How does Steinbeck show disadvantaged characters in the novel Of Mice and Men?
Steinbeck wrote of Lennie Small:
Lennie was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men.
Certainly, the title of Steinbeck's great novella frames the narrative of the failed yearnings of all Steinbeck's characters who are disadvantaged economically, socially, racially, and mentally. Each of the characters of George Small, Curley, Candy, Crooks, and Lennie are deprived of the basic needs of man while their "well-laid schemes go awry."
Alienated from their homes, the itinerant workers who seek jobs wherever they can find them are alone and vulnerable. In their vulnerability they become mean, as George says. For, aggression is spawned by weakness and vulnerability as demonstrated by Curley. Even Crooks, who has been ostracized from the others is cruel to Lennie when he enters the barn. And, Curley's wife exhibits this aggressive attitude when Crooks tries to deter her from entering the barn as she threatens,
You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?...I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny.
Coinciding with the meanness of the disadvantaged as they seek to protect themselves, is a great distrust of one another. When George and Lennie arrive, George is distrustful of the cleanliness of the bunkhouse, then he is wary of Candy's motives for talking to him. In addition, he feels an immediate antipathy for Curley with his appearance in the doorway; George cautions Lennie to stay away from him and not talk to him. George also views Curley's wife as "jail bait" as well as Candy, who is always suspicious of her motives for coming around the bunkhouse. After the others learn of the death of Curley's wife, it is a distrust of the man who has killed her that creates their frenzied search.
The disadvantaged characters of Of Mice and Men are chiefly deprived of the essential needs of man: love, security, and fraternity. Because of this deprivation they become aggressive, cruel, and uncertain of life, holding desperately to shallow dreams that give them some hope in their lonely world.
Steinbeck seems to purposely demonstrate disadvantaged characters through every stereotype our society still struggles with.
WOMEN: Curley's wife is characterized by being a stereotypical blonde. He paints her to long for being in the movies like many girls today still dream of: fame and fortune. I think it is significant that he doesn't give her her own name.
THE ELDERLY: Candy or the swamper is tolerated by the rest of the crew. Although he has had great value at other times in life, it seems that now all he is capable of is cleaning out the bunkhouse. He has wisdom of sorts about people, yet is really not treated as an equal. He doesn't get invited out with the guys anymore. The death of his dog demonstrates great significance that comes clear when Lennie is killed, but another way to look at that is the fact that the dog was taken out because he was old and not useful anymore. This similarity to Candy was ironic.
THE MAN OF ANOTHER RACE: It is no secret that America has been a country that has struggled with race, but the treatment of the stable buck and the segregation he encounters reflects the society of the time. He had to endure beatings, isolation, and harsh words. These all perpetuated the theme of loneliness.
THE DISABLED: Clearly, Lennie is the character who takes center stage as the disadvantaged character. the plot centers events around his ability to do work and to be side-tracked by soft things. These soft things ultimately lead to his downfall.
Steinbeck portrays these characters in different ways, yet ensures that all stereotypical disadvantaged people are represented. His work proves that loneliness affects them all and society has a responsibility to repair this inhumane response to that which is different.