12 Mar 2013

What is the Social and HIstorical Context of Of Mice and Men?


Get all model essays about Of Mice and Men here, including essays on the lives of working men, Curley's wife, the Dream, different types of strength and weakness and the importance of place.

1. The life of the Author.
John Steinbeck was born 1902 in Salinas, California, where Of Mice and Men is set. As a teenager, he spent his summers working at ranches (like Lennie and George) as a hired hand.

He saw for himself that the men’s lives were hard, that bosses were cruel and that cruel treatment made men cruel and suspicious of each other. He saw how lonely the men were. They slept in bunk houses and none were married.

As George says: ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place’.  As Crooks says: ‘I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it.’ Slim also comments on this on pp. 66/67.

The 'piece of land' refers to the American Dream of owning your own farm, and being self-sufficient (able to take care of yourself and your family). For many, the great depression put an end to this dream. It was a shocking time.

Why did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men?
Steinbeck made a speech explaining what ‘message’ he wanted the world to see in his books. He said he wanted to celebrate: ‘greatness of heart and spirit ... for gallantry [nobility] in defeat, for courage, compassion [kindness] and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair [giving up], these are the bright rally flags of hope.’

What does the Social and Historical Context tell us about Steinbeck's point of view?
Steinbeck was concerned with the horrors of loneliness, and the fragility of hope. He felt that the world he lived in was hard - of 'endless ... weakness and despair' - and he wanted to show if people were kind, noble or brave - like George - it was very rare and special.

2. Life in America in 1937.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was a huge worldwide ‘credit crunch’ but much worse. Many people lost their jobs. There was no welfare state or unemployment benefit. Disabled or old people had to depend on their families or charity and keep working for as long as they could. If they did get compensation for injuries (like Candy) it was not enough to live on. Few ‘retired’. If people had no job, they had no money and might starve. In the Great Depression, 25% of people had no job. Men could not afford to marry. Those who were already married found when they lost their jobs that they could no longer support their families. It was a frightening time.

There was a lot of competition for jobs. Men became ruthless and suspicious of each other as they fought over limited resources (jobs). Few could afford to be kind or noble, giving up their time to look after the old or the weak out of kindness. The American Dream (working hard and making enough money to look after your family in comfort) was out of most people’s reach. Few believed it was possible. Many gave in to despair [giving up].

What is Steinbeck's attitude to Curley’s wife? 
+get more about Curley's wife in detail here including historical background, key quotes and character analysis
She dreams of Hollywood romance, but is instead lost in this harsh world of men. As a woman she had no hope of independence, work, and little hope of respect. In a letter, Steinbeck wrote: ‘she’s a nice girl and not a floozy.’ The men find her attractive, and fear her husband. So they belittle her. Her loneliness echoes theirs, and it’s made her twisted. Only in death does she relax back into seeming fresh and innocent.


What does the Social and Historical Context tell us about Steinbeck's point of view?
His view of Curley's wife is very different to the men's, so don't be deceived by the harsh way they describe her. Steinbeck saw that a cruel world and cruel work makes people cruel. If anyone was kind or noble, looking after the disabled, it was very rare and special. Dreams are important to help people keep going, but sometimes life is so hard it is impossible to believe in them. If people believe in a better world, maybe they can make it happen.

3. Important Links to Other Books/Poems

a. Where does the title of Of Mice and Men comes from?
It's from a famous Scottish Poem ‘Ode to a Mouse’ by Robbie Burns. The line is famous and has almost become a ‘proverb’. It is: ‘the best laid plans of mice and men/ often go wrong/ and leave us nothing but grief and pain/ instead of hoped-for joy’.
Think also of the saying: ‘are you a mouse or are you a man’? At the end of the novel, George has to ‘man up’ and make a difficult choice. Mice/Man suggests a comparison between smallness and greatness. Steinbeck looks at smallness and greatness in different ways in this book. Lennie’s first ‘victims’ are mice. We see this as unimportant at first. His next victim is a puppy, later a human. Can you think of any other connections/explanations?

Why are the first and last chapters of Of Mice and Men set in the same place and what does it mean?
+ get an essay on place in Of Mice and Men here
b. Steinbeck uses some biblical imagery. This comes from the Christian Holy Book, the Bible, mostly the Old Testament Creation Myth in Genesis. These are most noticeable in Chapters One and Six, the first and last chapters. The links, or symbols, are not exact. They are like echoes.

Biblical symbols in Of Mice and Men:
the beautiful natural landscape > the garden of Eden, God’s garden > a place of safety, beauty, the setting of man’s first SIN (or crime). Eden is later invaded by evil. Evil is represented by a snake.
There is a snake in the first and last chapters of Of Mice and Men. In the final chapter, the snake is eaten. In the Bible, the snake represents sin, evil, the devil, death. Before the first man commits a sin, he is innocent and childlike. Like Lennie. The snake is killed just before Lennie is killed. Evil is removed. But so is Lennie's innocence.

Find resources and essays for all GCSE and A-Level set texts, including Shakespeare and poetry
The author, , is an Oxford graduate, outstanding-rated English Language and Literature teacher and of ages 10-18 in the British education system. In 2012, she was nominated for Pearson's Teaching Awards. As a private tutor, she raises grades often from C to A. Her writing is also featured in The Huffington Post. She offers private tuition in the Haywards Heath area, West Sussex.