John Steinbeck was superb at creating compelling characters for his audience that were worthy of our compassion, and each one was set in circumstances against all the odds. As are all humans, his characters are flawed, but none the less, we want them to prevail. The Great Depression was a time in American history when humanity was pushed to its limits. When asked about his characters, John Steinbeck once said, “All fiction characters are symbolic in that they represent human needs and desires...” (Steinbeck). The basic needs were hard to come by, and the bonds that people made sometimes meant survival. Steinbeck set Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath in this time of struggle. While both of these stories have a great deal of parallels, they also have some very distinct differences.
At the beginning of both stories, we learn that the lead characters are running away from trouble. In Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad is out of prison on parole. We learn that he killed a man in a fight, when he hit him over the head with a shovel. In Of Mice and Men, the simple-minded Lennie, is chased out of town because of a crime he didn’t commit. He touched a lady’s dress fabric and she screamed rape. These crimes make both characters vulnerable to accusations which lead to further trouble for each of them later in the books. This shows us what Tom and Lennie are capable of. By showing us each of their flaws, Steinbeck creates empathy for these two “underdogs”.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family is forced to leave their home in Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl. These farmers cannot grow crops and must leave their life and their home behind in hopes that they will prosper in California. They travel an arduous journey on Route 66, all the time hoping that the “lush land” in the “Golden State”, will provide their family with the luxuries that have been rumored about. In The Grapes of Wrath, RosaSharon tells Ma Joad:
Well, we talked about it, me an' Connie. Ma, we wanna live in a town.
Connie gonna get a job in a store or maybe a fact'ry. An' he's gonna study at home, maybe radio, so he can git to be a expert an' maybe later have his own store….Ma suddenly seemed to know it was all a dream. (Steinbeck p.224-5)
In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George are living and working from farm to farm in the “Golden State”. These two farmhands have their own aspirations of the “American Dream” for a place to call home. This is evident in the “Rabbit Story”, Lennie always asks George to tell. They always collaborate about their idyllic image for the future with this exchange that George always starts:
O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—"
"An’ live off the fatta the lan’," Lennie shouted. "An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George."
"Why’n’t you do it yourself? You know all of it."
"No…you tell it. It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on…George. How I get to tend the rabbits."
"Well," said George, "we’ll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we’ll just say the hell with goin’ to work, and we’ll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the rain comin’ down on the roof—Nuts! (Steinbeck p.119-123)
It is no mistake that Lennie is obsessed with animals. The symbolic use of animals is prevalent in both Steinbeck novels. In both stories, Steinbeck is making a statement that the humans are being treated as animals, with no rights, and cast away by society. In The Grapes of Wrath, there is a scene with a turtle struggling to travel across the road. Its journey is impeded by a truck flipping it on its back. This represents the struggles that the Joad family will soon encounter as they try to make it to a better life, constantly facing setbacks by those with power. In Of Mice and Men the mice and the rabbits that Lennie likes to pet are continually injured by his zealous need to touch soft things. He doesn’t mean to cause trouble, but he has a lack of control over his body. The death of dogs in both stories foreshadows the deaths of characters later in the novels. Just after the family dog gets loose and run over at the beginning of the journey in the Grapes of Wrath, Grandpa dies shortly after. In Of Mice and Men an old dog gets shot in the head to be put out of his misery resembling the same scenario for Lennie at the end of the story. In order to let Lennie die in a more peaceful way, George shoots him in the head as he’s telling him their “Rabbit Story”. The dream of their own land to work, their home, died with Lennie.
Fertile land to nurture to prosperity, the constant connection between man and the land is a common theme in Steinbeck’s works. Steinbeck himself had experience working the soil. He had firsthand experience with it in the Salinas Valley, where the farm in Of Mice and Men is set. He had visited Bakersfield and Needles, California. He had traveled Route 66 that was part of the journey for the Joad family in his book. However, he had never been to Oklahoma before he wrote the “Dust Bowl” scenes in The Grapes of Wrath. Yet his vivid words could manipulate any audience to believe otherwise. I noticed something in the two books. In Of Mice and Men the name of the town that George and Lennie are chased from at the beginning of the book is called “Weed”. The name of one of the camps where the Joad family stays in is called “Weedpatch”. During the time that these books were written, there was a negative sentiment towards the “migrant workers” in the state. They were seen as a nuisance or as a “weed” that needed to be dealt with. Steinbeck was familiar with the social and political issues stirred up by migrant workers. He was friends with a man named Tom E. Collins, who was very influential in organizing labor camps during the Great Depression. As a matter of fact, it was the firsthand reports by Tom Collins in these “squatter camps” that inspired the great writer to depict these heartbreaking accounts in The Grapes of Wrath. This was also the reason that The Grapes of Wrath was dedicated “To Tom -who lived it.” (Steinbeck)
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck portrays the farm owners, big business and police as the enemies. “Steinbeck portrays the police as a paramilitary force comprised of both sworn officers and overzealous vigilantes. By blurring the line between legitimate and illegal martial power, he also obliterates the crucial line dividing the suppression of crime and the oppression of an innocent, if inconvenient, migrant population” (Spangler p.308). It is the corruption and the unjust actions of these representatives in society that cause the lament for the hard working migrants. They can never get ahead and are treated sub humanly by those with resources and power. Steinbeck’s protest against social injustice is very clear in both, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. It is the greed and jealousy of the character Curly, (the farm owner’s son) in Of Mice and Men that causes so much trouble for George and Lennie. These characters are shallow and superficial. Steinbeck has created such disdain for the “authority” that we sympathize with the fragility of the victimized characters within the books. As Jason Spangler puts it:
...Steinbeck champion[s] [his] characters who challenge authority and the status quo just as [he] accept[s] that a main function of literary modernism is to challenge, through experiment, authoritative ways of writing. In this way, [he] engage[s] in the aesthetics of modernism while simultaneously working against the cultural authority of modern progress. (Spangler p.309)
One of the greatest differences between Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath is the way the female characters are depicted by John Steinbeck. In Of Mice and Men the only female character is not even given her own name. Her reference is as the property of her husband, of “Curly’s wife.” She makes only contributions of trouble on the farm. After being in a loveless marriage for two weeks she’s gallivanting around, openly flirting with the farmhands, like a tart. Steinbeck almost makes it appear that she preys upon Lennie because he is naive and vulnerable. She’s lonely and curious about Lennie and ends up getting killed when she lets Lennie pet her soft hair and he accidentally breaks her neck. As a result of this event, George ends up having to shoot and kill Lennie. This is such a negative portrayal of a woman. According to Jonathan Leaf when referring to Steinbeck’s work, “His books reveal no understanding of sexually mature women but much fear of them, and they are without complex or ambiguous social situations”(Leaf p.85).
