In the more intense passages of Of Mice and Men, how does Steinbeck use language to create the mood?Regarding situations such as Curley's wife tormenting Crooks, Crooks tormenting Lennie, etc.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, the author uses language in several of the more emotionally intense passages, to enable one character to "beat down" a weaker character in a show of superiority.

When Crooks confronts Lennie out of Crooks' own sense of isolation and loneliness, his tone is threatening, and fear is a major component of the discussion between the two men. Crooks uses his words to exercise power and control over the weaker Lennie, at least until Lennie's erratic emotions frighten the older man. Crooks suggests that George might abandon Lennie, awakening in Lennie a sense of terror.

His voice grew soft and persuasive. 'S'pose George don't come back no more. S'pose he took a powder and just ain't coming back. What'll you do?...I said s'pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more...'

Crooks suggestion of the fear of loneliness not only reflects Lennie's fear, but the fear of members of American society after the Great Crash of 1929. Lennie denies the possibility, but Crooks, knowing he can bully Lennie, continues until Lennie grows frightened and angry, denying the possibility:

'I don' know. Say, what you doin' anyways?' he cried. 'This ain't true...'

Crooks presses on threatening Lennie with life in an asylum until Lennie scares Crooks.

Crooks bored in on him. 'Want me ta tell ya what'll happen? They'll take ya to the booby hatch. They'll tie ya up with a collar like a dog.'

Crooks has gone too far, and backs off at Lennie's aggressive response:

Suddenly Lennie's eyes centered and grew quiet, and mad. He stood up and walked dangerously toward Crooks...Crooks saw the danger as it approached him.

Crooks backs off and tries now to explain his own loneliness without resorting to the intimidating tactics he has used till now. Lennie's fear is palpable.

Curley's wife, ironically, does the same thing to Crooks when the black man tries to stand up to her. She is almost as powerless as Crooks, but she reminds him that he is black and that she holds a greater power over him than she does anyone else: that of death. She manipulates Crooks with fear, but in this situation she does so to exercise authority in a world where she has no power at all. She, too, is isolated and lonely, but her mean streak is more deadly than Crooks'.

'Listen...,' she said. 'You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?'

Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself...[he] seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall.

'Well, you keep your place then...I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.'

Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego...'Yes ma'am,' and his voice was toneless.

Steinbeck uses the words of Curley's wife to strike terror into the heart of Crooks, knowing that she can easily destroy him—he will not only be quiet and accommodating, but she can feel the power she wields only with him because with her husband and the rest of the men, she is nothing.

Steinbeck uses the language of these two characters to instill fear within other, weaker characters. Whereas Crooks demonstrates power over Lennie, he becomes the target when Curley's wife does the same thing to him.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would point to Steinbeck's description.  He describes the confrontations with a sense of quick intensity.  For example, when Curley's wife is particularly intense with Crooks, notice the narrative style:

For a moment, she stood over him as thought waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again; but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, everything that might be hurt drawn in.

The descriptions here is akin to a viper or a snake ready to strike at its prey.  In this setting, one can see how the conditions that surround individuals influence their manner of speak.  For example, Crooks tries to challenge Curley's wife.  Yet, the battle is disproportionate as Crooks possesses no power over Curley's wife.  She holds all of the cards, almost to the point where she can legitimate threaten lynching him in order to silence him.  In other instances, this quick cadence to both dialogue and narration, where characters speak to one another with a "whip" towards the other is how Steinbeck is able to create narration that reflects tension in the environment that settles in the characters.  In the earlier part of the chapter, Crooks is able to develop this with Lennie when he makes him believe George has left him.  The rise in tension is reflected in the manner of speaking, where characters are able to suggest alternate visions of reality with speed and momentum to cause fear ("S'pose he did," is how Crooks starts his avalanche of anxiety in Lennie.)  This is both a narrative tool of Steinbeck's style, but also reflects the tension in the environment where there is so little control that the individuals feel in their lives that the only autonomy present lies in tormenting others, making everyone feel bad, to different degrees.