Part (a) How does Steinbeck present the character of Curley in this extract? Refer closely to the passage in your answer.
Part (b) In the novel as a whole, how are violence and hostility portrayed? How do these link to the economic and social conditions of 1930s America?
In the extract, Steinbeck uses vivid description of Curley’s physical appearance, speech, personality and the reactions of other key characters to present him as a character whom the reader immediately dislikes. Curley’s status as the boss’s son is emphasised by his clothing; he wears “high-heeled boots” as a reflection of his high status on the ranch. Steinbeck uses the phrase “tightly curled” to describe his hair, a description which aptly represents his personality too – a tightly coiled, volatile character who is always ready to spring into violent action.
Curley’s speech is blunt and direct, even to characters like George and Lennie, whom he has yet to meet. His first piece of dialogue is a direct question which requires a response from the others – “Seen my old man?” – which places him in control of the environment. He then asserts that he will try to “catch” the boss. The use of the verb “catch” here, whilst slang, implies that Curley is a predatory character, always looking to catch others out verbally and physically.
Upon encountering George and Lennie, Curley’s personality is revealed to be guarded yet simultaneously aggressive. Steinbeck uses the adverb “coldly” to suggest that he is emotionally uncaring. Curley’s aggressive stance causes Lennie to “twist with embarrassment.” As the reader has been positioned to empathise with the innocent Lennie over the last chapter, Curley’s actions towards him make him instantly dislikeable. The reader is told that Curley is a boxer, and he continually seems to carry himself in a guarded manner – the phrase “stiffened and went into a slight crouch” describes a boxer’s stance. However, it is clear that Curley guards himself not only against physical threat but also emotional connection – Steinbeck describes his glance to Lennie as “calculating and pugnacious”. Curley evidently sizes Lennie up as a potential physical threat (which links to why he steps “gingerly” towards Lennie – he is clearly wary of Lennie’s size and strength) but also subsequently alienates the other characters through his actions.
George’s attitude towards Curley is typical of that of many of the other males on the ranch – “say, what the hell’s he got on his shoulder?” Steinbeck intends for the reader, too, to perceive characters through the lens of George’s perspective, and as George judges Curley as superior and cruel, so too does the reader. This links to Candy’s assessment of Curley, who laments that he “won’t ever get canned ‘cause his old man’s the boss.” Curley’s entitlement alienates him from other characters on the ranch, so perhaps in some ways he is not dissimilar to other characters in the novel who exist as ‘loners’. However, Curley is different in that his callous personality is the cause of his own isolation.
Curley’s callousness is emblematic of an era of American society in which life was cruel and often vicious; in the novel, this is certainly true for working class males. Whilst many male characters are aggressive and chauvinistic, some characters demonstrate more progressive attitudes. The era of violence and mistrust in 1930s America was a product of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, which left many young men out of work and poverty-stricken. The resulting boom in itinerant work indirectly leads to the entitled attitudes of landowners such as the boss and his son, Curley, as well as the aggressive and isolated attitudes of the workers themselves, such as Carlson. George states that “guys like us got no family”, suggesting the isolation of many males in his and Lennie’s position. Carlson and Candy are the best examples of generational isolation – Carlson’s results in violence; he taunts Curley (“you’re as yella as a frog belly”) over his cowardice, is obsessed with his “luger” and even shoots Candy’s dog, simply because “he stinks” and is old and useless. On the other hand, Candy’s forced isolation leads to depression and weakness (“they’ll can me when they got no more use for me”). In both cases, the harshness of the characters’ society leads them to become emotionally deprived. This is emphasised by Steinbeck’s choice of the last line of the novel – “Now what do you suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” – in which he demonstrates how Carlson is so affected by society’s harshness that he cannot recognise George’s obvious emotion at having shot his best friend.
Male attitudes to sex and females are also shown to be damaging throughout the novel. Again, Curley is the prime example of this. His reaction to his wife’s death is not one of mourning, but of anger and the excitement of vengeance – “I know who done it… I’m gonna get him.” This is indicative of the chauvinistic attitudes towards women in the 1930s, who were viewed as sexual objects by men and, after marriage, as property. Indeed, Curley only ever refers to his wife in those terms, not naming her and, thus, dehumanising her. Other references to females in the novel are similarly chauvinistic. The male workers travel to “cat-houses” in town (popular during the Great Depression amongst migrant workers) to “get it all out of their system.” The fact that males simply use females as sexual gratification and as a means to stave off loneliness implies how little they are valued by males in society.
