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Understanding 'of Mice and Men' Through Its Socio-Historical Context

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A reader’s understanding of the American working class’ situation during the 1930’s is further deepened by knowledge of the socio-historical context surrounding John Steinbeck book Of Mice and Men, which can be read as a microcosm of American society at the time. In particular, background knowledge of the Great Depression and the associated major social upheavals of the time, as well as the social hierarchy as a result of the Great Depression, reveals some of the motivations behind the main events Steinbeck writes into the plot. To a lesser extent a reader’s understanding is further added to by knowledge of Steinbeck’s literary context, such as the style in which he wrote Of Mice and Men, his approach to the issues he brings up, as well as the particular values he upholds.

Background knowledge of the Great Depression, and the associated social upheavals, explains to the reader the situation of the American working class as well as revealing the cause of the self-oppressing loop they are stuck in, as shown in Of Mice and Men. In the plot Steinbeck, in true Realist style, starkly and plainly juxtaposes the idealised American Dream with the harsh reality of its impossibility. The thousands upon thousands of displaced, unemployed American workers pouring into California are embodied within the two characters George and Lennie who, like every other displaced worker, dream of owning their own little farm or as George puts it “we’d have own our place where we belonged.” But inevitably, as hinted to by the book’s title Of Mice and Men, their dreams of owning a farm stays just that, a dream. This is encapsulated by the line from which the book’s title is taken from: “The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often awry.” George also comes to this realisation toward the end of the book: “I think I knowed from the very first… we’d never do her.” This situation of menial, back-breaking labour is also shown to be self-perpetuating as Steinbeck shows, in plain Realist fashion, how the labourers would go out to the town to fritter away their hard earned money in the brothels and bars then have to earn it all again. The cyclical nature of their situation is further shown by the cyclic nature of the plot, which also symbolically ends where it began in a beautiful clearing by the river.

Prior knowledge of the social discrimination and the general lack of knowledge and support for the disabled present in the 1930’s, further reveals the causes behind the events representing the mentally disabled in Of Mice and Men. Around the time that Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men the general public’s knowledge of the mentally disabled (basic psychology) was very limited, mainly influenced by religious beliefs and local superstitions. This is not to say that developed knowledge about psychology wasn’t available but layman’s knowledge was sparse. With this in mind the reader can deeper understand Lennie’s situation and the reasons why he was always misunderstood because Lennie never committed a malicious act in plot, for example as Slim says “Maybe he ain’t bright, but... He damn near killed his partner bucking.” This, again in a very Realist way, shows very clearly how Lennie is represented as having an innocent child-like mind but the brutish strength of a bull, which is what the other characters react to in the book and decide to lynch him. Also a reader’s prior knowledge of the fact that Steinbeck wrote with Naturalist approach, i.e. he described events as realistically as possible but with an agenda or comment in mind, could also suggest that Steinbeck wrote Lennie with the purpose to make a comment on the unfortunate fate of people with mental disabilities who were doomed to be ostracized in 1930s American society. In the end, George was forced to shoot Lennie to rescue him from his terrible fate and it is in this way that Steinbeck demonstrates the despicable manner in which people with differences were treated.

A reader’s understanding of the importance of companionship amongst the agricultural workers in the 1930’s, as represented in Of Mice and Men, is added to by contextual knowledge of the generally hostile social environment of the time. Amongst the working class of America in the 1930s it can be generally understood that amongst the agricultural workers wandering California looking for work sustained friendships between workers were rare as individuals strove for a better life for themselves with the exclusion of other people around them. This further highlights to the reader the special friendship between George and Lennie which is verbalised by ‘The Boss’ when he states “Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy.” It is through ‘The Boss’ that Steinbeck demonstrates George and Lennie's friendship to be rare and special, which is a something that Steinbeck values very highly and he shows this through the plot. In contrast it is also shown that men do need someone to be close to, as Crooks, who is shunned and segregated from the rest of the workers, says: “S’pose you didn’t have nobody… A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” This loneliness, which is physically fuelled by the workers' inability to form lasting friendships since they are constantly on the move, is also psychological as there are many social barriers that prevent the men from experiencing or expressing empathy. Which Steinbeck shows in the bunkhouse scenes; the ranch workers having become so vigilant about protecting their secrets and their own skins that they were unable to reach out to fill the void of loneliness.

When reading Of Mice and Men a reader’s understanding of the society represented, such as the general working class and people within society with differences, can be further deepened and added to mainly by their knowledge of the socio-historical context of the period, such as the Great Depression and the social hierarchy in place. This is also to a lesser extent augmented to by knowledge of the literary context in which Steinbeck wrote the book.

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