The novel Of Mice And Men was written by John Steinbeck in 1937, during the American Recession. The title is derived from the quote “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley” from a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns, which means “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry”. It tells us that the “American Dream” of the ranch workers in the book will never come true.
Of Mice And Men is set during the American Recession, which was caused by the Wall Street Crash. Many people were forced out of their jobs, and as there was no dole system in America at that time, men would travel, usually on foot, between farms and ranches, seeking temporary work. This work would include harvesting crops, or looking after horses and cattle. All of the workers shared the same dream; the “American Dream” of saving enough of their wages to buy a piece of land, and simply look after themselves, without the need to constantly search for work. Lennie and George were two such workers. Lennie’s favourite phrase was “An’ live off the fatta the lan'”, which sums up the American Dream that he loved George to tell him about.
The novel shows two hierarchies of the characters. One hierarchy is of power, and how much effect the characters can have on events on the ranch, and the other is of respect. Characters do not necessarily have to be at the same position in both of these hierarchies. For instance, Curley, the boss’s son, is second highest in a power ranking, as he stands to inherit the entire ranch when the boss dies, and can quite easily get any worker “canned” for the slightest misdemeanour, or, more likely in the case of Lennie, simply being large. His ranking in a hierarchy of respect is close to the exact opposite – second or third from the bottom. None of the workers on the ranch respect him, and all talk about him behind his back. They describe him as a “son-of-a-bitch” and a “mean little guy” who would “take a sock at you the first chance he gets”. This indicates that had Curley simply been a worker he would have quickly been sacked, or ganged up on by the other workers.
Curley also has power over his wife, so she is obviously below him in a power hierarchy, but in terms of respect perhaps even the only woman in the novel is above Curley. Although she is his wife, she “don’ like Curley” because he “ain’t a nice fella”. She also expresses bitterness that her mother would not allow her to act in a show, as she was too young, explaining that if she had gone, she “wouldn’t be livin’ like this”, as if she feels that the ranch is a disgusting and worthless place to live, even if she can expect to soon receive all of the boss’s wealth. The only real respect that he earns is for his fighting skills, which Steinbeck portrays as slightly unfair, due to his small size – he will never be seen to fight badly, as if a bigger man beats him then the bigger man will simply be seen as bullying the smaller, weaker man.
The boss, Curley’s father, is successful in that he is at the top of both hierarchies. He chooses which men he wishes to employ, and if he does not like someone, he will not employ them. However, he is fair, and although his first impression of George was that he was taking Lennie’s pay, he gives them a chance to prove that they are good workers. This fairness earns him his place the top of the respect hierarchy, along with the fact that he has achieved the American Dream that all of the workers strive for. The boss is a successful man – he owns land, and can afford to employ people to work for him. This is what the other workers, especially George, Lennie and Candy, want. They believe that if they work hard enough, they will one day be able to buy “a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and…An’ live off the fatta the lan'”. However, as proved by Candy, who has worked his entire life, most people do not achieve their dreams.
Directly below Curley in terms of power is his wife. She too can get people sacked, or even in the case of Crooks “strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny”, but this power is only down to her husband, not because she has ever done anything to attain success. In terms of respect she is at the bottom of the hierarchy, as all of the workers regard her as a tart due to her attitude and style of dress. Another factor contributing to the lack of respect for her is that she is female, and women were treated badly and seen as useless at the time the book was set. Her sex cannot be helped, just as Crook’s skin colour cannot be helped, but whilst Crooks has never done anything to lose the respect of the other characters, Curley’s wife continues to flirt and has always “got the eye”. The fact that none of the characters refer to Curley’s wife by her name, and that Steinbeck never reveals her name to the reader further highlight her position at the bottom of the respect hierarchy.
Throughout the novel we feel no sympathy for Curley’s wife, until the last chapters, when she says that she cannot work out why she is disliked, and when Lennie accidentally kills her. She has freedom to do whatever she wants around the ranch, and can come and go as she pleases, but Curley does tell her off when he catches her talking to the other men. This confirms her position in the power hierarchy as just below Curley’s.
Crooks’ position in both hierarchies is not easily determined. Although all of the characters refer to him as a nigger, which would put him at the bottom of both hierarchies, they do not do this out of spite and dislike. Instead, it is more of a habit, and due to the social circumstances of the time when racism towards blacks was prominent it was expected of white people to call black people niggers.
It is shown that Crooks does command some respect in that no one actually goes out of their way to insult him, and he also has certain amounts of power in that he has his own room, instead of having to share with other workers, which along with the stables is his domain, which no one enters. Crooks is surprised when Lennie refuses to leave his room, and quickly gets angry, but calms down when he realises that Lennie simply wants company, and that Lennie is in much the same situation as he is – Crooks is rejected because he is black and Lennie is rejected because he is dumb.
