How is cruelty shown in Of Mice and Men?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cruelty refers to inhumane, senseless or malicious activity committed against any living being.

In Of Mice and Men, the theme of cruelty permeates the plot, particularly the setting of the novel. This setting is gritty, rough and dry. There is nothing neither whimsical nor inspiring about it. The result is an overall atmosphere of helplessness and loneliness that leads to vulnerability. As it renders its victims dependent and weak, vulnerability unwillingly welcomes cruelty quite easily.   It also lets it flow free throughout the narrative through the actions of the characters, their emotional states, and the things that they say to one another.

George and Lennie

The “dominant/submissive” type of relationship that George and Lennie lead is evident from the beginning of the novel. It is a friendship where George, the dominant, begrudges his sense of allegiance toward Lennie by consistently cursing and complaining about the man whom he has decided to, essentially, support for the rest of his life. George’s decision to put up with Lennie normally would denote an immense sense of loyalty. However, loyalty does not evade frustration, and George expresses his own frustrations with utmost candor.

Besides talking down to Lennie, calling him names, and shouting at him, George also shows physical demonstrations of cruelty. First, he takes the mouse Lennie had been hiding from George and “threw it across the pond”.  He also makes mention of Lennie’s cognitive ability (or lack thereof) by calling him ugly names. In the same token, he waxes poetic, even bucolic, each time Lennie asks about their dream of having land together and living off it. It is quite a curious bonding they have going on.

Curley and everyone

Curley is a man with Napoleon complex (short and angry about it) whose lack of skills in the bedroom, and his lack of personal skills in society, make him a bully to everyone else. He, of course, picks on those who are more of a lesser station than his own. This would be, in his case, most of the farm hands (except Slim, who has his act together). An example is when he punches Lennie, out of nowhere, just because he could sense that Lennie was not entirely “there”. The result is Lennie crushing Curley’s hand as they confront one another. This latter act by Lennie is, by no means, an act of cruelty. The reader roots for him, and feels that Curley deserves that, and more.

Everyone against Crooks

The fact that racism and racial segregation were, sadly, a real and accepted part of 1930’s society does not make these social problems any less cruel. Crooks was made to exist outside work in isolation, which is inhumane. Curley’s wife would remind him that he could be “hung” at any time if he dares go against her words, which is humilliating.

Sure. Ya see the stable buck's a n*gger."

"N*gger, huh?"

"Yeah. Nice fella too. Got a crooked back where a horse kicked him. The boss gives him hell when he's mad. But the stable buck don't give a damn about that. 

He is treated disrespectfully, as were many black men during this time, and his loneliness and isolation hardened him to a dangerous level of anger. We know that this was his only way to tolerate the cruelty shown toward him. He simply paid it forward with his angry and divisive demeanor.

There are many more instances of cruelty at different levels that can still be found upon a close reading of the novel. Carlson wanting Candy to shoot his own, sick and old dog,  Curley’s wife use of her husband’s position to have her way among the farm hands,  and just the cruelty of fate itself; the fact that nobody is a winner in Of Mice and Men, but also that those who are down end up even in a lower, darker spot.