Social Realism in Of Mice and Men

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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 ceaseless moving that the two constantly have to undertake. For example, as they pause by the river in the opening pages George mentions that the bus they were on had left them ten miles short of their destination, forcing them to walk the rest of the way to the farm where they are not even sure they will find work. When they do arrive and are about to be taken on, George is given the bunk of a man who, as Candy indifferently says, had "just quit, the way a guy will. . . . Just wanted to move. Didn't give no other reason but the food. Just [said] 'gimme my time' one night, the way any guy would." Walking for miles, finding a bit of work, sleeping in a bunk house and disappearing one day, these are the exemplary images of the itinerant worker's life, the details with which Steinbeck strategically develops a precise setting and milieu for George and Lennie's story.

Against the exposition of the itinerant laborer's lonely life of moving and working, Steinbeck counterposes the dream that George and Lennie share. As mentioned above, it is not just any dream, or even simply the dream of a better life. In the opening chapter, when George repeats (as he often does) the story for Lennie he begins not by talking about their own individual plans but rather about the state of many men like them. He says: "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on to some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to." This is the kind of life that George and Lennie dream of leaving, and, as George suggests, the hardships of that life have primarily to do with solitude and with not having a stable place or enough money to maintain oneself. But George and Lennie have other plans for themselves. A few moments later:

Lennie broke in "But not us! An' why? Because . . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why " He laughed delightedly. "Go on now, George!"

"O.K. Someday—we're gonna get the jack together and we're gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs and.."

"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted.

George then goes on to describe their modest farm, the security and freedom of having their own piece of land, and the way they will be able to work for themselves instead of for an occasional wage. A reading of these particular desires and ambitions which George and Lennie cling to, and of the particular things they want to overcome, suggests that Steinbeck rather than writing a story about "dreaming" or "hoping" in general is instead making a very precise and pointed critique of certain aspects of what it is like for many people to live in California, and, by extension, American society. More specifically, Of Mice and Men is a critique of the plight of a certain stratum of that society—the landless, poor, agricultural workers—and in the figures of George and Lennie, Steinbeck tries to dramatize on an individual level the tragic story of an entire class of people.

It is worth noting that in the story George and Lennie's dream is by no means unique to them, for it proves also to be the dream of every ranch hand to whom they tell it; Candy and Crooks, for example, each ask if they can join in on the plan. Candy, of course, is accepted, while Crooks seems to have second thoughts (Steinbeck also devotes a large part of one chapter to the figure of Crooks, and to a critical exposition of racism in rural California). The characters in Of Mice and Men then can be seen as archetypal insofar as their story is meant to be understood as emblematic of a larger, nonfictional story. They represent the people who work on the farms and in the factories but do not own any part of them, people who earn a wage and have little or nothing more. And in constructing the novella this way Steinbeck wants to draw the readers attention to what he sees as certain urgent and widespread social problems. This sort of direct engagement with social concerns is typical of fiction within the Social Realist tradition.

Even the dramatic climax of the story must be interpreted with an eye toward the social. Curley's wife is the catalyst for Lennie's tragic end, and through most of the story she appears as a purely menacing figure—an ominous portent, one might say. But as she recounts her personal history to Lennie the reader realizes that she, too, must be understood within the context of her surroundings. We see that insofar as she is constrained by unjust social norms, she is not unlike the figures of George and Lennie and Crooks. In her life she is trapped first by her mother's tyranny and the claustrophobia of small town Salinas (Steinbeck's own hometown), and then by her unfortunate marriage to Curley, whom, she tells Lennie, she does not even like. Her actions and her catastrophic role in the story are thus understood not simply as willful destructiveness and licentiousness, or even as the workings of an abstract "tragic fate." Her role is more concrete and complex: her actions and the events resulting from them are likewise the negative upshot of the specific norms and practices which govern society and contemporary life (in her case, the normative models of family and marriage). The novella's ending, then, further develops and indeed emphasizes Steinbeck's analysis of the ways social conventions and practices can have detrimental effects on the lives of people within that society.

Steinbeck's debt to and lineage from Social Realist and Naturalist fiction, then, is made clear through a reading of the way he constantly places his characters and narrative within the context of very specific and, more importantly, actual social situations. The narrative of Of Mice and Men— from George and Lennie's hopeful dreaming to the calamitous end to those dreams—is founded upon a rigorous analysis and critique of the encompassing structures of social organization and the ways they affect the people who must live within them.

Source: Kevin Attell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Attell is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

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