Of Mice and Men: How does Steinbeck Portray Oppression?
What does unfairness look like? “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is the story of two migrant workers; an intellectually challenged man and his companion as they travel to a ranch in Soledad, California. The novel follows the story of their challenging experience at the ranch during the great depression in the 1930s. Throughout the novel, John Steinbeck gradually reveals the powerful lesson that life is very unfair and the impact of oppression, through the treatment of Crooks, the death of Candy’s dog and the tragic ending of the story. Steinbeck includes the many examples of unfairness to help the reader understand that injustice, inequality and unfairness is prominent throughout every aspect of society and conveys that this is deeply wrong. The author includes the lesson of the unfairness of life to suggest that it is universal and people of all ages are able to relate to the lesson through personal experience. Despite the reader’s age, everybody is subjected to varying degrees of unfairness in life and Steinbeck presents this idea throughout the novel in different ways.
At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the other characters at the ranch, including Crooks. Through dialogue, the author gradually develops the lesson that life is unfair. For example, in Chapter 2, Candy shares the story of Christmas where the workers enjoyed the privilege of drinking and partying. As Candy goes on, we sense the unfairness of life as a migrant worker as they perceive having fun as the ultimate privilege. However, this lesson is emphasized when he says,
“they let the n_____ come in that night.”
The author reveals that Crooks is not allowed in the bunkhouse with the other men because he is black and is treated cruelly because of this. Candy who says this thinks Crook’s is smart and likes him, as he describes him as,
“nice fella… he reads a lot..”
However, calls him by derogatory terms rather than his real name. John Steinbeck emphasises the unfair treatment of black people by repeatedly including these racist terms rather than Crook’s real name. The author portrays Candy as a nice character who isn’t inherently racist, however, he puts emphasis on the fact that the characters live in a society where racism is an acceptable part of life. Crooks is aware of how unfair his life is compared to the others as he says,
“I can’t play because I’m black.”
Being black means he has limited opportunities and makes him intensely isolated. Steinbeck conveys that the treatment of Crooks is every wrong and shows how unfair life can be. The author includes this example of unfairness in life to remind us that racial discrimination is present in every society and creates an unfair opportunity to succeed in life. People of all ages are reminded through the cruel treatment of Crooks that life can be unfair but we can restore some equality by changing the way we prejudge others based on race.
The Disabled and Elderly
As the story progresses, John Steinbeck develops the powerful lesson that life is unfair through the example of Candy’s dog. The old dog is described as dirty, useless and old and Carlson offers to shoot the dog as it has no use anymore. The dog worked hard as a sheepdog and companion to Candy but is repaid by being cruelly shot because it has no use anymore. The emotional depiction of the dog being walked out on a leash shows what happens to people who represent the weak in society. For example, Candy says,
“i wishdt someone would shoot me when i ain’t no good anymore,”
Implying that he would rather die than be useless. The author presents how unfair it was to shoot the dog who wasn’t able to fight back, perhaps suggesting the vulnerable in society who are often taken advantage of or neglected. Steinbeck conveys that it is very selfish to disregard or dispose of the lives of those who are vulnerable or weak after they are of no use to us and reflects on the unfairness of life. Through the example of the dog, John Steinbeck questions the reader on how we treat the vulnerable in society and reminds us to show compassion especially to those who are vulnerable due to age or illness.
By the end of the novel, the powerful lesson that life is unfair is clear to the reader. John Steinbeck continues to develop this lesson through the tragic endpoint for the characters. The realistic ending where Curley’s wife is killed and as a result, Lennie is also killed relays how unfair life is for some despite working hard. Curley’s wife led a lonely life where she was defined by her marriage and subjected to endless innuendo and never pursued her dream. Steinbeck includes her in the novel to suggest that being a woman during the 1930s at a ranch made life incredibly unfair and miserable. Sadly, Lennie is provoked by Curley’s wife and ends up killing her although he had good intentions. The author includes examples of how Lennie caused trouble despite having good intentions to show the reader how misunderstood his intellectual disability was at the time. The tragic ending shows the consequence and unfairness of the lack of understanding people had towards Lennie’s disability. The author also shows how unfair life can be when you have a disability. For example, Lennie is intellectually challenged, Curley’s wife is impacted because she’s a woman.
George is disabled by the economic condition of the US during the depression. The author conveys that being born into unfortunate circumstances makes life even more unfair. Steinbeck shows how common it is for life to be tragically unfair suggesting that people of all races, ages and socioeconomic status experience the unfairness of life at some point.
John Steinbeck shows the lesson that life is unfair through many different characters of different age, race and gender to show that it is universal for life to be unfair. Crooks was treated badly and his opportunities were limited because he was black, Candy’s dog was shot because he had no use anymore and as migrant workers, every character worked hard towards their dream of having a better life, but no one achieves this. Through the sad ending, the author is trying to emphasise the powerful lesson that life is very unfair. Steinbeck conveys this lesson through many examples to show the reader that this lesson is relevant to people of all ages and questions the reader on how we could restore some equality in a society so unfair.
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