Crooks commands respect from the white workers because he can read well, and has many books, and he is the best horseshoe thrower on the ranch. This would place him above Curley’s wife, and even above Curley in a respect hierarchy, but he is quickly back at the bottom of the ranking when the colour of his skin is mentioned. In a power ranking, Crooks could be regarded as being above the other workers, because he can tell people to get out of his room. However, Steinbeck does not make it clear whether Crooks would be sent out of the workers’ room if he ventured in there, so Crooks’ position is variable, but ultimately is most probably at the bottom of both hierarchies because of his skin colour.
The other workers on the ranch, George, Lennie, Slim, Candy, Carlson and Whit, all fall into sub-hierarchies of their own. Slim is quite obviously at the top of both power and respect rankings, as the other workers describe him as a “hell of a nice fella” who often attracts the unwanted attention of Curley’s wife. Steinbeck gives him the longest introduction of any character in the novel, which highlights his importance, and none of the characters are heard to say anything derogatory about him. He is the jerkline skinner of the ranch, which means he is the best at what he does, which is driving mules to the fields. This earns him his place at the top of the respect hierarchy, and his power comes from his apparent intelligence and understanding.
All of the workers look to him for approval before they do anything, such as when Carlson says that Candy’s dog should be shot, to “put the old devil out of his miser right no and get it over with”. Candy is reluctant, and “looked a long time at Slim to try to find some reversal”, but Slim does not say anything, and so Candy is forced to give in the Carlson. This places Slim above all of the other workers in the power hierarchy, and sometimes he even rises above Curley. One instance where Slim rises above Curley is when it appears that Curley has accused Slim of being with Curley’s wife.
We do not know exactly what happened in the stables, but when Curley and Slim walk back into the bunkhouse Curley is apologising to Slim for making a rash judgement – “Well, I didn’t mean nothing, Slim. I just ast you.”. Slim proceeds to tell Curley that he should learn to control his wife, and to “lay offa” him. This is Carlson’s cue to come in, saying, “You tried to throw a scare into Slim, an’ you couldn’t make it stick. Slim throwed a scare into you. You’re as yella as a frog belly.”. This shows that the workers can in fact get away with anything, as long as they have Slim’s backing, and that Slim has more power than Curley, but only when all of the labourers work together to overrule Curley.
Immediately after the incident on the way into the bunkhouse, Curley takes his anger out by picking on Lennie. He punches Lennie at least twice in the face, but Lennie does not fight back, as he is scared that George will be cross if he does. This shows that George is above Lennie in the power hierarchy, and Lennie’s lack of intelligence leads to Lennie being lowest in the power hierarchy and second lowest in the respect hierarchy.
Lenny is lowest in the power hierarchy as no one would listen to him if he told them to do anything, but rises above that position in the respect hierarchy because he can lift more bags of grain than anyone else on the ranch can. When George finally tells Lennie to “Get ‘im” Lennie grabs Curley’s fist, and squeezes it, until all of the bones break. Lennie does not do this intentionally; he simply did it out of fear, but George is still worried that they will get “canned”, so Slim once more rises above Curley. He tells Curley not to tell anyone what actually happened, and Curley accepts this and promises to say he got his “han’ caught in a machine”.
At the bottom of the worker’s hierarchy of respect is Candy, because he is old, and lost his arm in a machine accident and so cannot do any real manual work. This leads to him being the swamper, which is the worst job on the ranch – sweeping the barns and bunkhouses. On a power hierarchy, Candy lies equal to George, Carlson and Whit, as they are all reasonably intelligent, but George does have control over Lennie, but this does not stand for much.
George, Carlson and Whit are all equal in a respect hierarchy, above Candy and Lennie but below Slim, as they are all competent at their jobs, and get on well socially with the other workers, but do not quite have the same prowess as Slim.
However, all of the workers fit into one place in a hierarchy of all of the characters in Of Mice And Men. None of them have the power to complain to the boss about their wages, or Curley, because they all depend too much on the work. If they did not have the job at the ranch they would not be able to feed themselves. Due to the Recession, there were many workers in America in the same situation, having to take the first job they could find. However, not all of the ranch owners may have wanted to pay their workers as little as they did. If they wanted to pay them higher wages they ran the risk of letting the workers afford to buy their own land, and so the ranch would lose an employee, as all of the workers shared the American Dream.
In conclusion, the people with money and land are at the top of both power and respect hierarchies, because they have the power to employ and sack people, and they have earned this power by working hard. People with connections to land owners will come directly below the owners in a power hierarchy, and their position in the respect hierarchy will be determined by how they treat the ranch workers. The ranch workers come below the relations of the owner, but can rise up the rankings by working hard and earning enough money to buy land of their own. In effect, all they want is to live independently and not have to take orders from anyone, and not have to rely on someone else for their food.
The only people that cannot alter their positions in the hierarchies are blacks and women. Women come at the bottom of respect hierarchies because they are female, and America at the time of the Recession was very sexist, although they can rise up the power rankings by marrying a rich and powerful man. Black people however, cannot move up either ranking because of their colour. They cannot achieve any success and achieve the American Dream because employers will not pay them a high enough salary, and cannot rise up the respect hierarchy because people will not give them a fair chance, due to the racist nature of the times.