How the theme of authority is explored in the novel ‘Of Mice and Men’?
In the novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ the reader is introduced to a complex set of themes, one of which is the idea of authority. Steinbeck presents a series of characters all of whom had a certain position within the societal hierarchy created in the novel, which acts to reflect the wider social reality present in 1930’s America. It is through this presentation of the characters and their interactions, that Steinbeck is able to explore the idea of authority alongside both its complexities and irregularities.
The hierarchal structure in ‘Of Mice and Men’ places the most power in a character referred to as simply ‘the boss’. He is introduced and given the most authority as the boss. This is shown when the boss enters the room. “He wore blue jean trousers, a flannel shirt, a black, unbuttoned vest and a black coat.” This suggest he is a fairly wealthy man who has authority throughout the ranch. We can make this conclusion by analysing the setting in which the book was written. If he had a lot of money still, after the Wall Street crash, he would be considered to be living in a financial utopia. It would mean a lot if he would be able to buy costly clothes. In not being given a name, he is shown to be separated from the workers and especially the ‘nigger’ (named Crooks in the novel). This suggests he is to an extent untouchable and is beyond being categorised by social class. The communication between the boss and the other characters shows his level of authority, for example he doesn’t like the way George and Lennie have a specific level of control and the boss lacks this. The boss wants to be in control of everything although he doesn’t have a good level of communication skills. Before he leaves the room when he is introduced, “he went out, he turned and looked for a long moment at the two men”. This shows he was staring which is then an act of dominance.
Curley also has a high level of authority, which is explored throughout the novel, but it is an authority which seems significantly higher in his view, but not necessarily in anyone else’s view. As the boss’s son, his status is, to an extent, protected. However, the lack of respect the other men have for him suggests that this authority is largely superficial. He uses a sense of showing off to illustrate that if anyone tries to annoy him they don’t last a chance in the ranch; he could fire anyone easily. In chapter 3, Curley fights Lennie as a way of proving his authority and power. Initially Steinbeck describes Curley as a ‘terrier’ which suggests that, despite him being a little man on the outside, he is powerful, vicious and antagonistic on the inside. He is then described as a ‘rat’, implying he has lost some authority and respect during this scene because a rat is smaller and less powerful than a terrier. Once again Steinbeck changes the animalistic description to a fish: ‘Curley was flopping like a fish on a line’. This suggests he has no authority at all at this moment and is helpless towards Lennie, who still holds onto his hand. Through this scene Steinbeck is perhaps suggesting that authority during the 1930’s had to be earned through the respect of others.
Although in terms of the ranch hierarchy, Slim is not as high as Curley and his father, he is without a doubt the most authoritative figure in the eyes of the other workers. We have a few examples and understandings of Slim’s authority throughout the novel. For instance, ‘His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love.’ This reveals Slim has earnt his authority by gaining respect from his colleagues. Even though he is able to show his authority in the scene of Candy’s dog’s death, he doesn’t like to show off his ability to make decisions. We have a great understanding that when Slim makes a decision, it is law, as Steinbeck notes, ‘Slim’s opinions were law’. This implies when Slim has a say in the something he is always right and everyone should conduct themselves around his opinion. Steinbeck makes Slim stand out from the rest of the farm hands by making him sensitive to the needs of others. He is the most dedicated of all the farm hands and the most hard-working because he displays a positive attitude, even towards the end when he has to console George for killing Lennie. Slim also dedicated his time efficiently to other men on the ranch, and the reader understands that he is able to listen to others. He seems to become a figure of hope, and comes to stand as the workers’ protector, with his ‘god-like eyes’. Steinbeck uses this simile to imply that he is looking over everyone. By looking over everyone all the time in any circumstances, this shows us he has earnt his authority by the respect of others. This is significantly different to the boss and Curley because they only have the ability to fire a worker, while he has the ability to make decisions which are accepted and respected.
Given that they are all white males, the rest of the ranch workers including George, Candy and Carlson are all in a position of limited authority on the ranch, but have the privilege of being more powerful than the marginalised characters such as Lennie, Crooks and Curley’s wife. They are all deemed the same in terms of power and authority. For instance, in chapter 3 when they talk about the dream with Candy, Candy says that he will carry out the menial tasks, such as washing up, meaning that whilst he takes on a more inferior role and listens to George, much like Lennie, he is also demonstrating his understanding that he is an older individual who needs to offer some use in order to be part of their ‘dream’. When we go back to the scene where Candy’s dog dies Carlson shoots the dog ignoring Candy’s pleas because he has more authority compared to Candy. This, too, can be interpreted as an indication that because Candy is old, he isn’t cared for as much as the other characters throughout the novel; it seems more likely that Candy has the same amount of authority as Lennie.
Throughout the narrative, Steinbeck hints at the notion that Lennie is like a puppet for George to exert control over. This is demonstrated in the scene in which Lennie fights with Curley. ‘George was on his feet yelling, ‘Get him, Lennie. Don’t let him do it.’’ This implies that George has a lot more authority than Lennie because George is able to control Lennie’s actions, and Lennie only acts when he is given instructions by George.
The 1930’s was an era of great prejudice, particularly towards black people and women, and those considered mentally disabled. For this reason, Crooks, Curley’s wife and Lennie have virtually no authority on the ranch. Crooks is very much described as if he were an animal. He is referred to as ‘rat’ throughout the book which shows his complete lack of authority. Steinbeck writes, ‘He leaned forward, boring Lennie with his deep eyes. ‘Ain’t that so?’ This informs the reader Lennie is being pressured, and almost mentally tortured, by Crooks. This is a significant point to understand when reading the book as it shows the reader that, when Crooks has a chance to take authority over someone, he relishes it. When Curley’s wife enters the room where Crooks and Lennie are sitting, she uses her authority in race and sexual power against Crooks to intimidate him. ‘Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. He feels intimidated in this situation and backs off. This is the only moment throughout the novel where Curley’s wife has authority, because she is white, to intimidate Crooks.
It is ironic that Lennie is the most physically powerful character in the novel, but is the weakest in terms of authority. He doesn’t understand the hierarchy on the ranch and so isn’t aware of the prejudice and fear amongst the other men. In a sense he doesn’t even have authority over his own actions, so is essentially powerless. Added to this, he is also considered to have an equivalent level of authority to Curley’s wife due to his mental disability, and so also falls under the control of the other men on the ranch, much like the lone female figure in Steinbeck’s novel. It is essential to note his respect from the other men in the ranch, and that he doesn’t command respect but is almost given respect automatically through his purity of heart. In the novel he is provided with a minimum level of respect due to his love of nature and essentially doesn’t prejudge anyone like the others have done. Steinbeck uses a sense of animalistic descriptions throughout the book to show the comparisons between characters’ personality but when Lennie is then introduced he is not compared to an animal, he rather has a love for animals and doesn’t mean any harm. ‘Oh! That’s nice, Oh! That’s nice!’ This shows he doesn’t mean no harm to Curley’s Wife’s hair.
The way in which Steinbeck presents the theme of authority throughout the novella appears to reflect the time in which the novella is set. Life during the Great Depression was largely seen as a battle to survive, which is perhaps why some of the characters are presented as being weaker than others. The complex nature of the relationships between the characters means that throughout the novella there are instances when certain characters hold more power than others due to their gender, race and physical ability.