George and Lennie on the ranch

Cruelty in “Of Mice and Men”

Introduction

Steinbeck explores various forms of cruelty, including physical violence and emotional manipulation.

The Bunkhouse

The cruelty of the ranch is epitomised by Steinbeck’s presentation of the drab bunkhouse. The declarative “the bunkhouse was a long, rectangular building” is a simple statement of fact with no attempt to soften the setting. The rhythm of sentence is also flat and emotionless, devoid of any sympathy. This tone is created through the diphthong in ‘long’, the polysyllabic ‘rectangular’ and the pause created by the comma, all combining to suggest the bunkhouse is a cruel, heartless place.

This is reinforced by the author’s use of the word “building” instead of the warmer and friendlier ‘home’ with its connotations of family or even the “house” which suggests community. It is just a “building”. By focusing on the geometric, clear in the word ‘rectangular’, the reader quickly realises this setting is devoid of comfort and is a cruel place.

Steinbeck’s description of the bunkhouse provides an appropriately bleak backdrop for the men’s lives. A really good example of cruelty is Candy’s story about the previous Christmas and Crooks. This festive period should be a time of joy. Instead, the men drink whiskey and invite Crooks into the bunkhouse only to have him fight another rancher. If the bunkhouse is at the centre of the men’s lives, then this cruel and violent act suggests they live in a cruel world.

Candy

One of the cruellest moments in the bunkhouse occurs after Carlson kills Candy’s dog.

The “old swamper” lay on his bunk and stared at the ceiling, waiting for the awful gunshot. When he turned away from the men in the bunkhouse, he is turning his back on the world. There is no future for him, symbolised by the solid wall he cannot see beyond, and his silence lets the reader know the utter devastation and loneliness he feels.

Nobody consoles Candy and the men leave him to grieve on his own. Life on the ranch can be brutally cruel, especially when Carlson is “cleaning the barrel with the little rod”. He fails to consider Candy’s feelings and it is this thoughtlessness from the men that makes life on the ranch seem especially cruel.

This lack of consideration is epitomised by the last line of the novel when Carlson says to Curley, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” Perhaps Steinbeck is suggesting we need to show each other a little more compassion and a little less cruelty.

Curley

Curley’s treatment of his wife is very cruel. His misogyny is obvious in the “glove” he wears that is “fulla vasaline” so he can keep his “hand soft for his wife”. It is despicable that he would gloat about his relationship with his wife to the other men in this way. Curley seems to take pleasure in causing his wife embarrassment and distress – the very definition of cruelty. No wonder she says he “ain’t a nice fella”.

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