In the last post I gave you all the things you would need to know about the background to Crooks. He represents all that history, as well as being a character in his own right.
Crooks is the last character to be introduced into the novel, and much of what we learn about him is hearsay from the other workers. In fact, we don’t meet him until almost two-thirds the way through the book. He’s definitely not a part of the men’s lives. Whether he chooses to keep some distance or whether that distance is forced upon him is unclear; it’s probably both.
So… the statistics. He’s mentioned 67 times as Crooks, and 11 times as ‘the stable buck’ and 16 times as ‘nigger’. What can we see from this? Well, for a start, his name most probably isn’t even Crooks. It’s because “he’s got a crooked back where a horse kicked him”. Second, the first person to call him Crooks (if that even is his name) is Slim, who’s respectful to everybody. Candy, the longest-serving member of the ranch, calls him ‘the nigger’ or ‘the stable buck’. He’s not a person to most – he’s black first and foremost, and a stable buck second. He’s identified only by his colour and his job. It’s just dehumanising. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be called ‘that woman teacher’ as if I’m not even a person.
I think it’s very telling, this relationship between Candy and Crooks. Both are long-standing members of the ranch, both are outsiders, yet neither are friends. The only thing Candy knows about Crooks is “he reads a lot”.
Candy gives us a lot of information about Crooks where he’s gossiping about the people on the farm. He says “[the boss] gave the stable buck hell, too” when he realised George and Lennie would miss a morning of work. So, our first view of Crooks is that he is a whipping boy, a scapegoat. A whipping boy was a young boy assigned to a noble prince or young lord and he would be whipped instead of the prince whenever the prince was badly behaved. Imagine that. You do something wrong and somebody else gets punished for it. Crooks is that. That’s pretty cool, as long as you’re not the whipping boy. And if you are the whipping boy? Well, it’s about the least fair job in the whole world. And Crooks is that. He gets punished when other people do something wrong; he’s everybody else’s punching bag. If you feel a bit angry, it’s Crooks you take it out on, because he can do nothing about it. A whipping boy, however, might be of a noble rank, and the idea was that the prince would be upset about seeing his friend getting whipped. Nobody feels like that about Crooks.
A scapegoat was sometimes a real goat sacrificed when people had done bad things and needed forgiveness. The goat took on your sins and faults and paid for them. Sometimes, a scapegoat was a real person. Say in Ancient Greece, if there was a tornado, everyone would say the Gods were angry and that the Gods were punishing them. A scapegoat was someone of really low rank who was picked out and cast out of the village to die to pay for everyone else’s sins.
So Crooks is definitely a scapegoat. He pays for everyone else’s problems and he is definitely of very low rank on the farm. Candy says “the boss gives him hell when he’s mad.”
And let’s talk about rank. In the past, in feudal society, when we had powerful kings and queens, rank was important. The king was at the top, then lords, squires, landowners, peasants and then beggars at the bottom. They were usually ‘worthless’ because they couldn’t work. But if you were born to a begger’s family, like Oliver Twist, then it was a beggar’s life for you. That’s why there’s so many stories of peasants marrying princes and princesses. We all like to dream that there’s a way out of being a beggar.
The caste system in India is also a good example. At the top were the brahmins, the priests. And the caste system goes all the way down to the Dalits, the fifth caste, the untouchables. That’s what Crooks is on the farm. An untouchable. An undesirable.
You can see why I think his is one of the saddest characters. I get upset about all the outsiders, but Crooks especially. The word Dalit means crushed, suppressed and broken to pieces in Sanskrit, and I can’t think of a better way to describe Crooks. He is a shell of a man. In fact, later in the novel, when attacked by Curley’s Wife, he retreats into himself as if he has an actual shell.
So, within the first few lines of the conversation, Candy has revealed that Crooks has no status, and that he is the whipping boy for the boss’s anger. Ironically, given his job as stable buck – kind of like an on-site vet combined with a groom – he’s really important. If the horses weren’t looked after, the farm wouldn’t function. Horses are expensive and they were a vital part of farm life. Crooks is the equivalent of an on-site mechanic in today’s world. And without tractors, a farm couldn’t manage. So the guy who looks after them has to be both skilled (so intelligent) and permanent (because nobody else could do what he does). So Crooks should have a higher status.
It’s funny that you can learn so much about someone just from two lines.
We also learn how he copes with it all. He reads. Candy says he’s “got books in his room”. Given that he mentions this along with getting beaten by the boss, being black and being the stable buck, you can see how utterly fascinating Candy finds this. It’s as peculiar to him as hanging around on a farm in a top hat and tails. But it shows both Crooks’ place of retreat as well as his intelligence.
Next time, I’ll focus on the incident at Christmas where Crooks is set upon by Smitty, and then more on the man when we actually meet him.
Don’t forget, if you have a question about Crooks or Of Mice and Men in general, feel free to post a comment.