In Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, what are the conditions like living on the ranch?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The living conditions for the workers are not wretched, but they are simple, austere, and lacking in any superfluous amenities. The place is kept clean. Candy is assigned the job of sweeping and mopping. The boss wants to keep the men reasonably content because he loses money if men walk off the job, and Steinbeck emphasizes that these bindle-stiffs are drifters who rarely stay in the same place for very long. George and Lennie have gotten jobs on this ranch because two men had just collected their wages and walked off. Candy claims that they were dissatisfied with the food.

Steinbeck never describes the food or the place where the men eat their meals. Evidently he did not want to add another setting to his story because, as the e-notes Introduction in the Study Guide explains, he was planning to adapt the story to a stage play and obviously wanted to spare production expenses. However, we know that there is barely enough food to go around, because when the dinner bell rings:

Slim stood up slowly and with dignity. "You guys better come on while they's still something to eat. Won't be nothing left in a couple of minutes."

Steinbeck describes the bunkhouse in considerable detail at the beginning of the second chapter. The bunks have mattresses made of long burlap sacks stuffed with straw.

Over each bunk there was nailed an apple box with the opening forward so that it made two shelves for the personal belongings of the occupant of the bunk.

The men either sit or lie on their mattresses. There are no chairs.

In the middle of the room stood a big square table littered with playing cards, and around it were grouped boxes for the players to sit on.

There is no indoor plumbing. It is obvious that the men have to use an outhouse. Judging from the sounds of splashing Steinbeck describes, they have to do their washing in metal basins outside the bunkhouse. He does not say how they take baths, but they probably do not bathe very often. They must do most of their washing with cold water. There is a black cast-iron stove inside the bunkhouse which they could use for heating water if they wanted such a luxury.

Working conditions are hard. Steinbeck does not specify how many hours per day the men have to labor or how many days per week, although in those Depression days it was customary to work every day except Sunday. On this particular ranch most of the men are, to use George's words, "bucking grain bags, bustin' a gut." They spend most of the daylight hours carrying 100-pound bags of barley to load onto the horse-drawn wagons.

No recreation is provided for the men during their time off. They either sit around the one table and play cards or else they play horseshoes outside. The game of pitching horseshoes costs the owner nothing, since it just requires two metal rods stuck in the ground and some old horseshoes which will never wear out. Some of the men read pulp magazines and pass them around. Crooks gets some of the magazines after everyone else is through with them.

Crooks has the worst living conditions because the white men won't allow him to sleep in the bunkhouse. He sleeps in a smelly little room right next to the barn. He doesn't even have a mattress but sleeps in a long box filled with straw. The white workers get paid fifty dollars a month, but it would appear that the badly crippled Crooks doesn't get any money at all because he is treated like a charity case. He lives in fear of losing his job.