1 Jun 2013

How does Steinbeck present the ranch community in Of Mice and Men? Value of Work and Working Men in Of Mice and Men for GCSE and IGCSE


Steinbeck presents the ranch community with a startling degree of realism, dramatising a condition created by the Great Depression of migrant labourers, forced into work communities, with no families. This is summarized in the key quotation at the start of the novel where George says ‘guys like us are the loneliest guys in the world.’ It’s a large scale farm with permanent and temporary workers, then the boss and boss’ son, and wife - who all have a higher status. The men put in ‘crops’ but never reap what they sow. The American Dream is to be self-reliant and self-sufficient - to own land - not to be isolated, but to be empowered, to be secure and to be able to ‘have fren’s over’. Though the men are forced into community on the ranch, there’s little friendship or kindness because of the poor conditions and poor job security. The community is presented as being intolerant of any kind of weakness - is racist and sexist - and often cruel. Here, there’s little sense of humanity: man is a machine whose purpose is to work. If one breaks down, you can always get another one.

IDEA ONE The ranch is at the heart of the novel, framed by Chapters One and Six which are set in the same Edenic natural landscape in the ‘Gabilan hills’. This is the natural, god-given beauty of America - ‘gold’ and ‘warm’ - precious. It has both a mythical and a vividly realistic element: it is a particular place in the time of the Great Depression. Despite its beauty it will not sustain life. Lennie’s plan to live in a ‘cave’ is dismissed by George: they need civilization (‘ketchup’) and the money from the ranch to achieve their dream of living ‘off the fatta the lan’. In the New World, land and property have already been divided: it must be bought. This can be linked to Genesis where man’s first sin means he must now ‘earn [his] bread in the sweat of [his] brow’. Steinbeck uses the Edenic setting to dramatise how near, but how far the men are from being blessed - to dramatise the human condition of toil. The natural location is also used to suggest the circular nature of the men’s lives. The paths here are ‘beaten smooth’ by workers coming and going. At first, George and Lennie are indistinguishable through the repetition of ‘both’, dressed in the same workers’ uniform of ‘denim’, coarse and ugly, but hard-wearing. George and Lennie return to it to hide - and to die. The snake is eaten.

IDEA TWO Realism characterises the novel which dramatises the transitory life of the migrant worker in California, which Steinbeck knew well from personal experience. He brings the ranch community intimately to life in all its dirty glory, from ‘lice’ to ‘talcum powder’ ‘dirty books’ and ‘cards’ set on a table. Property is at a minimum, contained only in an ‘apple box’, and in Crooks’ case, indistinguishable from the animals’ things - where ‘his medicine’ is mixed with that of the ‘horses’. Even the light is rationed, falling in ‘bars’ which are evocative of prison, and is cut off completely by Curley’s wife who never quite crosses the threshhold. The absence of women or families is significant, and their only mention is as ‘tarts’, in ‘Ol Suzy’s place’ and the ‘tart’ that put Andy in ‘San Quentin’. The bunkhouse is an all-male community, but cameraderie seems low. Carlson shoots Candy’s dog because he doesn’t like the smell, and Crooks is excluded because the men ‘say I stink’. Despite being on the ranch together a long time, Candy says he has ‘never’ been in Crooks’ room until he goes looking for Lennie who has invaded it. In fact, the bunkhouse is rarely full. We see it empty at first as the men are all working - that being the main point of their existence. the bunkhouse is  occupied only when Carlson shoots Candy’s dog, during the brutality of the fight where Curley’s hand is ‘bust’ and Lennie is covered in ‘blood’ and ‘terror’, and while Whit is telling George about how Curley’s wife is a ‘looloo’. When she invades it, the men’s langauge becomes poisonous. This is a brutal environment, where together, men are desperately lonely. Candy ends with his face turned to the wall, shutting them out. They are, as George says, ‘the loneliest guys in the world’.

IDEA THREE The men are measured in quantitative terms, not in terms of their humanity. Lennie is ‘sold’ to the boss in terms of the weight he can lift - ‘four hundred pounds’, and the boss is then suspicious about whether George has a ‘stake’ in him (i.e. is stealing his wages). Candy’s hand is valued at ‘$250’, but when he’s old he’ll be ‘canned’: liquor is priced and so is intimacy - valued at a few dollars. Candy’s dog is shot and Curley’s wife says of the dead puppy which Lennie mourns, ‘It’s only a mutt. The whole country’s fulla mutts’, which has a disturbing parallel with the men themselves. They are utterly replacable - and are, on a frequent basis. Anyone with mental health issues is tidied away to ‘the booby hatch’. Of all the characters, only George and Lennie have names. The rest have only nicknames, ‘Slim’, ‘Candy’, ‘Curley’- or non-individual surnames ‘Carlson’, ‘Whit’ which makes them seem less human - generic. ‘The Boss’ in particular is little more than a caricature, as is ‘the boss’ son’ - a type we’ve all seen before. Curley is like a lot of small men: he is little more than a type. Carlson and Whit are barely sketched, and Curley’s Wife appears only in the possessive as if her husband’s property.

IDEA FOUR In contrast to the brute realism of the bunkhouse, George paints a picture of the American Dream in his descriptions of his dream farm. This is an ideal ranch community of friendship, self-sufficiency and hope. When they plant crops, they’ll be there to take them up, as George and Candy both say: they will reap what they sow - become human. The ranch inhabitants’ different reactions to the dream shows how they’ve been impacted by the cruel weight of reality. Curley’s Wife calls it ‘baloney’ and laughs; Crooks says he doesn’t ‘want no place like that’, after her cruelty. In the novel we see the power of words to create. George’s description of the dream farm is as real - if not more vivid - than that of the actual ranch. For a moment, we’re there. George’s usual inarticulate - often violent style - becomes poetic. This is the poetry of the American dream. He uses sensual and sensory language to describe ‘cream’ ‘hams’. Hearing this, suddenly Candy sits up and offers the money that can make it real. Words make the reality. ‘The thing they had never really believed in was coming true’. Crooks has a more cynical view ‘nobody never gets no land and never a goddamn one of em ever gets it’. ‘Nobody never gets to heaven and nobody gets no land’. His very negative language and thoughts limit him. He gives into despair, as he is repeatedly crushed. Crooks says they say I ‘stink’ - ‘well you all stink to me’. Cruelty breeds more cruelty; despair breeds despair. It’s hard to keep hope alive in this bleak community.

IDEA FIVE [These are only NOTES as you can probably see! Get more on Curley’s Wife here...] Curley’s Wife’s anomalous position as a woman among men in the ranch community. Hollywood. Craving for attention and being tormented by the presence of so many people yet she's 'awful lonely' with no one to talk to. Always ‘looking for Curley’. Her relationship with her husband, about whom she says: ‘I don’t even like Curley’, and recommends that Lennie ‘crush his other hand’.

This essay is about 1,350 words long.