The Importance of Place and Destination in of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Eudora Welty once said “Every story would be another story, and unrecognisable, if it took up its characters and plot happened somewhere else…fiction depends for its life on place”. This applies especially to John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’ (OMAM); set in California during the Great Depression, place is a prominent feature throughout and its presentation is used to trace the main characters’ development and highlight progression of themes throughout the book. Steinbeck utilises various aspects of language, grammar and form in order to effect his intended destination and we see a combination of these devices even from the outset.
In the opening chapter of “Of Mice and Men”, the novel offers an idyllic scene describing the local area: “A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.” Steinbeck wrote his opening scene with many descriptive words and the use of vivid colour words to enhance the scene’s natural beauty. “Soledad” is mentioned in the first sentence of the chapter, and being Spanish for ‘lonely’ or ‘solitude’ it not only foreshadows the key theme of isolation throughout the novel, but also adds a melancholy note to the initial location. Sibilance is used here from ‘A few miles south of Soledad’ to ‘The Salinas River’ adding to the brush’s peaceful atmosphere. Steinbeck presents this place as a rural area, a green hillside bank. Green being the colour of nature enhances the scene’s natural beauty while also giving off connotations of growth and harmony. It also gives an emotional correspondence to safety which is understandable due to its rurality and this, structurally, ties in with why George tells Lennie to return to the brush if he gets into trouble. Pathetic fallacy is used in the phrase “The water is warm too” creating a positive, harmonious atmosphere. The colour yellow and the word ‘twinkling’ in this quotation give off connotations of happiness and positivity; this may suggest to the reader that the brush is safe. Nothing man-made is mentioned in the first page and we are presented with a place filled with imagery. The idyllic atmosphere allows us to understand why George insists on staying the night in this place. For him, it represents the American Dream, his hope to own such a place in the future.
Steinbeck comments upon the opening scene so that when we reach the end of the novel, we can see the novel is cyclical. Nature is described excessively in the first paragraph of the first chapter and the first paragraph of the last chapter and although both are describing the same place, we can see the contrast between the two paragraphs as it shows how George and Lennie’s relationship has progressed through the story and where it is heading. Steinbeck specifically mentions the ‘Salinas River’ and the ‘Gabilan Mountains’ in the two chapters, to take this into account. In the opening, we note that the first page is in present tense, ‘drops … runs’ etc, reminding us that this is a real location that it will prevail even when the tales of the men who visit it have run their course and are ended. It relates to the theme of broken dreams but also another example of why the novel is cyclical; the mention of these places in the first chapter and then Steinbeck mentioning them again in the last chapter is foreshadowing that the continuous cycle that George and Lennie would go through is inevitable. Whilst this signals the tragic form and outcome, it also reveals the harsh world and lack of hope present in the lives of the migrant workers.
A major location in ‘Of Mice And Men’ is the accommodation where the ranch workers stay, including the two protagonists George and Lennie. In the opening sentence of Section Two Steinbeck describes the bunkhouse as “…a long, rectangular building. Inside, the walls were whitewashed and the floor unpainted” and instantly we can see that the description of the bunkhouse is incredibly simplistic, by telling us that the walls were whitewashed, the floor unpainted, the building having no effort to make the interior look anything more than basic shows us that it lacks character relating to life on the ranch, plain, simple and potentially boring. Adjectives such as ‘long’ and ‘rectangular’ lack ostentation, whilst ‘whitewash’ is the usual finish for utilitarian, machine outbuildings or animal shelters. The lexis essentially connotes functionality; there is no sense of home or comfort yet this is where migrant workers must live for the majority of their lives. The bunkhouse is symbolic of how the ranch workers are treated like tools, in an utilising sense. Steinbeck highlights the contrast between the ranch/bunkhouse in the second chapter with the freedom of nature in the first. Their lives are a virtual prison, their ‘home’ presented as such, lacking in any sense of family or home.
Another important location in ‘Of Mice And Men’ is Crooks’ room, first mentioned at the beginning of Chapter Four. The description of Crooks’ room and belongings greatly illuminates the injustice and equality faced at this time. “…the negro stable buck, had his bunk in the harness room; a little shed that leaned off the wall of the barn.” This instantly points out a major injustice towards Crooks. Crooks being the only black male on the ranch signals him to be treated as an outcast. Crooks’ bunk is squashed into a ‘little shed’, the adjective ‘little’ emphasises that it is significantly smaller than expected and the ‘little shed’ being the harness room means that Crooks stays with the equipment. Steinbeck also mentions that the harness room leans off the barn showing that even the horses and other animals that stay in the barn are treated with more importance than Crooks, leaning connoting the state of the building as an afterthought. Crooks’ bunk is described as “a long box filled with straw, on which his blankets were flung” and in this presentation Steinbeck continues to highlight the social discrimination. The ‘long box’ suggests again that he is seen as not equal to man, a ‘box’ often a disposable container, intended to store objects. Straw is also used for animals, showing that he essentially sleeps in a manger, not on a mattress. The verb ‘flung’ could possibly suggest Crooks’ sense of hopelessness or ultimately his anger and frustration over the bigotry he is constantly faced with throughout his life on the ranch.
To conclude, referring back to Eudora Welty saying “…fiction depends for its life on place” we can clearly see that place and setting throughout ‘Of Mice And Men’ is a fundamental feature to the novel and the story would be ‘unrecognisable’ without these significant places. Steinbeck’s use of these places set an atmosphere and tone, while also reinforcing key messages such as the books major themes; broken dreams etc. All the settings show the poverty of the workers and the social marginalisation that they face. This is emphasised by the fulsome language used by Steinbeck to describe the fertility and abundance of the natural world that surrounds them, a point that drives home the tragedy of the book is that the ranch workers never benefit from the possibilities that the world has to offer them.
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