How does Steinbeck’s description of the bunk house give us insight about ranch life and larger issues affecting migrant workers in the 1930s?

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John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a psychological novella that, in part, centers on the main theme of the American dream. The author makes the point that human nature compels people to work hard for a promising future, which does not always come to pass.

The title of the book is taken from lines in a Robert Burns poem foretelling how the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Go oft astray.” Focusing on his thesis, Steinbeck uses a variety of themes, symbols, and literary devices to demonstrate mankind’s struggle in the midst of social injustices and loneliness.

As the story unfolds, two ranch hands, George Milton and Lenny Small, are enjoying an idyllic setting: “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.” They dream of owning their own farm someday. George is “small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features,” while Lenny is a gigantic mentally challenged individual and the opposite of his friend:

... a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely.

The two friends are as different from each other as their dreams are to reality. They symbolize the two different worlds the playwright presents: one large and heavenly, full of dreams, and the other limited in scope, like the bunkhouse in which they eventually reside. The two worlds are not compatible, which ultimately kills their dreams.

The bunkhouse is a significant symbol in this work. Steinbeck describes it in detail over several chapters of the book as having an atmosphere quite opposite of the dream the protagonists seek:

... there were small, square windows ... a solid door with a wooden latch ... eight bunks, five of them made up with blankets and the other three showing their burlap ticking ... and ... grouped boxes for the players to sit on.

The description paints an image of an almost prison-like structure, housing otherwise homeless migrant workers.

Steinbeck threads the novella with diametrically different symbols to draw attention to the larger issues affecting migrant laborers in the 1930s. For example, migrant workers long for the freedom they can only achieve through their work and their commitment to other people. However, they are hindered in their efforts by extremely low wages and the loneliness they experience during their journeys. They cannot escape life’s hardships unless they can find a place of refuge. Instead, the symbol of the bunkhouse provides little hope, and their dreams are dashed.

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At the beginning of chapter two, Steinbeck offers a description of the bunkhouse, which is a modest, uncomfortable building where the workers spend the majority of their leisure time. He describes the bunkhouse as a large, rectangular building with whitewashed walls and an unpainted floor. There are eight bunks inside the building, and each bunk has an apple box nailed to the wall overhead, which serves as a small shelf for the workers' belongings. In each of the apple boxes, the migrant workers keep their razors, soap, magazines, talcum powder, and other small articles. There is also a black cast-iron stove near one wall and a big square table littered with playing cards in the middle of the room.

The description of the bunkhouse reflects the harsh environment of the ranch and the surrounding United States, which is experiencing an economic depression. During the Great Depression, migrant workers were forced to leave their families behind and travel alone, looking for work and settling for arduous, low-paying jobs. Given the atmosphere of the bunkhouse, the audience recognizes that the migrant workers have very few personal possessions and do not experience a luxurious life. The life of a migrant worker is uncomfortable, difficult, and dangerous, which adds context to George and Lennie's current situation. The meager, depressing atmosphere of the bunkhouse is a microcosm of the United States during the Great Depression, which was a time when millions of Americans struggled to find their next meal and lived in absolute poverty.

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Steinbeck's detailed description of the bunkhouse gives us an insight into the living conditions of itinerant workers in 1930s America. Though home to eight men at any one time, this bunkhouse, with its whitewashed walls and unpainted floor, is not really a home in the normal sense of the word; it's just a place for ranch hands to rest their weary heads after a hard day's toil.

The eight bunks provided for the men are functional, not comfortable. It's notable that only five of them are made up with blankets; the other three show their burlap ticking. Burlap is a rough material used in the manufacture of potato sacks. That such cheap, coarse material is being used for bedding further indicates the lowly status of those who work on the ranch.

In the middle of the bunkhouse, there's a big square table littered with playing cards. Around it are grouped boxes—not chairs, you'll notice—for the players to sit on. This tells us how the men use most of their leisure time. There's really nothing much else for them to do except play cards or make an occasional visit to the local brothel.

Downtrodden, poor, and without much to look forward to in life, the ranch hands who exist in this miserable bunkhouse are a microcosm of the American working classes during the Great Depression.

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The bunk house is very spare and austere. The ranch hands all share it (except for Crooks, who is segregated because he is black) and have no privacy. The men each get a bunk and shelf for their belongings and not much else. A stove heats the space.

The bunk house tells us that the ranch hands are given the bare necessities in terms of living quarters. The quarters are impersonal, reflecting the migrant and seasonal nature of the work. George checks his bunk carefully for bugs, suggesting that sometimes bunkhouses are not as clean as they could be.

Part of the dream George and Lennie have about owning a farm is privacy: an allure is not having to share space with people they don't like. If the bunkhouse reflects the rootlessness, insecurity, lack of control over their lives, and low status of the migrant workers in 1930s America, the farm represents the urge for rootedness and security.

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How does Steinbeck's initial description of the bunkhouse show that the migrant workers have to live in harsh conditions in Of Mice and Men?

Steinbeck describes the barren bunkhouse with its whitewashed walls and unpainted floor, small square windows in only three walls, and a solid, wooden door with a rustic wooden latch. For beds there are eight small bunks with single blankets or burlap ticking, and above the beds a wooden box nailed to the wall acts as shelving on which the bindle stiffs place their meager belongings. Thus, the living conditions are those of the ascetic or the poor. 

There are no curtains at the walls, no paintings, no mirrors, no rugs, no comfortable chairs. In the middle of this bunkhouse, a large, square table functions as a card table or gathering spot for the men to sit; however, they must sit upon boxes as there are no chairs. Everything inside the bunkhouse is impersonal and functional. For example, "[N]ear one wall there was a black cast-iron stove, its stove pipe going straight up through the ceiling." This stove's function is to heat the bunkhouse.

Much like the lives of the bindle stiffs, there is a sense of the temporal in this bunkhouse devoid of any real comforts; in addition, nowhere is there decorations or curtains--those things that personalize a place and make it feel a little like home. Instead, the bunkhouse is merely a station where the men come to sleep and to relax for brief periods with no privacy, either. It is not unlike the barn quarters of Crooks, the stable hand, other than the fact he is isolated from the other men.

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