A Marxist Look at ‘Of Mice and Men’

Recently, GCSE Macbeth (great account, give them a follow) started a big discussion about no longer teaching Of Mice and Men. On its own, Of Mice and Men is a great text, but when talking about curriculum, suitability in my view depends on what else is in the curriculum (and given the statements made by GCSE macbeth and others, it seems the right choice). Given that in my previous school we would be studying Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun prior, I thought Of Mice and Men a perfect fit to continue the discussions we had been raising around America, The American Dream, isolation and desperation, and the intersectionality of race and class as they appear. So here’s one way I thought about the text:

Some basic principles of Marxism (in simplest terms) is that capitalism separates the worker from the product, rewards individualism over the collective good as we become detached from one another, and  the ruling class engrains an us vs them in the working classes in an attempt to hoard power. It becomes about fighting within the working class to get a bigger crumb rather than banding together in order to disrupt the bourgeoisie. This is how I saw a potential way to view Of Mice and Men: a book in which racism is LOUD, but class aspects are more subtle and influence the racial dynamics in a more significant way than perhaps at first notice. 

Let’s look at the description of Crooks’ living space:

Crooks, the only black character,  has a separate living place from everyone else, but yet his personal possessions, which also outnumbers the others, are “scattered” through his space. When contrasted with the image of the single bindles carried by George and Lenny, and the added description of George making his bed “neatly” when they arrive to the ranch, Crook’s disregard for the placement of  his items could indicate less of an attachment to them because he has so much more (comparatively). 

while Crooks technically has more ‘stuff’  to care about, which would elevate him in status above the other workers– he’s a permanent hand, has his own living space, reads and “has books” which in the Great Depression (and even sadly, now) can be interpreted as luxuries– the other workers use of the n-word to describe him nullifies that. As early as Chapter 2, Candy, who at this point is just called “the old man” further indicating a lack of attachment from worker to worker, refers to Crooks in conversation:  “Ya see the stable bucks a n—er”. 

Interestingly, the use of this word by these working class migrants against Crooks allows them to feel superiority even though it might make more sense to relate to him through a lens of camaraderie as they are in the same place financially (i.e. stuck in the middle of the great depression without much hope). Instead, there could be a sense of underlying resentment because Crooks technically has more than them by way of material possessions. Using the N word both as an individual and a system allows those with limited power like the workers, or no power like Curley’s wife, who never even received a name beyond her recognition as belonging to someone else,  to be able to gain a standing and claim: ‘I might not have much , but at least I’m not a n—er’. The ruling class can and does use it to their advantage as we see when Curley’s wife later enters the novel. 

This power imbalance is further amplified when Lennie and Candy go to Crooks’ place . The men begin sharing stories, Crooks telling them they were mad because “nobody ever gets heaven” but they find a sense of community between them as lonely and dejected people. So much so that Crooks speaks out against Curley’s wife when she arrives, telling her to leave his premises, but she uses the one power she has against him: with her use of “n–her” and threats of lynching,  Crooks  rebounds into his ‘place’ in the caste system, his voice “toneless” and “reduced to nothing” (79). 

Another interesting aspect about the use of the n-word in these lines is that in both instances, its use is simply accepted as ‘the way they talk’, but this doesn’t negate the power implication of the word. The workers know that they “never seem to give a damn” (39) about anyone else, and Crooks remarks that “They [migrant workers] come and they quit and they go” (72). This lack of community and ability to depend on one another contributes to the distance between those who might otherwise have a sense of familiarity.  In Candy’s case, he doesn’t use the world as a violent epithet in a barrage of insults. it’s a subtle but explicit establishment of power in a place where really there is none. Curley’s wife’s use is clearly more explicit in wanting to be heard and listened to, but the dynamic is the same: undergirded by a sense of wanting to be better than the rest, to rise above the common poor man, and holding on to this dream that really is never going to happen.

Notes:

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (Penguins Classics). Penguin Books, 1994.

  • Obviously I did more teaching around the use of the word slur than just this (I literally took an entire lesson), but I just thought it was interesting to consider some aspects of the text through this particular lens.
  • the fun thing about literary lenses is that it something you *apply* to a text. There is no THE correct way to interpret something. We could look at something from many different ways and gather something new. each time.

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