Applying Marxist Literary Criticism to ‘Of Mice and Men’
Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a microcosm of reality for the working classes during the great economic depression in the U. S. A. Through the use of generic characters which represent the different echelons that existed at the bottom of society during a period of economic instability – Steinbeck’s novel resists dominant ideologies at the time of publication as the bleak portrayal of the lives of itinerant workers could be interpreted as a statement against capitalism.
Karl Marx saw political devices such as ‘The American Dream’ as oppressing the proletariat by giving them false hope. This idea of a false consciousness is evident throughout the novel as Steinbeck uses the recurring theme of dreams in ‘Of Mice and Men’ to illustrate the unsatisfying nature of the lives that the ranch members lived. The fact that all the characters have idealistic dreams of a better life highlights their dissatisfaction with their current predicament.
Although the use of dreams such as George’s utopia of an easy and simple existence on a farm could be interpreted as positive because they give the characters hope, the reality which Steinbeck makes clear at the end of the novel is that these dreams are unrealistic and the majority of people in society do not fulfil their ambitions.
‘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’ is repeated many times in the novel to highlight how dreams are used to prevent the proletariat from rising against their oppressors as they are manipulated by the promise of a life that is in reality unobtainable for the vast majority. Thus, resisting the dominant ideology that ‘everybody has an opportunity to be successful’.
As the two central characters in the novel, George and Lennie epitomise the average itinerant worker in the sense that they are unskilled workers attempting to survive in a harsh economic climate. Itinerant workers are generally considered as being at the base of an economy, so by illustrating their plight Steinbeck is in fact devaluing the superstructure as the novel highlights the tough living conditions they are subjected to in order increment the wealth of the bourgeoisie. Steinbeck uses George’s perspective to further illustrate his perceived mistreatment of lower economic groups in society.
‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place… They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to’ is the overpowering message at the end of the novel as all of the characters are subjected to hardship, tragedy and loneliness yet none are presented as facing a better outlook. This theme of loneliness and isolation also supports the Marxist theory of ‘The forces of production’. Whilst most of the characters in the novel are working at an unforgiving labour intensive job – they are still at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.
Steinbeck constantly reiterates the loneliness of the characters’ lives in order to highlight that although they are a major force of production there is an absence of enjoyment in the lives of the itinerant workers as they are not properly rewarded for their contributions to the economy. Coupled with the temporary nature of their employment, the workers are shown to be dislocated from reality and other people, living lonely existences and spending what little they earn on perverse pleasures such as gambling and prostitutes.
This desire for false gratification could be a symbol for the lack of substance in the workers lives, or in other words Steinbeck’s perceived alienation of ranch workers. Karl Marx believed that workers in capitalist states such as the U. S. A where ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set are psychologically estranged from their work as they do not see the fruits of their work, instead they merely repeat one step of a cycle and are paid a fixed wage which is not relative to the profit the product they create gains.
This theory is adopted by Steinbeck as the itinerant nature of the ranch workers job is shown to cause a separation from nature, leaving the workers disillusioned. The workers are given one task to fulfil, for example hauling the crop, and then they repeat this step over and over again until they move to another ranch – never seeing the result of their hard work. This industrialisation of the workers is depicted as having a detrimental effect on the workers psychology by Steinbeck and being the causation for their unhappiness.
George and Lennie’s dream to ‘live of the fatta the land’ also forces itself into the fervent desires of Candy and Crooks which supports Marx’s belief that humans yearn for a relationship with nature. In this light, George is shown to resist bourgeoisie values which would stipulate that the industrialisation of workers is necessary for a healthy society which would be based on the assumption that profit is the most important motive – not the mental well-being of the workers. Curley’s wife could be seen as a symbol for those crushed by dominant ideologies and bourgeoisie values.
Curley’s wife is portrayed as a vain and attention seeking character in life yet after her tragic death she is also a source of sympathy as Steinbeck shows her in a different light. ‘She was pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young’ contrasts with the flirtatious, provocative and callous woman who endangered Lennie and cruelly threatened to have Crook’s hanged. Steinbeck is implying that the flaws in her character were created and compounded by the system she was born into.
The fact that she is not named in the novel is an overt statement of how undervalued she is in society and this contrasts with the dominant ideology at time which is that everybody has equal opportunities to become ‘successful’. Instead of attempting to make the best of life within her means, she dreamed of the ‘high life’ – advertised by purveyors of bourgeoisie values in order to preserve a capitalistic state. This meant she accepted the harsh reality of her predicament in the belief she would soon escape it.