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Given a book set in the 1930s, a reader has to wonder if any of the conflicts and situations that the characters face are still relevant in today’s modern world. Of Mice and Men, written by John Steinbeck, touches on many examples of discrimination that today would seem somewhat quaint or antiquated, such as how it was seen as socially unacceptable for women to work. However, modern issues such as the so-called “wage gap” and the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, show that sexism and racism are still prevalent issues that our society faces everyday. Of Mice and Men is, at its core, a story describing the complex relationship between a person with a disability and his best friend, who are both migrant workers. With the unique setting of a California ranch during the Great Depression, characters in the novella are often discriminated against because of their race, age, or gender, among others. Steinbeck uses the characters of Crooks and Curley’s wife to illustrate the crippling power of prejudice and the drastic effect it can have on individuals and their personalities. Crooks’ race and Curley’s wife’s gender alienate them from the rest of the ranch workers, whose intolerance of “their kind” causes the two to feel lonely and isolated and leads them to do immoral things.
Crooks’ race prevents him from fraternizing with the other men, and forces him to become somewhat reclusive: the other men rarely interact with him or even acknowledge his existence. He obviously does not fit in with the other men, who treat him as inferior and frequently abuse him, both physically and emotionally. His only companions are the books in his room and the horses, who are his charge. At one point, Crooks attempts to illuminate his situation to Lennie, saying: “‘S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunkhouse and play rummy cause you was black. How’d you like that?… A guy needs somebody– to be near him.’” (Steinbeck 72) Therefore, it is obvious that Crooks suffers a great deal as a consequence of the others’ discrimination; his self-esteem has been greatly wounded by the others’ racism. However, instead of empathizing with those more vulnerable than he, Crooks instead takes pleasure in ruthlessly torturing them; his reaction to this cruel act is described as thus: “Crooks’ face lighted up with pleasure in his torture [of Lennie]. ‘Just s’pose [George] doesn’t come back,’ he said calmly.” (Steinbeck 71) Crooks is a prime example of how profoundly prejudice can affect an individual; because of his black heritage, he is deemed and treated inferior to his peers, greatly affecting his sense of self-worth and the way he, in turn, treats others.
Curley’s wife doesn’t have it any better than Crooks. As a woman, she faces many social pressures: her husband’s co-workers, her only possible friends, refuse to talk to her, and she is discouraged from reaching for her dreams as a performer. In the 1930s, a woman’s place was in the house and kitchen, as opposed to on a stage, being “undesirable”, “scandalous” and “anti-woman” actresses. Instead of chasing her dreams and having to support herself with a woman’s limited income during the Great Depression, Curley’s wife settles for marriage, albeit to an insensitive husband. She tries to be social with the men on the ranch, but they regard her as a sexual object and a “tart” who wants to stir up trouble: “‘Listen to me,’ [George] said fiercely. ‘…Don’t you even take a look at that [woman]. I don’t care what she says and what she does. I seen ‘em poison before, but I never seen no piece of jail bait worse than her. You leave her be.’” (Steinbeck 32) Curley’s wife is stereotyped as an archetypal “temptress”, when really, she is just a lonely, unhappy girl. She acts provocatively and flirtatiously sometimes in order to gain the men’s attention, as she endeavors to build friendships with them. However, it is only when she is truly honest that it all falls away, and her true personality is revealed: “‘Wha’s the matter with me?’ [Curley’s wife] cried. ‘Ain’t I got a right to talk to nobody? Whatta they think I am, anyways?… I tell you I ain’t used to livin’ like this. I coulda made somethin’ of myself.’ She said darkly, ‘Maybe I will yet… Well, a show come through [Salinas when I was a kid], an’ I met one of the actors. He says I could go with that show….. If I’d went, I wouldn’t be livin’ like this, you bet.’” (Steinbeck 87-88) Unfortunately, even in her limited way of living, Curley’s wife still manages to take out all her bitterness of the injustices of being a woman on those with even fewer rights and opportunities than she: “‘Listen, [black man],’she said. ‘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.’” (Steinbeck 81) The reality lies within the fact that humans always seek an outlet to relieve their anger, and more often than not, it is on someone less fortunate than they. The effects of sexism on the character of Curley’s wife are devastatingly harsh and made all too apparent. Once a social teenager with high hopes of joining a touring show, she has been reduced to a mere lonely housewife in a troubled marriage– her only means of survival.
In the novella, Crooks and Curley’s wife are individuals who have been hurt and changed by the prejudices placed upon them by the other characters. Crooks desperately desires companionship, but knows that the other men never see beyond his skin color. Curley’s wife, who was forced into a marriage for survival, craves independence to chase her dreams without having to worry about being “undesirable”. As a side effect of being afflicted by racial or sexist discrimination, these two characters have each built up a grudge of resentment, which they then take out on others whom they deem lesser than them. Steinbeck pointedly demonstrates that the act of discriminating is like an epidemic: whoever is attacked by it will spread it further to people around them.
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