On the other hand, I think that his depiction of strong Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath was on the opposite spectrum of femininity. She was the heart of the story about the migrants. It was her strong spirit and maternal drive that kept the family in order. She is the one who had to make the greatest sacrifices and still had the will to drive the family forward in making the best decisions, and persisted while treating others with human dignity, and encouraging others to do the same. She represented the female role of the protective mother. In his essay, Warren Motley agrees that:
Ma Joad's emergence signals an essential adaptation: under the economic conditions of the migration, survival depends on the collective security of matriarchal society rather than on patriarchal self-reliance. In broader terms, Steinbeck uses Ma Joad's heightened stature to suggest that the communal values Briffault associates with matriarchy might provide an alternative basis for authority in American society as a whole. (Motley.pg166)
Steinbeck’s view of “the mother” also became apparent with the character of Ma’s daughter, RoseofSharon. She too becomes the ultimate symbol of the mother of humanity at the end of the book when she nurses a starving stranger. She is the hope of survival for mankind.
In The Grapes of Wrath Ma Joad tries her best to keep the family together. Family is all they’ve got left. They are enduring this migration together as one familial unit. It is this idea of communal living that is the key to survival. Jason Spangler understood Steinbeck’s message of the community and humanity when he expressed “Steinbeck has smashed the notions of manifest destiny and the American Dream. The only way out of the Great Depression is human contact-men and women must learn to seek one another's well-being as they attempt to ensure their own” (Spangler p.317). Sometimes family is made up not of blood but of a bond.
In Of Mice and Men the bond between the George and Lennie is not of blood but of an unusual camaraderie. They have no family. George mentions that people who love like they do are the loneliest guys in the world. The two of them are alone, together. Lennie always gets George into trouble and George always has to take care of Lennie. It’s almost as if George is somehow obligated to take care of and look out for his simple-minded friend. They use empty threats about moving on without the other but in the end as George says, “We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us”(Steinbeck p. 117). They share the same “American Dream” and by working together hope to attain that which may seem unobtainable.
In The Grapes of Wrath there is a bond between Tom and Casy. They are traveling and struggling together in the migration across the country. They too are working towards the unreachable dream of an idyllic home to call their own. In an incredible act of sacrifice, Casy takes the fall for Tom after a police man is killed in a fight. Casy loses his life in the story, but spurs Tom’s plight to live on as a better man.
In The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad is the moral compass of the story. It is through her vision of hope, kindness and compassion we see decency and hope in humanity. In Of Mice and Men, the sense of morality is based on what we see from Lennie’s perspective. He bases right and wrong on what George approves or disapproves of. Steinbeck never hides the fact that the “ownership class”, or those with a more elite status, lack ethical motivation. It is the victimized working class that reigns morally supreme. They are the true “heroes” in The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
For both the Joads and George and Lennie, California was not the promised land of “milk and honey”(Steinbeck). Their dreams were misplaced. Both of the stories were about the relationships that the characters had to make and the obstacles that they had to overcome on their way to reach their dreams. As humans we learn a little bit about ourselves from every single person that we meet. We all have our eyes on something greater. It is that hope of “paradise” that keeps us moving forward, passed the obstacles that seem never ending. Paradise would not be as rich if it were too easy to reach. There will always be those over us who will try to shove us off the road to our destination. It is our human nature to continue to strive for it anyway. All any of us are looking for is a safe place to call home.
Leaf, Jonathan. “Of Mice and Melodrama.” New Criterion, December, (2007), Vol. 26 Issue 4,
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Motley,Warren.”From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: MA Joad’s Role in the Grapes of Wrath.”
American Literature, October,(1982), Vol. 54 Issue 3, p397, 16p. Literary Criticism
Owens, Louis. “Of Mice and Men: The Dream of Commitment.”
Critical Insights: John Steinbeck, October, (2010) : p145-151 Literary Criticism
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1994. Print
- - - The Grapes of Wrath. New York, N.Y., U.S.A : Penguin Books, 1992. Print
Spangler, Jason. “We’re on a Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kourouac, and the Legacy of the Great
Depression.” Studies in the Novel, (2008), Vol. 40 Issue 3, p308-327, Article