Of Mice and Men is set in the 1930s—a period during which women, racial minorities, and disabled individuals had few rights. The oppressive nature of the period was further compounded by the socioeconomic instability of the Great Depression. Throughout the novella, Steinbeck argues that hard times necessitate scapegoats—and that the individuals who bear the brunt of society’s frustrations, suspicions, and uncertainties are those already marginalized by the world around them.
There are several marginalized groups within Of Mice and Men. The first character who is marginalized and scapegoated throughout the novella is Lennie, whose large, hulking frame stands in contrast to his delicate, childlike nature. Lennie is mentally-disabled, and as such his actions and intentions are often misunderstood. At the start of the novel, Lennie and his companion George have been chased away from a ranch in Weed because Lennie, longing to stroke the fabric of a young woman’s dress, seized the girl’s hem, leading her to tell the police he tried to rape her. Due to Lennie’s appearance (and societal attitudes towards the physically and mentally disabled at the time), his desire to touch and stroke soft things is entirely misunderstood. Lennie’s immense strength—and his inability to control it—make him both a marvel and a threat, and in the end, George must reckon with the fact that he, too, has been complicit in Lennie’s demise. In attempting to ignore, gloss over, or even ridicule Lennie’s disability, George has prevented Lennie from understanding his own nature, isolating and marginalizing his friend even further.
The second and arguably most marginalized character on the ranch is Crooks, the black stable hand, whose bosses and fellow laborers alike refer to him using cruel racial slurs. Even Crooks’s nickname pokes fun at his crooked spine, the result of an accident with a horse. Crooks is doubly marginalized: he is black, which, in the 1930s, makes him a second-class citizen in the eyes of his peers and of society more largely. He is also disabled, which has the dual function of rendering him weak and making him an object of his peers’ derision, and of serving as a constant reminder of the very real danger that accompanies many of the jobs on the ranch—jobs that, in the Depression, are necessary to maintain even in the face of injury or death. Crooks spends most of his time in his room, which is segregated from the bunk house in a small, hay-lined nook off the barn. Crooks reads, keeps to himself, and refuses company even when it’s offered. Crooks explains to Lennie that as a child, he and his family were the only black family in their entire California town—now, as the only black worker on the ranch, he faces the same isolation and marginalization he has faced all his life. Crooks understand well how the system of marginalization and scapegoating works and does his best to avoid any and all situations in which he could possibly be misjudged or mistreated any more than he already is.
Candy is yet another marginalized character. Due to his age and his missing hand, which he lost in an accident, Candy is relegated to work as a “swamper”—a man in charge of odd jobs. Candy is kept on only, it is implied, due to his boss’s pity. Candy’s plight is made manifest in the symbol of his dog—an old, stinking sheepdog who is blind and lame. Candy keeps the dog around because it’s been with him all its life, but as it becomes clear that the dog is suffering and needs to be put down, Candy agrees that the best thing for the dog is death. While Carlson, another laborer, takes the dog out back to shoot it, Candy stares at the ceiling in a silent state of denial or even dissociation as he listens to his companion meet a fate for which Candy knows he himself may one day be destined. Candy is well-enough liked among the other laborers, but the idea that he is living (and working) on borrowed time eats at him. He is aware that he is not like the other men on the ranch, and must find an alternative before he is scapegoated, attacked, or disposed of.
Curley’s wife, though white and able-bodied, is the only woman on the ranch, and she is marginalized due to that fact. Curley’s wife dresses glamorously, curls her hair, and makes up her face each day. She hangs around the bunk house under the pretense of looking for her husband, when really it’s clear she wants to talk to and flirt with the men on the ranch. The men quickly label her as a promiscuous “tart,” and refuse to associate with her. Curley’s wife, however, later reveals that she is miserable on the ranch and always dreamed of being a big movie star in “pitchers” on screens around the world. Curley’s wife only wants company and an escape from her social ostracization—and yet all she gets in return is suspicion and judgement.
The marginalized characters in Of Mice and Men represent the larger stratifications in American society at the time, and speak to the fear, instability, and distrust that permeated the atmosphere. With jobs so few and far between and even white, able-bodied men unable to find work, society began to buckle under the weight of so many people’s disillusionment. The scapegoating of minorities—disabled people, people of color, and women—gave socially dominant groups someone to blame, and thus easier to shoulder their shame about their own failure to thrive in a crumbling system. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck cuts to the heart of these problems—and warns against any society picking on its weakest members in order to soothe the hubris of its most powerful.
Minorities, Marginalization, and Scapegoating ThemeTracker
Minorities, Marginalization, and Scapegoating Quotes in Of Mice and Men
“Well, we ain't got any,” George exploded. “Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want. God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble....An' whatta I got,” George went on furiously. “I got you! You can't keep a job and you lose me ever' job I get. Jus' keep me shovin' all over the country all the time. An' that ain't the worst. You get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out.”
“Carl's right, Candy. That dog ain't no good to himself. I wisht somebody'd shoot me if I got old an' a cripple.”
“Maybe it’d hurt him,” [Candy] suggested. “I don’t mind takin’ care of him.”
Carlson said, “The way I’d shoot him, he wouldn’t feel nothing. I’d put the gun right there.” He pointed with his toe. “Right back of the head. He wouldn’t even quiver.”
“I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn't oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.”
“I seen it over an' over—a guy talkin' to another guy and it don't make no difference if he don't hear or understand. The thing is, they're talkin', or they're settin' still not talkin'. It don't make no difference, no difference...It's just the talking.”
“A guy needs somebody—to be near him.” He whined, “A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody.”
“A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin' books or thinkin' or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin', an' he got nothing to tell him what's so an' what ain't so. Maybe if he sees somethin', he don't know whether it's right or not. He can't turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can't tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn't drunk. I don't know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an' then it would be all right. But I jus' don't know.”
“Why can't I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.”
He pawed up the hay until it partly covered her.
“No, Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't now. That's a thing I want ya to know.”