In Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, what does the description of the bunkhouse reveal about the living conditions of the  migrant workers?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Steinbeck could have made the bunkhouse and living conditions of the migrant workers seem much worse if he had wanted to, but he was trying to be fair and truthful. The bunkhouse he describes in the second chapter is intended to be representative of such bunkhouses in general on the big ranches throughout California. He picks out details that show a lack of concern for the comfort of the men who have to live in them. The bunks themselves are furnished with mattresses made of large burlap sacks stuffed with straw. One other especially striking detail is:

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.

The men do not even have chairs to sit on. They can either sit on upended boxes or else sit or lie on their bunks. The square table with the boxes is the only amenity offered by the company. They can sit around and talk or else play cards, if they provide their own cards. There is no indoor plumbing. They undoubtedly have to use an outhouse, which can be quite an experience for anyone who is not used to it. They wash in metal basins outside and probably have to use cold water, unless they want to go to the trouble of heating water on the black cast-iron stove inside the bunkhouse.

The big room is kept clean by Candy, who is called a swamper. The bunkhouse floor must be bare wood, and Candy must clean it with buckets of water and a mop. The place might be described as adequate but austere. The men obviously lead cheerless lives and spend much of their time at hard labor in the fields. During most of their free time they are too exhausted to do much except lie on their bunks and rest their aching muscles.

The men do not eat in the bunkhouse but in some other room which is not described but can be imagined as equally austere. A very significant detail is provided in Chapter 2 when the men  hear the dinner bell clanging:

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."

There is barely enough food to go around, and the men have to scramble for it.

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Of Mice and Men

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