Steinbeck shows the ranch workers' life to be unstable, moving from place to place in search of work with the constant fear of being 'canned' by their employers for the littlest of reasons.
The theme of Impermanence is best shown when:
- George and Lennie are inspecting the bunkhouse and it's completely void of any identity or personality - 'bleached white walls' depicts this best. The fact there is also only an 'Apple box' for the ranch worker's possessions shows how they own very little due to the fact they will have to carry it once they leave this ranch.
- There's no relationship between the ranch workers because they all move on by themselves and don't stay long enough to develop friends. You could develop this idea with the fact there's no notable friendships for most of the novel other than George and Lennie.
Steinbeck captures the inequality amongst ranch life thoroughly throughout the novel with various characters embodying the imbalance of society for women and minorities.
Key points on this:
- There's no prominent female captures on the ranch other than Curley's wife who is even degraded further by the fact she doesn't have a name and is referred to as a possession to Curley. She's also treated with hostility by the ranch workers who don't understand her need for companionship.
- The fact that Crook's is segregated from everyone else and is 'given hell' by the boss suggests that he's in equally treated based on his race - which you could contextually link back to 1930s America attitude towards different races.
- Lennie as someone with a mental disablement is manipulated and even hunted for an action that wasn't intentional - the ranch workers are unwilling to understand the plight of people with disability. Candy is also a prime example of this.
Theme: The American Dream
Steinbeck uses characters to depict the falsity and emptiness in hope of the American Dream and the futility in pursuit of it. The American a Dream is the prospect that everyone has the same oppurtunities and that if they work hard enough they'll achieve all their desires.
The falseness and futility of the American a Dream is best shown by:
- The fact that Curley's wife dreamt of being in the pictures but never made it and had to settle for Curley, perhaps hinting at how she had no other option but to marry because of her gender.
- The fact that Lennie and George throughout the novel pursue the dream but never get it - because of Lennies disability and the fact he doesn't get the same treatment as people that don't.
- People like Crook's and Candy are people who will never be able to achieve the dream because of their age and race. They're not equal and they will never get the same oppurtunities as others.
1930s America Context
Steinbeck writes the novel to be based in 1930s during the depression and dust bowl. This is important to note because it links to the harshness of the life on the ranch and hi lights a time where simply believing in The American Dream wasn't enough to get by.
The situation of the high unemployment because of the depression highlights the desperation of the ranch workers to find work and how they'll wander from ranch to ranch in search of work.
1930s America (Early on anyway) also had no social security or protections in place against discrimination and protection of vulnerable people hence the exploitation of key characters such as Crooks, Curley's Wife and of course Lennie.
Steinbeck uses Lennie to highlight how some minorities in society will never be able to achieve the American Dream which is supposedly for everyone. It also highlights how at the time vulnerable people were not understood and were constantly exploited and manipulated.
His actions are always foreshadowed. For example Curley's death could arguably be foreshadowed by both the death of the mouse and the death of the puppy.
He dies believing in the American Dream, it's a sense of satisfaction for the reader that he died happy even if the prospect of him dying is upsetting. .
He's picked on by Curley purely based on his height and the presumption he'd be an easy target due to his learning difficulties. This discrimination frustrates the reader who feels a great sense of sympathy for Lennie.
- His first introduction to the ranch displaying his dependence on George talking etc.
- Where he kills the mouse (Foreshadowing)
- Where he kills Curley's wife
George arguably never believed in the American Dream but rather kept up the facade for Lennie's benefit more than anything else, though the reader gets the sense that despite all his ramblings about how he'd be better off without Lennie, George feels a need for companionship and so that's why he goes around with Lennie. This could alternatively also be argued to be a sense of guardianship more than companionship.
He feels like he needs to get to Lennie before Curley to ensure he goes the right way and is happy before his death. He realises the need for it but is saddened nonetheless and sees it as the end of his American Dream (if he did in fact believe in it)
He goes off with Slim at the end which perhaps suggests a cycle. Now that Lennie and George's path has ended the cycle will begin again with George and Slim - is a companionship between two ranch workers doomed to fail?
