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Of Mice and Men is set during the Great Depression (1929-1939), a time of tremendous economic downturn throughout the United States and Europe, especially Germany. Manufacturing was greatly reduced as was farming. The Dust Bowl in Oklahoma put many poor sharecroppers on the highways to California to work as farm hands and pickers. The economic situation did not improve until World War II with the mass production of armaments and the drafting of soldiers that not only gave them an income, but also women became employed because of the men's going off to war.
With such a widespread economic depression in the 1930's, migrant workers really had few options for a better life. In Steinbeck's magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath the reader discerns how migrant workers who came to California in order to pick vegetables and fruit had absolutely no bartering power for wages because there were more people vying for jobs than there were actual jobs. When more workers showed up than were needed, the managers of the land would then lower wages because they knew they could just hire someone else who had nothing and would be willing to work for the lower salary.
In addition, in California's working class, the itinerant laborer was paid for specific tasks, and not involved in the entire process from start to finish. This lack of involvement in the agricultural process was a relationship that Steinbeck perceived as problematic as men were hired and fired quickly and there was no stability for men such as George and Lennie.
In Mice and Men, these migrant workers and "bindle stiffs" like George and Lennie and Candy thus hold little hope for their future, for they know that they are but a few of so many in the same economic plight.Old Candy sees himself in his old dog, who is taken outside and eliminated. He worries that he, too, will be gotten rid of, urging George while they are in the bunkhouse in Chapter 1,
"Don't tell Curley I said none of this. He'd slough me. He just don't give a damn. Won't ever get canned 'cause his old man's the boss."
Also, George constantly reminds Lennie not to speak and what to do and not to do so that they can hold onto their jobs and build up "a little stake." The most that they hope for is an acre of land and a shack they can say is theirs.
Most of the characters in the book Of Mice and Men yearned for a better life. This is epitomized by George and Lennie's dream of owning a farm.
The reality is that migrant farmer workers of the Great Depression, such as George and Lennie, were subject to forces beyond their control. Many of these migrant workers came from the Southern Great Plains and Texas where severe drought had decimated their farms creating what was known as the Dust Bowl. So these families fled to California where jobs and food were also scarce. There they experienced prejudice and many of them starved to death in the makeshift camps that they lived in.
Thus the migrant workers were essentially pawns in a game of widespread economic desperation and had little prospect of a better life.
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