Explore John Steinbeck's presentation in Of Mice and Men of the culture and experience of the itinerant workers in 1930's America.

Authors Avatar

Alexandra Hebden

Yr 10esz

English Coursework

Explore John Steinbeck’s presentation in Of Mice and Men of the culture and experience of the itinerant workers in 1930’s America.

Of Mice and Men is a well known novel written by John Steinbeck.  It was published in a highly traumatic time, in America.  When the Wall Street crash catalysed the Great Depression and the United States suffered an economic collapse.  Due to the lack of money there was a high level of unemployment of men and women and many businesses closed down.  Additionally America experienced terrible droughts known as the Dust Bowl in which many crops died.  The lower the American economy sank the higher the numbers of migrant workers rose, it reached approximately 13 million in 1932!  The only way for many Americans to earn money was to travel into the countryside, where work was hard, dangerous, and lonely.  They became itinerant workers; the workers moved from place to place for work, to follow the harvest across California-USA.  Itinerant workers travelled alone, Steinbeck’s character George describes them as the ‘loneliest guys in the world’.  They usually travelled by cheap buses, hitch hiking rides or simply walking.  The pay was not bad; they earned $2 to $3 a day and in addition received accommodation and food.  As they were lonely and didn’t have much they blew their ‘jack’ at the local pubs and ‘cat houses’ every Saturday night, this meant that they essentially trapped themselves in this style of living.  I personally think that Steinbeck chose to focus on the lives of itinerant workers to show the problems facing America and its people during that period.  People just saw the economic problems, not the desperation of the workers, or the racial discrimination of the black community and I think that is what Steinbeck was trying to show, the personal effect to millions of men and women.  Further more, as Steinbeck had worked on a ranch, he felt sympathy to the workers, and portrays their situation sensitively.  

George and Lennie are the two main characters in ‘Of Mice and men’.  Steinbeck’s detailed description of them allows the reader to easily relate to the characters’ strong personalities and sympathises with their situation.  George and Lennie get on very well; they look out for each other.  One of the main things that hold them together is their dream; they are not like other ranch workers because they all travel alone, they are the ‘loneliest guys in the world.’  They travel together, they have ‘got a future…somebody to talk to that gives a damn’ about them.  Lennie acts like a child, although he is very strong, ‘Strong as a bull.’  George on the other hand is sharp, intelligent, and quick.  Their personalities deeply match their physical appearance, George is quite short, and skinny whilst Lennie is tall, muscular, and broad shouldered.  The relationship, as strong as it is, is quite uneven, George has a lot of authority over Lennie, and we know this as ‘they walked in single file… and even in the open one stayed behind the other.’  So even when there was room for them to walk next to each other, they didn’t, showing that even though they are together they are separate, lonely and they have no community to look after them, no one that is their equal and their friend.

The setting of the novel is important for Steinbeck to convey his views on how the workers lived.  Steinbeck makes many references to light though-out the whole of the novel,  about how weak the lighting in the workers bunk house is as it didn’t light up the corners,  and how Curley’s wife blocks off the ‘rectangle of sunshine in the doorway’ when she enters.  This shows how she had ‘cut off’ everything good and pure, as light colours and the sun shows hope; it is almost like she is bringing trouble with her.  In the last chapter Lennie is shot, killed by George, his death is sudden but the book was written so we would be expecting it.  The description of the setting contains many references to light, how the ‘sun left’ the ‘valley’, ‘mountains seemed to blaze…increasing brightness.’  The sun is setting the day is ending, so is the novel and their dream; it is all inevitable, including their lives.  Steinbeck was a pessimistic and the theme of trouble is very prominent throughout the novel.  John Steinbeck also uses other descriptions linked to the weather to convey atmosphere, like the wind, a ‘far rush of wind sounded… gust drove though… tops of trees like a wave.’  Compared to chapter one in the same setting where there is no sound of wind, it is calm.  In chapter six we can tell something is brewing, a disturbance is coming, and something is going to happen.

In chapter two he describes the small bunk house, which is where all of the workers on the ranch live, from this detailed evocative description we can see how little the workers actually do have,  and how they depend on very plain objects, like magazines and their dreams.  The room itself is extremely simple and only provided the necessaries for the workers.  ‘Walls were whitewashed… floors unpainted.’  The décor in the basic four walled rectangular room is cheap,  and hardly luxurious,  by using words like,  ‘whitewashed’ makes the walls seem boring, cold and hard,  almost as if the paint had just been thrown onto the walls,  almost like no true care had been put into the comfort of the ranch workers living quarters.  Steinbeck refers to the room looking like a dank prison, ‘in three walls there were small, square windows, and in the fourth, a solid door with a wooden latch.’  The ‘solid door with a wooden latch’ makes the ‘bunk house’ seem enclosed,  kept in the dark,  yet by having a ‘wooden latch’ it makes the room seem like it does not need protecting,  the possessions are not worth keeping safe.  With very small windows and a big heavy door it gives you the idea of a coffin with thick stale air, this idea seems more like reality as you read on and find out that the sunlight is choked with ‘dust’ when it shines in the bunk house, which strongly reflects the claustrophobic atmosphere, it also shows how dirty and unhygienic the living areas actually are, as ‘flies shot like rushing stars’, though the beam of sun light.  In one of the bunks in the room there was a spray-can to kill bugs; one of the characters in the novel called Candy explains that the man who slept there before was just very consciously clean.  

The ‘bunk house’ was obviously very cramped as it contained eight bunks,  meaning there was no privacy,  it was a communal living,  and a communal life,  as they ate,  slept and spent 24 hours of their day with each other,  not only is there a lack of privacy,  but none of the dignity that grown adult men should have.  Inside the ‘bunk house’ there was a ‘nailed apple box… so that it made two shelves’ above the bunks, this allowed the men to keep their limited amount of possessions in one area of the room, a small area of privacy.  Also in the room there was grouped boxes, where the men sit to play cards, all the furniture is very make-shift and cheap, representing that the men don’t stay there long, they are only temporary workers.  On the make-do shelves the workers had,  ‘articles,  soap…talcum powder,  razors and those western magazines that men love to read…and their medicines… little vials,  combs; …a few neck ties.’  All simplicities,  but they treat them like luxuries; they can not have anything more as they would not be able to carry it from place to place,  as they worked.

Join now!

Near one of the walls on the bunk house was a ‘black cast-iron stove’, in those times men did not cook, it was degrading.  The workers’ having to cook for themselves is not as bad as having to clean for the rest of the ranch, especially if you were a man.  One character on the ranch does have this job, Candy.  He has what is seen as a women’s job, yet he does it as he had a physical disability, this is an example of the levels of hierarchy on the ranch.  Even though all of the men are ...

This is a preview of the whole essay