- Ketchup fight with Lennie, shows how Lennie is a burden to him
- How he plays solitaire by himself, portrays loneliness of ranch workers
- Kills Lennie, sadness of the American a Dream at an end but the start of a new cycle
The 'Prince' of the ranch, he's shown to break the mound of the typical ranch workers such as Carlson. He's compassionate to George especially after Lennie's death.
He's not afraid to confront Curley either and knows Curley will never retaliate this is shown best by when he threatens Curley after the fight with Lennie and blatantly flirts with Curley's wife. He usurps the traditional ranch hierarchy in this sense.
He realises and admires the relationship between Lennie and George but recognises at the end that George has to be the one to kill Lennie in order to ensure he feels no pain and goes as nicely as possible.
He shows no discrimination to anyone but at the same time doesn't argue when he sees it. He's the deciding voice of the ranch workers for example the case of Candy's dog being killed, his influence in the situation leads to Carlson eventually taking the dog out and killing it.
- When he threatens Curley - When he leads George off - And when he's introduced 'prince of the ranch'
Character: Curley's Wife
Curley's Wife is likewise to Lennie and Crooks, an embodiment of discrimination, in this case discrimination against women.
She is also an example of the falsity behind the American Dream, she never made it as a movie star and instead had to 'settle' for being Curley's wife.
Her lack of a name highlights how she's seen as a possession of Curley. You could link this to 1930s American attitudes towards women and the inequality there.
She's treated with weariness and hostility amongst the ranch perhaps because she's a woman people don't trust her and see her as promiscuous (by stereotyping). In truth she's actually just looking for companionship the same as the rest of them and due to Curley's negligence to make company with his wife, she is forced to go searching for conversation with the ranch workers.
She does however retain some sort of power through Curley. She exerts this over crooks where she says about how she could get him lynched or canned etc. It's arguable that without Curley she'd be be nothing. She's the only prominent female character.
Used by Steinbeck to depict the ranch hierarchy (only usurped by slim). He wants to maintain control but feels insecure about his size and has a case of little-man syndrome hence why he feels hostility towards Lennie leading to their eventual fight. His ego is hurt by the outcome of the fight however and if anything leads to his excitement after he deems Lennie to be behind the death of his wife. Note how it says he 'came to life' upon realising Lennie was the culprit - he wants him to suffer not because of the death of his wife but more because of Lennies own actions against Curley.
He's aggressive and wants to be assertive. He instantly sets about letting Lennie and George know about his status in the ranch hierarchy.
- His introduction, he's aggressive and quick to set his status
- His ego destroyed when beaten by Lennie, crying, shows he's not what he portrays himself to be
- His animation of almost happiness when he deems Lennie to be the killer and his quickness to go find him
Candy is shown to be reaching the end of his usefulness on the ranch, his predicament is perhaps embodied by his own dog which reaches its demise with Carlson when it becomes a hinderance. Candy shows a fear of the same sort of thing happened to him once he is no longer able to work and hence why he is so eager to join the 'American Dream'-esque plan of Lennie and George.
As a swamper he's seen to hold an inferior role in the ranch but that doesn't stop him voicing his hatred towards Curley and towards Curley's wife whom he brands as a 'tart'
He's discriminated against due to his age and his physical disability hence why he embodies also the falsity of the American Dream.
- When he's upset by the death of his dog, a foreshadowing of his own future?
- When he talks to George and Lennie about the Dream, he sees it as a way out of the ranch worker cycle
- He is a victim of discrimination himself but is still quick to prejudge other such as Curley's wife and Crooks
Crooks is another embodiment of discrimination and inequality, he's also shown to be someone who will never be able to successfully achieve the American Dream purely because of his colour. He's segregated from the main population of ranchers.
- He's noted to be given 'hell' by the boss, suggestive that it's because he's black
- Curley's wife destroys any sense of self importance by exerting her power threatening to lynch or can him
- He finds fascination in Lennie purely because he's willing to talk to crooks and doesn't show to hold a prejudice against him based on race (Link back to 1930s America Context)