First published in 1937, Noble-laureate John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men narrates the tragic tale of George Milton and Lennie Small, two Migrant ranch workers in California during the Great Depression of the nineteen-thirties. Growing up in Salinas, California, Steinbeck lived in the heart of a region that relied heavily on migrant farm workers like George and Lennie in his novel. The author had thus observed from very close quarters, the life, the dreams and the despair of these displaced workers. In Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck painted a heart-rending picture of the plights of this populace, who, without home, without roots, without any anchor to ground them or haven to save them from the rough storms of life, drifted about the country in search of a meager livelihood. And yet, like George and Lennie, deep inside all they longed for was a place to call home – this desperate desire to own a small piece of land some day, a home, a ‘shelter from the storm’ is what drove them on.
During the years of 1880s to 1930s, huge number of men traveled all over America, mostly during the seasonal harvest seeking work in the farms. As Steinbeck’s novel tells us, they earned a paltry sum as salary, along with food and very basic accommodation. The First World War, followed by a recession, and the severe unemployment problem during the Depression, only served to complicate matters and the problems of the migrant workers multiplied a hundredfold. Agencies were set up under the New Deal to send farm workers to where they were needed. In the novel, George and Lennie got their works cards from Murray and Ready’s, one of these agencies. In the 1930s these farm workers had a very difficult life. Steinbeck describes the life of Lennie and George with bold and revealing strokes. It is a hard life harvesting barley. The weather is hot and dry, the wages are scant, and the atmosphere itself is unreliable on any given ranch. Moreover, the company the two men keep is a bad influence. As they travel from ranch to ranch, saving every penny they earn.
George and Lennie set themselves apart from the other workers who spend their money on liquor, gambling, and women because between themselves they cherish a dream of their own. But the novel reveals the difficulty of dreaming for these migrant workers. Lennie and George are just ordinary men, yearning for their own space to find peace, leisure, and self-fulfillment: just “a little house and a couple of acres.” But their plans go horribly wrong; they cannot seem to avoid their inevitable defeat just by yearning for a different fate. “Tell about how it’s gonna be,” (17) begs Lennie, the huge, bear-like child-man, who clings to hope through unlikely but eager friendship with George. Lulled like a little child by soft things and George’s repeated assurances, Lennie looks forward to the day he will pet and care for rabbits on the ranch he and his best friend have secured.
But George, smarter and more of a realist than Lennie, understands better the difficulties of ever fulfilling the dream they pursue together. He grumbles about how things are: “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.” (41) He is too aware of the empty, unstable life of itinerant workers. But, he too is a dreamer, and having left Murray and Ready’s in San Francisco to find ranch work in the Salinas Valley, George yearns to quit the life of bouncing from one job to the next with everything he owns wrapped in one bundle. But tragedy runs in their wake and the novel ends with the death of Lennie and the death of George’s dream. The life of the migrant workers of the 1930s as presented in this story serves to reveal the emptiness of the Great American Dream. Peace, prosperity, freedom, land – everything America promised to its citizens – remained a never achievable dream for this tragic lot. Of Mice and Men hums with the uncomplicated pessimism voiced by the stable-hand, Crooks: “Ever’ body wants a little piece of lan’ … Nobody ever gets to heaven and nobody gets no lan’.” (38)
Surely, things have changed a great deal from the dark days of Depression. The migrant workers of today’s America get a variety of securities, are better paid and work under better condition. But some things remain the same. They are still pathetically poor. In fact, “In 1994-95, sixty one percent of farm workers lived in poverty….”(Farm Worker Conditions, 2000). And even today, “800,000 of the 2.5 million migrant workers in the U.S. do not have the proper living conditions that they should be entitled to” (Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, 1998). The lives of the migrant workers and their families still remain in a continuous state of flux; they still dream about a piece of land of their own, and they still suffer from the chronic rootless ness. However, surely things have changed for the better.
Farm Worker Conditions. 18 Sept. 2000. Agricultural Missions Inc <http://www.nccusa.org/publicwitness/mtolive/boycott>.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1989.
Timmerman, John H. “The Squatter’s Circle in The Grapes of Wrath.” Studies in American Fiction (Autumn 1989): 203-211. Literature Resource Center. Gale.
“As U.S. Economy Booms, Housing for Migrant Workers Worsens.” New York Times 31 May 1998. 5 Mar. 2002 <http://www.ufw.org/hythsg.htm>.