Social Realism in Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck's work is most often considered in the literary tradition of Social Realism, a type of literature which concerns itself with the direct engagement with and intervention in the problematic (usually economic) social conditions in society. The height of Social Realism—and of its close relative, Naturalism, which blends social critique with a tragic narrative structure wherein a sort of natural fate irresistibly propels the characters toward their downfall—dates from the end of the nineteenth century and is represented by such authors as George Gissing, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norns.
By the 1930s, this literary style was already waning, having given up its position of primacy to what has come to be called Modernism which, although not uninterested in social or political thinking, is far more experimental in the way it uses and manipulates literary and aesthetic techniques. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound are some representative Modernist writers from Ireland, England and the United States respectively. Steinbeck's decision to forego very radical experimentation and use the more explicitly engaged realist style in his work from the 1930s may owe to the urgency of the social problems of the Great Depression and Steinbeck's desire to register an immediate and direct critical protest.
Of Mice and Men, like Steinbeck's two other major works from the 1930s, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, takes its subject and protagonists from the agricultural working class of California during the Great Depression. George and Lennie are itinerant laborers who roam the state looking for any sort of temporary work on large commercial ranches and farms. They work in these places as long as there is a specific task to be done—in Of Mice and Men, for example, George and Lennie are hired to bag the barley harvest on a farm near the city of Soledad—and when they are finished they collect their wages and move on in search of another ranch and another temporary job. In these two interrelated aspects of life in California's agricultural working class—the nomadic root-lessness of the itinerant laborer and the wage system wherein the workers are paid cash for specific tasks but are not consistently involved in the process of agricultural production from beginning to end—Steinbeck sees a problematic relation between the workers and the land that they work.
This problem provides the central thematic concern for Of Mice and Men. To be sure, it is a story about dreaming of the future, and this is often the thematic thread which first gets picked up in discussions of the novella. But Of Mice and Men is not simply about dreaming in general, for the nature of the dream at the center of this story is specifically related to Steinbeck's critical understanding of a specific aspect of society in his contemporary California. The rootlessness and alienation which Steinbeck sees in the lives of California's migrant farm laborers are the real social conditions which he chooses to structure his story, and they thus must be considered as primary thematic concerns of the novella; that is to say, George and Lennie's dream is specifically necessitated by and responds directly to the limitations placed on their lives, and their story is meant to illuminate the social conditions which Steinbeck seeks to critique. As in all Social Realist literature, this direct engagement with the actual world in all its specificity must be rigorously considered in any thorough reading.
When the reader meets George and Lennie, their nomadic existence is one of the first things Steinbeck establishes. They have just come from the town of Weed, where they have been temporarily employed but where Lennie has gotten into trouble scaring a young girl. They have escaped from the angry townspeople and now George is going to try to secure a new job for them on a farm near Soledad, hundreds of miles to the south. Further details here accentuate the hard travelling, the...
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