Historical Context in Of Mice and Men: The Impact of the Great Depression
Historical Context of the Great Depression
In the story Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, the time and place are very distinct in history. It takes place in Salinas, California, a place that was near the Dust Bowl region. The time period is during the Great Depression, the worst economic event in history. The story itself is about two migrant workers, which was a very common thing during the Great Depression. The story is surrounded by history, and by knowing that history, it is easier to understand the story.
The Impact of the Great Depression
Of Mice and Men takes place during the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression. The Great Depression was a terrible event in which the economy had its largest crash in history. It started in 1929 and lasted about ten years. It was caused by inflation, quickly followed by millions of people panic selling their shares on the stock market, causing it to crash. The Great Depression left a strong effect on farmers that caused them to lose everything.
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Prices rapidly declined as farmers attempted to produce more crops than ever in order to pay for their taxes, debts, and living expenses. In the early 1930s, the prices got so abysmal that many farmers went completely bankrupt and even lost their farms. Families even started using corn instead of coal because it was simply cheaper at the time. The Great Depression also affected women and minorities in a very different way. Work that was directly associated with males was manufacturing in heavy industries like steel production.
These careers experienced the highest layoff rate out of any job. This meant that men were not making as much as they used to and that they couldn’t support their families. To fix this, women had to become the breadwinners of the family. Most women had to work in service industries during the 1930s. These jobs included clerical workers, teachers, nurses, telephone operators, and domestics. All of these careers had much less trouble looking for work.
While men’s employment rate steeply declined, women’s employment rate rose. However, this does not mean women were treated equally at work; in many cases, employers lowered pay for female workers, and teachers had delayed paychecks. However, African Americans had it the worst; their already grim economic situation got even worse. They were the last to be hired but the first to be fired. They suffered from an unemployment rate of two to three times that of white people. Even in public aid programs, black people were discriminated against and sometimes even completely excluded from them.
The Dust Bowl’s Impact on the Setting
Of Mice and Men takes place near the Southern plains of America, the place that was worst affected by the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl, also known as “The Dirty Thirties,” began in 1930 and ended roughly in 1940. However, its large long-term economic effects lasted on the region. It severely intensified the already crippling impacts of the Great Depression and turned millions into migrant workers. Farmers greatly contributed to the unfortunate event by overplowing the land. The Dust Bowl was given its name because of the severe dust storms that it brought during a massive dry period.
The term “Dust Bowl” was coined after the worst dust storm commenced on April 14, 1935, when as many as three million tons of topsoil were blown around. These storms killed thousands of people, livestock, and crops. Farmers began to lose everything they ever worked for. These families had to survive on nothing but cornbread, beans, and milk. After people started to lose hope, a mass migration followed, which was the biggest in American history. Roughly two and a half million people left the area of the Dust Bowl. Many suffered from poverty and did not have a coin to their name.
The Rise of Migrant Workers in California
Directly caused by the events of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the population of migrant workers skyrocketed. A migrant worker is a person who does not have a permanent home due to a search for employment, generally in agriculture. During the Great Depression, millions of people were laid off. Most could not find a job near their home, so they got rid of everything and left to work where jobs existed.
The Dust Bowl also contributed to millions of migrant workers, causing people to lose everything they had by destroying it all. The life of a typical migrant worker was not a good one. Lots of migrant workers had to live alongside irrigation ditches of the ranches and farms they worked at. People were overcrowded and directly created horrible sanitary conditions. The typical camp setup was either a tent or simply the back of a car or truck. Most migrant workers never found a permanent job; they worked for a certain amount of time and then had to move elsewhere in search of more work. They had low paychecks and suffered through back-breaking labor.
Significance of the Salinas Valley
Salinas, California, was a location that hundreds of thousands of migrant workers went to. It is known as the Salad Bowl of the World due to its very large production of lettuce, broccoli, pepper, and numerous other crops. Roughly 70% of the nation’s lettuce is grown there. On both sides of the valley are two mountains: the Gabilan mountain range and the Santa Lucia mountain range. There are healthy, green trees everywhere.
In between, there is the Salinas River, which is the longest underground river in the world, stretching out to roughly 155 miles. This is one of the main appeals of the Salinas Valley; it’s rich, fertile, and naturally irrigated land. The thousands of farms and ranches attracted migrant workers from every corner of the US, with a promise to have work in at least one of the plentiful fields. For the locals, this was a drawback, as their small town was quickly crowded with beggars and men looking for work.
Understanding the Historical Context
Of Mice and Men is a story that is very historically accurate and is based on major events that happened in America. Understanding the historical context is a key element in understanding the story itself. It takes place during the Great Depression in the plentiful region of California. Even the location of the story, the Salinas Valley, is important because of its geography and the amount of migrant workers that went there. The Dust Bowl was the event that created the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that fled to California in seek of asylum. John Steinbeck grew up there and clearly knew its history.
- Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Penguin Books, 1993.
- The Great Depression: Causes and Impact. History.com Editors, History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Dec. 2009. URL: https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history
- The Dust Bowl. National Centers for Environmental Information, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. URL: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/dyk/dust-bowl
- Dust Bowl: Definition, Causes, When, Where, Effect, Map, & Facts. The History Junkie, 12 July 2021. URL: https://www.historyjunkie.org/dust-bowl/
- Migrant Workers during the Great Depression. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. URL: https://www.nps.gov/articles/migrant-workers-during-the-great-depression.htm
- Women and the Great Depression. Molly Taft, National Women’s History Museum. URL: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/molly-taft
- The Migrant Experience. National Women’s History Museum. URL: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/lesson-plans/migrant-experience
- African Americans in the Great Depression. Catherine A. Paul, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, Oxford University Press, 23 Sep. 2020. URL: https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-739
- Salinas Valley Agriculture. National Steinbeck Center. URL: https://www.steinbeck.org/the-place/salinas-valley-agriculture/