How does the Great Depression impact the way characters behave in Of Mice and Men?
In the end, the Great Depression creates the conditions that govern Lennie, George, and all of the characters in Steinbeck's work. The creation of "bindle stiffs," men who would travel from ranch to ranch in a vagabond manner to find work is a direct result of the agricultural challenges in the Great Depression. The fact that men were "trapped" to a certain extent is something that impacts the characters in the novel. Few, if any, are happy, as they are bound to their work because of so little being present. Lennie and George are representative of this. Their dream of owning a farm represents the desire for economic autonomy and empowerment, something that was not present during the Great Depression. The fact that Curley's wife is able to spit so much of venom at Crooks and Candy in chapter four is representative of the fact that both men need the work offered by the ranch and cannot speak against her, as she is right in that a word to Curley will force them back to unemployment, at best. Such a condition where men are trapped and are in dire economic straits helps to create an emotional climate where individuals do not truth one another. It is also the reason why Lennie and George's friendship is so unique, something that strikes everyone that they meet. In a time where so few bonds are honored because of the desire for something better and something that feeds self interest, Lennie and George demonstrate a bond that transcends their context and condition. It is only because of the Great Depression and the problems caused within it that everyone, despite differences in background and experience, feels the same pressure bearing down on them.
Steinbeck himself had labored as a migrant worker on a sugar beet farm in California, and he had witnessed the challenges faced by migrant laborers. The Great Depression made these problems worse: in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck shows a group of itinerant workers who were eaten up by lack of hope for a better life.
Because of the general tightness of the job market during that period of very high unemployment, these unskilled workers more or less had to accept any job they were offered at any pay. They had no job security, especially as their work was seasonal. They had to wander in search of new work. Therefore, they couldn't accumulate savings or establish a normal life: Steinbeck emphasizes in the novel that the workers were unable marry or buy homes. Many therefore squandered what money they had on prostitutes and alcohol, because they figured that life would never get any better.
George and Lennie's dream—the American dream of independence through a modest house on a small plot of land—is repeatedly referenced and embellished throughout the novel. It captures the imagination of other workers on the ranch. Its poignance is in its simplicity: it involves a small house, a garden, a few animals, being able to take a day off, as well as the chance to be with friends. It is a life that in normal times would be the ordinary lot of average people but which seems completely out of reach during the Great Depression.