The Great Depression was a worldwide economic breakdown. It was the largest and most important economic depression in modern history, it began in the United States on Black Tuesday with the Wall Street crash of October 1929 and rapidly spread worldwide. It lasted about a decade, ending in the early 1940s. During this decade many people were living in poverty, in need of food and shelter. Banks, stores, and factories were closed and left millions of people jobless and without any money. Many had to rely on charity and the government to stay alive. This is why many men had to leave their families in search of jobs. Many men like George and Lennie went to California because there were a lot of jobs for them to do on ranches.
From the opening chapter we learn the George and Lennie are the typical itinerant workers. They have just got fired from one job and are travelling to go another one. George shows his frustration of having to move constantly to find work. He accuses Lennie of keeping him ‘shovin’ all over the country all the time.’ This shows how hard it was to keep moving around and having no home to go to fell safe. They have to sleep outside in the cold with no protection.
Steinbeck shows us how life during the depression was hard. The workers had no real luxury’s they could enjoy, when George and Lennie were eating beans and Lennie says ‘I like ’em with ketchup’ George replies ‘whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want.’ Ketchup is being shown as a symbol of luxury that they don’t have. All of their material possessions were carried in a bindle. This shows how little they had, they were homeless and everything they own could fit in a little blanket.
From chapter 1 we also learn that the men who work on the ranches are ‘the loneliest guys in the world.’ They have no family, the men had to leave them behind in search of work, they have no home to go to. They go to ranches, work, get paid then ‘blow all their stake’ on alcohol and visit cathouses. But George and Lennie are different because they have each other. Their friendship is important because they have some one who is there for them, who cares about them unlike the other guys on the ranch who could go to jail and no one would care. They also have a dream, the dream is important because it means that they have something to look forward to and take their mind of everything.
Steinbeck’s description of the bunkhouse shows a lot about the lifestyle of the itinerant workers. The bunkhouse was very plain with ‘whitewashed walls and the floor unpainted’ it was also very cramped with eight bunks in one room. He shows that it was very uncomfortable they had to live with no privacy, having to share with seven other men and have no space to yourself. They had no proper furniture, a makeshift ‘apple box’ for a shelf to keep personal belongings, which were mostly just soap, razors, talcum powder and western magazines. These magazines were probably comics that the men ‘loved to read.’ The only piece of furniture they had was a table were the men played cards to keep themselves for feeling bored and lonely. The bunkhouse also shows harsh living condition and the poverty at those times.
Steinbeck shows us that the social environment in which the story takes place is one of violence and hostility. In chapter 2 like when George and Lennie were talking about the dream and Candy was listening to their conversation ‘you was pokin your big ears into our business.’ Candy replies ‘I didn’t hear nothing you was sayin’ this shows George did not want anyone to know about their dream, he might have worried that the might tell someone like the boss or try to get involved all ruin it. ‘A guy on a ranch don’t never listen nor he don’t ask no questions’ there was a lot of mistrust and most men did not want to know each others business, if they knew too much they could use that to get them fired.
Also in chapter 2 George and Lennie arrive at the ranch together. Most of the other characters find it strange that they travel together ‘ain’t many guys travel together’ and the boss even thinks that George is using Lennie for his strength and is taking his pay. This suggests that people didn’t trust each other and thought it was weird for them to have a true friendship. ‘It’s a lot nicer to go around with a guy you know’ George says how he feels that to go around with someone you know and you can talk to and keeps him from feeling lonely.
Steinbeck included a lot of violence to show how life under difficult circumstances made people callous. Carlson shoots Candy’s dog because it ‘stinks’, he does not even think about how Candy must feel about his dog being killed. The men don’t think it’s strange for some one to get lynched and would not be bothered if Lennie got lynched. They are not even bothered when Curley’s wife dies, the men only thought about keeping themselves safe. When people are alone for too long and have no family or friends who love and care for them they ‘get mean.’ Most of the characters were alone so they became callous.
Steinbeck shows the extent of loneliness most people suffered during the Great Depression, one of the loneliest characters was Crooks. He was the only black man on the ranch and suffered from a lot of racial abuse, he got called ‘a nigger.’ He was kept separate from the other men, he even had his own bunk because he ‘ain’t wanted in the bunk house.’ He also says that ‘a guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody’ a person who is alone for too long and has no friends or family like Crooks will go insane. To cope with his loneliness he read a lot of books to keep his mind of reality.
Curley’s wife was also very lonely, she was the only woman on the ranch and discriminated against. The men stayed away from her because they knew she could get them into trouble and if Curley saw he would start a fight or get them fired. ‘Think I don’t like to talk to somebody’ She had no one to talk to so she dressed nice and went around trying to start a conversation with someone. She was ‘stuck in that house alla time’ and was bored and lonely. When the Curley and some the guys go out on a Saturday night she is left alone. The men were also lonely as they travelled by themselves and had no one they could trust. They went to bars and got drunk, they visited brothels to try and take their mind off everything and forget reality.
George gives up on the dream after Lennie’s death even though he could have still achieved it because he probably thought it was going to be different without Lennie, he pictured both of them on their ranch doing their jobs. Candy was old and would probably die soon so George would be lonely. All the characters ended up lonely this is why no one achieved the ‘American dream.’ The tragic ending was fitting because Steinbeck is trying to show the reality of the Great Depression: dreams did not come true.