The novella Of Mice and Men written by John Steinbeck firstly originates from the poem by 18th century poet Robert Burns entitled ‘To a mouse’. We know that the title of the poem has been taken from the line in the seventh verse of the poem “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” Parallels can be drawn between the poem and the novella, in particular George and Lennie’s American dream, when we look at the verse containing the title of the poem. This verse speaks of how the best plans of man often fail and leave us with pain and grief, and this directly foreshadows the fact that Lennie and George’s dream will not be made a reality.
The tragedy of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately George and Lennie plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, this dream will end in sorrow. Steinbeck sets the short story in 1930’s America during the harsh Great Depression years, and due to the lack of money and employment at this time, the number of migrant workers was high. The short novel focuses on the struggles of two particular itinerant workers working on a ranch in California. This is perhaps a reflection of Steinbeck’s own experiences working as a migrant worker on rural Californian ranches, and we see the impressions that his experiences have made upon him through his work. We also see Steinbeck’s past experiences influencing his writing in other works such as ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.
Through Steinbeck’s portrayal of certain characters, we are also given an insight into the social context of the time. When looking at tragedy these social contexts provide evidence for some characters to be described as tragic, when based on both modern and traditional interpretations of tragedy. We see through Crooks, and how he is ostracised from the rest of the workers, an example of the racial discrimination of the times. Crooks can be regarded as tragic based on modern interpretations of tragedy due to the segregation. Based on Greek and Shakespearean interpretations of tragedy, Lennie and Curley’s wife can be considered as tragic, as throughout the novella they produce feelings of pity, fear and excitement in the audience, and both have their tragic flaws, this being an important Aristotle feature, which lead to their downfalls.
Through Curley’s wife we see the sexist treatment of women, as they are portrayed by Steinbeck as ‘property’ of their husband. This sexist treatment of women arouses pity in the audience, and can be said to portray Curley’s wife as tragic. We read of the quest of the American dream and the importance of this to Lennie, and as it is foreshadowed that this dream is unlikely to ever happen a tragic element is drawn. We also have sympathy with Lennie because of the severe treatment of those with limited mental ability. This treatment provides us with modern reasons for Lennie to be considered as tragic, especially when compared to attitudes today. This essay will focus on the three characters named in the introduction, and explore the extent to which they can be described as tragic. The essay will also contest the idea of Lennie being the most tragic character in the novella.
The first character to be explored in this essay is Crooks. At the beginning of chapter four Crooks is given the longest description of all the characters in the novella. We read of his ‘deep black wrinkles, and his ‘pain tightened lips’. This suggests that Steinbeck has intentions for him as an important character, and Steinbeck goes on to use Crooks to symbolize the racial segregation. Crooks is also used to show the general loneliness of ranch workers, and Steinbeck uses him to bring the loneliness experienced by all the characters into perspective. We read of Crooks saying, “A guy needs someone to be near him…
A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody… A guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick” Here Steinbeck is bringing forward the need for human interaction. We are given the impression that Crooks is deeply affected by the racial hierarchy, and by how he has been ostracised from the rest of the ranch. From this we have evidence to regard Crooks as tragic, especially due to his loneliness and how is has been ostracised based on his skin colour alone. Steinbeck also describes crooks as a ‘proud, aloof man’. It seems that Crooks’ pride helps him deal with his loneliness. The reader sympathizes with Crooks, adding to the theme of tragedy.
In the novella, Crooks is also physically handicapped. Crooks has been given this name because of his crooked spine, adding to the picture Steinbeck draws of Crook’s as an unfortunate, tragic character. We read at the start of chapter four Crooks rubbing liniment on his spine, ‘…he held a bottle of liniment, and with the other he rubbed his spine…’ When reading this the reader has a picture of this proud man reduced to spending his time on his own rubbing his crooked back. We again sympathize with Crooks, and he can be described as tragic based on this. Furthermore, at the end of the chapter we read, ‘…in his pink palm and reaching around fell slowly to rubbing his back’. This presents us with a cycle of Crooks; as he is portrayed as the solitary character at the beginning of the chapter, and he is the same at the end.
We can infer from this that as long as the social context of the times remains, Crooks would always be treated the same, and from this a modern tragic element can be drawn. We also read of Crooks being a scapegoat for the ranch workers. We read “the boss gives him hell when he’s mad…” This tells the reader that due to Crooks being black, all the blame is put on him for problems on the ranch. However, it can be said that a possibility of a change in Crook’s situation may have occurred had Curley’s wife not entered into Crook’s room. Until this point in chapter four, it could be said that Crooks had started to believe in an American dream.
‘If you guys would want a hand for nothing… why I’d come an lend a hand. I ain’t so crippled…’ Crooks actually asks for a share in the dream, but Steinbeck insists on keeping to the tragic theme, and so before this question is even answered, Curley’s wife enters. This is significant for evidence for Crooks to be regarded as tragic, because of how Curley’s wife’s words affect Crooks. Crooks attempts to stand up to Curley’s wife “you got no rights comin’ in a coloured man’s room…”, but the ever present racism is again apparent from Curley’s wife’s reply, “listen nigger, you know what I can do if you open your mouth… I can get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny” These words sharply bring Crooks down to Earth, and ‘reduce him to nothing’. This incident involving these two characters arouses more sympathy in the reader, and can be said to sum up the evidence for Crooks to be described as tragic.