However, attitudes of characters such as George and, in particular, Slim, suggest that male attitudes can be more progressive than those defined by a cruel society. George takes care of Lennie like a brother or a father, thus demonstrating more love and care than the majority of male characters in the novel. Slim notes how “I hardly ever see guys travel together”, a statement which holds historical accuracy, mainly due to the unstable nature of itinerant work. Slim, too, is compassionate and caring towards his workers and even to the marginalised characters like Curley’s wife and Crooks. He is one of the few characters to pay Curley’s wife a compliment (“Hey, good lookin’”) and addresses Crooks not by a racial slur, but by his name. Even though Slim holds authority as the “prince of the ranch”, he has a balanced attitude towards this authority, and values kindness above aggression and violence. In many ways, the description of Slim as an old-fashioned rancher and cowboy, complete with “Stetson” and “bullwhip”, present him as the last survivor of a better time for American males, in which skills and character were valued ahead of the scramble for labour and physical dominance brought on by the Great Depression.
How does the setting of Of Mice and Men influence the book's thematic development? In answering, consider the connection between the novel's setting and the characters' vocations. Also, how does Steinbeck signal the importance of setting in his choice of place names?
Though the novel is more famous for its characters than its setting, Of Mice and Men could not have been set elsewhere than in the rural Salinas valley of California. The problems of the novel are intimately tied to the rhythms and frustrations of the itinerant worker's life. Shifting from ranch to ranch, from one menial job to another, the Californian itinerant worker risked a life of meaningless labor - of pure, cynical sustenance. George and Lennie, with their dream of acquiring a farm, represent an attempt to stand against such perpetual loneliness. Even the name of the city near which the novel is set - Soledad, which is Spanish for "solitude" - resonates with this theme of loneliness.
The title, Of Mice and Men, is an allusion to a Robert Burns poem. How is this allusion meaningful in the novel? Consider some similarities and differences between Burns and Steinbeck's works.
Robert Burns' poem, "To a Mouse," is the source of the famous quotation: "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men / Gang aft agley" ("often go awry"). And, indeed, Of Mice and Men features two men with a scheme - to escape their lives of menial, temporary employment - that goes awry. Beyond this simple plot similarity, the two works both consider the relationship between the human and animal worlds. Burns poem, in which a field worker offers philosophical reflections after upsetting a mouse's nest, mirrors Steinbeck's work, in which Lennie unintentionally destroys the lives of small, furry animals (including, at the novel's opening, a mouse, which is a clear wink at the Burns poem).
Of Mice and Men is highly "dramatic" - that is, similar to a drama or play - in its structure and action. Describe the ways in which the novel is like a play. Why did Steinbeck choose to put his work together in this way?
Each chapter of the novel takes place in a single location, aside from a short walk at the beginning of Chapter One. Thus the novel is structured, much like a play, into "scenes." The locations of these scenes are treated much like the space of a stage - characters enter and exit frequently, give speeches and move the plot forward. The narrator, meanwhile, is minimally intrusive. This "dramatic" form of writing allows the novel to progress rapidly and portentously, building symbolic density and narrative tension without becoming too heavy-handed. It also, by the way, allowed Of Mice and Men to be adapted for the stage almost immediately after its publication.
Of Mice and Men is often studied as an example of "foreshadowing" in literature. How does Steinbeck foreshadow the pivotal events of the book? What does this effect do for the tone of the book?
Nearly every word and image in the novel is carefully chosen to guide the reader to the accidental killing of Curley's wife and the mercy killing of Lennie. The gun used to shoot Candy's decrepit dog is later used by George to shoot Lennie; the many small animals that Lennie crushes out of love foreshadow his panicked killings of his puppy and, moments later, Curley's wife; and the event that drove George and Lennie out of Weed (Lennie's false accusation of rape) parallels the scene in the barn between him and Curley's wife. This dense layering of related plot elements gives the plot an element of inevitability - as though fate has preordained the tragic events of the book.
Several of the characters in Of Mice and Men display physical and mental impairments. Identify and describe these characters. How do these impairments influence or reflect these characters' roles in the novel?
