DECODING SEXISM IN ‘OF MICE AND MEN’

 

John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1937) is considered to be an emotional novella narrating beautifully the chronicle of selfless friendship between two men. The selfless love which Lennie and George possess for each other is truly remarkable. While they lead a harsh life by laboring manually on ranches, the burden of their miserable lives is eased a little by affectionate companionship. The narrator paints a vivid picture of miscellaneous subjects but most prominently a picture of loyal companionship which is so rare, so special and so unusually perfect.  Lennie’s innocence is admirable while George’s selfless love for the puerile lad puts him on a pedestal. This fraternal bonding not only among George and Lennie but also amongst other ranch workers Slim, Candy, Crooks and Carlson is emphasized. This apparently simple highly emotional bonding however is also somehow fueled by a sense of combined hatred towards a girl. The ranch workers labor hard to attain some form of substantial stability and eventually own a piece of land which evidently remains an unattainable dream for them.

The issue of masculinity in the text is appealing. Lennie appears masculine by virtue of his physical attributes namely ‘huge shapeless face, large pale eyes and broad strong shoulders’ embodies supposedly feminine behavioral attributes while George, a man with ‘small strong hands, slender arms, and thin body’ adheres to role of a patriarch in the relationship. Their muscle brain combination seems unequal but George needs Lennie more than he can apprehend and this companionship seems to be filling the void within them making them complete. Lennies’s constant desire to pet soft creatures and his fetish towards their delicate bodies him could be seen as an attempt to find the feminine within him and nurturing his own remnant femininity. The only Curley being highly insecure of his small stature is filled with contempt for other supposedly masculine men like Lennie. This eruption of jealousy in Curley however is also blamed on the supposedly ungrateful woman in his life who refuses to restrict herself in a ‘two by four house’ and does not abide by the laws meant for a dutiful self sacrificing wife. The problems with an otherwise marvelously realistic book start here.

The loose lousy woman without any name or sense of identity is Curley’s wife. She is the only women on the ranch and is dubbed by men as an abomination. She is shunned by the men of the ranch and her husband Curley is clearly a mentally disturbed and physically insecure tyrant who does not attempt comfort her in any way rather the text suggests he could be physically abusive.

‘She gives Slim the eye’ ‘maybe that’s why Curley’s pants is full of ants’

The text or at least the attitude of characters is highly contemptuous and misogynistic and even Curley’s crookedness is blamed on her.  George after his very first meeting with her calls her ‘a tramp’ a rattrap and a ‘piece of prison’ while Lennie finds her ‘pruty’.

No alternative of any other major woman character is available to analyze and verify the nascent misogyny of the text. Only other mention is that of Aunt Clara who the epitome of femininity. A stereotypical feminine figure that is overtly benevolent and caring. Other alternative is the whore Suzy who always cracks jokes but there is no in between. The society is setting up binaries and Curley’s wife was neither of the two. Her character is nonconformist and does not abide by character binaries and the dominating patriarchal society has zero tolerance for such tramps.

Even her dead body is blames for being a nuisance and breaking down hell on every ones beloved innocent.  After she lays dead on the floor in spite of showing any grief or sorrow at her  demise Candy spits at her and says, ‘You goddamned tramp, you done it didn’t you? Everybody said you’d mess things up, you just wasn’t no good.’ Even accidental fatality of mice and puppies and rabbits are lamented more that the murder of a woman. This intense dehumanization is very problematic. As modern readers the lack of sympathy from other characters is  highly condemnable. Even her husband’s anger seems more like a personal vendetta. Death however purges the girl of her meanness and the author suggests that the girls behavior could be a consequence of the situation. Thus, she herself was the victim of circumstances. The narratorial voice gets overly sympathetic yet no mark of sorrow is evident for her death rather all of it is preserved for Lennie.

Interestingly in Steinbeck’s narration the two men often get in trouble because of a woman. In weed Lennie wanted to touch the dress of another girl and she had alleged a rape case against him. The truth remains ambiguous as the only version available is that of George. The girl understandably gets ‘scared’ and even merely touching a dress in no way not a form of molestation. George somehow by the virtue of Lennie’s innocent portrayal with which readers tend to highly sympathize, cunningly antagonizes the girl and Steinbeck’s novel neither gives an insight to the truth nor does it give the girl a benefit of the doubt.

Curley’s wife merely gets a paragraph to narrate her agony. She was refrained from working and was domesticated for the sake of marriage. Her ambitions came in the way of her happiness. Undoubtedly she threatens Crooks, another marginalized character but these empty threats seems more like an act of self preservation. The subjugation of women and black are clear however a woman’s loneliness is not justified by the narrator. Just like Crooks Curley’s wife is also lonely and in every term an untouchable but unlike the black man she neither gets any sympathies nor any regards. The black man’s isolation is referred to as tragic however the girl’s loneliness is made to seem natural.

She is portrayed as a sexual predator and a seductress who was asking for it. Her makeup her painted face, dress and manners all serve as markers of her vulgarity. She lured Lennie, opened her silky hair to provoke him and Lennie is portrayed as the poor victim of unrestricted female sexuality. The author fulfills every stereotype and ruins for us a beautiful written realist novel.  Author’s portrayal of masculinity and femininity is ambiguous, his portrayal of women however remains problematic.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Steinbeck, John. “Of Mice and Men”. Vintage classic. New York 2005

 

SUBMITTED BY-

NEHA SINGH

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