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How does John Steinbeck present the harsh world of the ranch in Of Mice and Men?Remember to support your answer with reference to the novel and to comment on its social, historical and cultural context.
Steinbeck discusses the various difficulties of life in 1930s America by creating a microcosm of society in the setting of the story, the ranch. The ranch itself symbolises dispair, loneliness and gloom by being set in an offbeat, hidden location that is never disclosed fully. The driver of the coach at the beginning refuses to drop Lennie and George off there: 'It's only a short walk.' This shows that it is a hostile place that people do not want to go near, as even outsiders refuse to approach it. Not only does the ranch symbolise the harsh world, the workers on the ranch are all individuals that only care for themselves. Slim says 'It ain't often that people travel around together' when chatting to George, discussing one of the main, recurring themes of the novella: loneliness. People didn't have friends or family in the 1930s, as it was hard enough trying to support yourself, so the fact that every other worker has nobody else shows the contrast between George, Lennie and the others.
A key moment early on in the novella is when Candy's dog is killed against his will. The old sheepdog, who Candy had 'had since he was a pup', was shot by and at the request of Carlson as the dog 'stank the whole bunkhouse out'. The fact that Candy protested vigorously yet was still defeated shows just how cruel the world was at the time: if the dog wasn't good enough for others, then it had to be taken care of. The fact that Candy is given a new dog shows that, at the time, if something was inferior it would be replaced instantly by a new, better replacement, regardless of whether it hurt others or not. This is discussed by Candy in the context of the workers, too, as he says 'Pretty soon they'll can me too'. Once again, the idea that the ranch is a microcosm of society reinforces the harshness of life at the time.
Another key moment in the novella shows just how harsh reality was at the time. Curley attacks Lennie with no warning or motive and repeatedly beats him even though Lennie refuses to hit him and cowers behind his hands: "Make 'um stop George". This shows how much having power meant during the Great Depression, as if Lennie retaliates he will be fired as Curley is the owner's son. It also emphasises how unfair life was - Lennie, having done nothing to Curley, is savagely attacked, representing how, at the time, you would be mistreated for no reason other than an inferior placement on the social hierarchy.
During the Great Depression in 1930s America, for many migrant workers there was only one thing keeping them going - the American Dream. The dream was also a major concept of the book, as it is what drove George, Lennie and later Candy to work so hard on the ranch whilst not causing trouble. It was the only slither of hope in the depressing times, yet for so many the dream was only a dream, reflecting the harshness of the world. For George, it meant that he would actually earn the money from the crops he raised, and much more generous and fair days: 'No more bucking barley for 11 hours a day'. For Lennie, it was the dream that he'd tend his precious rabbits: 'George won't let me tend the rabbits'. For Candy, it was the hope that he'd be treated fairly annd kindly in his old age, as in the 1930s old people were forgotten and mistreated, much like Candy is on the ranch as he is always left behind from outings, his dog is killed and he isn't talked to by the others. This treatment of the aged was another theme that Steinbeck wanted to portray: the harshness of getting to a ripe age but to be mistreated upon arrival.
One of the greatest topics that Steinbeck explores surrounding the harshness and inequality in the world at the time was discrimination and segregation. The author dedicates a whole chapter to Crooks, the only black person on the ranch, and sets the chapter in his own room, where only two members on the ranch have ever visited before. Crooks is perhaps the saddest and loneliest character in the novella: seperated from the others on account of his skin, abused for being black and suffering from severe loneliness, he is the symbol of everything wrong in America during the 1930s. Crooks is a fair, kind man who is hostile to the others due to his mistreatment throughout the duration of his life. At first, when Lennie enters, he says 'You ain't wanted in my room', but very quickly warms and opens up to him, confessing his feelings that he hasn't disclosed for years - how 'everyone gets lonely' and how ' a guy gets nuts if he ain't got nobody'. This shows that Steinbeck understood how stupid segregation was and how black people, represented by Crooks, were just normal people. The fact that Curley's Wife appears and threatens to kill him ('I could get you strung up a tree so fast it ain't even funny') shows how unfair life was at the time as a black person, forcing Crooks to 'reduce himself to nothing', which is what most people thought of blacks at the time.
The final key topic discussed by Steinbeck that shows the harshness of life at the time was sexism. Curley's Wife is never referred to by her name as she is presented as an object; women at the time were seen as trophies for men to be used for sex, highlighting the inequality at the time. Curley's 'glove fulla vaseline' shows just how gross the mistreatment of women was, as he kept his hand soft so he could explore her body at her expense. When she is killed by Lennie, she is described as 'sweet', 'innocent' and 'pretty', showing that women were never given opportunities to live their life to the fullest, and instead were just there for the enjoyment of men at the time. The vocabulary used to describe her - 'tart', 'rattrap', 'jailbait' and 'trouble' - show how men were prejudiced and sexist to women at the time whilst barely knowing them - not one man on the ranch, not even Curley, knew her story and her feelings other than Lennie, who was too mentally challenged to understand them, showing how little men cared about women during the 1930s.
In summary, Steinbeck explores racism, segregation, loneliness, inequality, sexism and hopelessness during the events of 'Of Mice and Men' to show the harshness of reality and life at the time. He discusses the stupidity and unfairness of it all whilst forming coherent arguments against the said topics.