Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck


[quite experimental. class = economic class mostly]

California! ~central California, near the coast, south of Salinas and north of Santa Barbara. (near Monterey).

It’s interesting how many of the interactions between the characters can be analyzed through the lens of power dynamics granted both by their actions and status. capitalist v. prole, man v. woman, white v. black. For instance, take the following example:

Crooks stood up from his bunk and faced [Curley’s wife]. “I had enough,” he said coldly. “You got no rights comin’ in a colored man’s room. You got no rights messing around in here at all. Now you jus’ get out, an’ get out quick. If you don’t, I’m gonna ast the boss not to ever let you come in the barn no more.”

She turned on him in scorn. “Listen, Nigger,” she said. “You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?”

Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.

She closed on him. “You know what I could do?”

Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”

Crooks had reduced himself to nothing. There was no personality, no ego—nothing to arouse either like or dislike. He said, “Yes, ma’am,” and his voice was toneless.

For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again; but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, everything that might be hurt drawn in. She turned at last to the other two.

For a moment she stood over him as though waiting for him to move so that she could whip at him again; but Crooks sat perfectly still, his eyes averted, everything that might be hurt drawn in. She turned at last to the other two.

Old Candy was watching her, fascinated. “If you was to do that, we’d tell,” he said quietly. “We’d tell about you framin’ Crooks.”

“Tell an’ be damned,” she cried. “Nobody’d listen to you, an’ you know it. Nobody’d listen to you.”

Candy subsided. “No…” he agreed. “Nobody’d listen to us.”

Crooks has no power because he’s Black and a farm worker—the patriarchy doesn’t save him here—whereas Curley’s wife only has power through her association with Curley (a white male capitalist). This status by association dominates Candy’s power (a white male farm worker) & Lennie’s (albeit Lennie’s legitimate civilized power, not his illegitimate uncivilized physicality). So you get this hierarchical stratification on first economic divides, then racial divides, and then sex divides, which seems roughly representative of early 20th century American society.

But then, of course, Lennie suffocates Curley’s wife. You could use this an argument for the sex divide actually subsuming all other power differentials, or as an argument against the entire endeavor. The first has some weight (sex makes itself apparent only on a much more intimate level than the other two) and in fact if you take any given person most of their opposite-sex interactions are with the same class & race, so it’s the most salient. The second also has some weight—the relative power levels of individuals is mostly determined by their perceived willingness & capacity to act by others; willingness is mediated by societal norms and capacity mediated by one’s body, among other things; and therefore using these absurdly generalizable “power dynamic” frames does more harm than good.

I think that some combination of the two is broadly correct. It is true that society is quite stratified (although hopefully this is becoming less true over time), and it is also true that class, race, and sex are the cleanest separations we see. In most cases/interactions, inter-class/race/sex dynamics are in fact mediated by factors which make owners/whites/men more powerful and workers/blacks/women less powerful, because:

  1. inter-class interactions typically bottom out in economic power which can have long-term material effects on the less-powerful individual
  2. inter-sex interactions typically bottom out in physical power which can have deleterious effects on one’s health (also plausibly emotional power but that’s a different thing? and would work in the other direction or both ways), only made possible by inter-sex interactions occurring typically in close proximity
  3. interracial interactions are interesting because it bottoms out in not necessarily institutional but communal power? whereas economic power piggybacks on the economy, a man-made relatively unnatural institution we’ve made to mediate interactions on larger than the tribal level, racial animus is (I think) almost solely tribal? very soft-power coded, the “dark-matter” of society completely unparseable to autists. perhaps religion is a useful tool for capturing this & directing it at things that aren’t racial

[end stream of consciousness]

i don’t think i like these naive analyses. they are really clean frames though