Of Mice and Men is a novel about impairments, both literal and symbolic. Most of the men in the novel are impaired in some fundamental way, most often in terms of their loneliness and isolation. In the case of several characters, this symbolic impairment becomes expressed literally through their damaged bodies. Crooks and Candy are hunch-backed and lame; Curley's hand is crushed (an injury which reflects on his damaged masculinity in general). The most conspicuously impaired person in the novel, Lennie, is impaired in an altogether different way. Bodily, he is the most able man in the novel, but mentally, he is incompatible with social life. Thus the different nature of his disability reflects and emphasizes his inability to survive in the lonely, desolate environment of the itinerant worker.
Consider Curley's wife. Is she a sympathetic or an unsympathetic character? Would you characterize Steinbeck's portrayal of her as fair, or do you detect misogyny in his depiction?
Curley's wife, the only major character who is not given an individual name, is indeed an enigma. In the first chapters of the book, she is simply awful - a flirtatious, provocative "tramp," to use Candy's word for her. However, in the later part of the book we do get a glimpse at a richer inner-life as she speaks about her loneliness, her regrets, and her unhappy marriage. On the whole, however, Steinbeck's depiction of Curley's wife is quite disturbing from the perspective of a modern reader.
Discuss "the rabbits," the dream of a farm that George and Lennie share and repeat aloud. How does this story of "how things will be" function in the novel? What does it reveal about George, Lennie, and their relationship?
The story of "how things will be" comes off much like a bedtime story - an oft-repeated tale (which Lennie even has memorized, much like a child memorizes his favorite stories) that has a soothing, dream-like effect on both teller and listener. The parental nature of George and Lennie's relationship is quite clear in these passages, as George (the parent) uses the story to soothe and encourage Lennie (the child). This ritualistic recitation provides their work with meaning and purpose; by the end of the novel, though, as the tragic current of the book proves irresistible, the story takes on a poignant quality.
Of Mice and Men opens and closes in a natural setting. The chapters in between take place in various man-made settings - the bunk house, the barn, Crooks' room. Why does Steinbeck organize the novel in this way? In general, what does he propose about the relationship between man and nature?
In opening and closing his novel in nature, Steinbeck is able to connect and compare the actions of his characters with the natural world. The nature scenes comment on the events in question - George and Lennie disrupt a peaceful scene in the opening; the killing of a snake by a heron prefigures the tragedy in the final chapter. Not only does this way of structuring the novel give it a feeling of wholeness, it also reinforces Steinbeck's central point about Lennie's incompatibility with the social world. He doesn't fit in the shared spaces - the bunk house, etc. - while, in contrast, he romanticizes the natural world, repeatedly promising to live "like a bear" in a cave. Of course, Lennie is not a bear, however similar he may be to one. He can't life with men, and he can't live without them; therefore, in the end, he can't live at all.
Consider the scene in Crooks' room. How does Steinbeck characterize Crooks and the others, and how does the conversation in the chapter play out in the context of the novel as a whole?
Crooks is a proud, embittered man - a victim of racism. The scene that takes place in his room illustrates several tendencies in the novel. For one thing, Lennie is able to win Crooks over despite (or, actually, by virtue of) his opacity; this allows the reader to see Lennie's appeal as a nonjudgmental, faithful companion. Also, when Crooks rouses Lennie's anger, we see more evidence of the dangerous rage that lurks beneath Lennie's placid exterior. Finally, the appearance of Candy allows Steinbeck to stage a sort of socialist fantasy, in which the downtrodden, disabled members of the farm contemplate a mild "uprising" of sorts. The appearance of Curley's wife, though, returns these men to the direness of their social situation. Thus the chapter functions almost as a microcosm for the novel as a whole, as we move from hope to hopelessness, with Curley's wife as a catalyst for trouble.
Of Mice and Men has a controversial history. It has been repeatedly banned by school boards. Why might this book have been banned? Is such an action justified?
There are several reasons for the novel's controversial reputation. Most obviously, the novel features frank discussion of sexual matters - rape, prostitution, promiscuity - that has been targeted as possibly inappropriate for a young audience. Also, the novel ends in a morally ambiguous killing - similar to euthanasia - which has roused the ire of several anti-euthanasia advocacy groups. Though it is well-established as required reading in thousands of high school districts throughout the world, the book continues to attract controversy. The question of whether or not the book is offensive is of course a matter of personal morals; however, Steinbeck's treatment of such sensitive material has been generally celebrated for its tastefulness and honesty.