. It is a similar issue that can be seen today as many consider themselves to be "indifferent" or "apathetic" towards issues like racial injustice, climate change, sexism, etc. Incredible how a book from close to 100 years ago of economic depression can accurately depict the feelings of many Americans in a society where we are supposed to be "Learning to live together as brothers" (- Martin Luther King) and "Fighting for the things that [we] care about, but doing it in a way that will lead others to join" (-Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Perhaps from a hindsight perspective, Of Mice and Men is a staple of American irony, fix to tradition, dishonor, and complacency.