Disability in Of Mice and Men

On Edexcel’s International GCSE English Literature paper in June 2014, they asked the question:

“In what ways does Steinbeck explore disability in this novel?”

The question in itself got me thinking about a whole field of knowledge that would have been taken as read for the 1930s reader and yet for the 2016 reader, can be incredibly hard to understand: disability in 1930s America.

The novel of course presents two opportunities to present disability in the novel: physical and mental. In this post, I’ll be exploring the one that is perhaps the most difficult for a modern reader to get their head around. As with all social history behind a novel, what is written here is relevant to your understanding of the novel and its context, and you should make mention of it in the exam if the opportunity to do so presents itself, but remember you are being asked about a work of literature, not to write a history essay. That said… this is a history essay in entirety, with minor references to the text.

So to warm you up… what do modern dairy farms, German shepherds, Czech monks, Hitler and Charles Darwin have in common with Of Mice and Men?

Genetics and selective breeding, of course!

Although genetics is a new science, and genetic engineering is certainly not a theme of the novel, there are social issues here that are interesting for a reader to understand.

The Czech monk in question is Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. Between 1856 and 1863, whilst England was in the grip of the Industrial Age and Victorian heavyweights like Dickens and Tennyson were at work writing, Gregor Mendel was hard at work in a monastery in what is now the Czech Republic looking at peas. He realised that the pea plant’s parents would give the pea plant its qualities. Colour and height were just two factors he realised that a pea plant’s parents would pass on. You can see how this started people thinking about how parental qualities could be passed on to their children and grandchildren, but it was thirty years before anyone started really thinking about what we inherit and what are qualities that are passed on in our DNA.

Just around about the same time in 1859, an English geologist Charles Darwin published a text called On the Origin of the Species postulating that we all came from the same origins. He too had his theories about  physical qualities that could be passed on in animals and in plants too. His theory of natural selection suggested that qualities would survive or diminish depending on a range of factors. They weren’t really new ideas as such, as human beings have been using selective breeding in farming for centuries, if not millennia. Humans started, like the scientists, with plants – and there’s evidence that human beings were cultivating crops over twelve thousand years ago. We’ve been domesticating chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and cows for millennia as well. Nobody had a copy of Charles Darwin’s books eleven thousand years ago, but what we were doing back then was essentially it. If you’ve got a great cow, good at producing milk, then you want lots of her calves. If you breed a bull whose mother was also a good milk producer with her, you’re likely to get milk-producing cows. That’d be a bit different from cows bred for meat. You don’t care if they’re good milk-producers or not. Try and pick a hen now and you’ve got many different species – some for flesh, some for eggs, some even because they look pretty! In the 1850s, we were beginning to standardise dog breeds across Europe, and by the turn of the century, not only were Darwin’s theories being proved or disproved, Mengel’s works had been discovered and modern dog breeds like the German Shepherd were clearly identifiable. Modern farming and modern animal husbandry are all based on the principles of genetics: what you have that you can pass on to your offspring, and whether you are a lowly mustard seed or whether you are a thoroughbred racehorse worth £100 million, genetics link the both of you.

All well and good, but what does this have to do with Hitler? And more to the point, what has it got to do with Of Mice and Men?

In 1869, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, published a book called Hereditary Genius. He was less interested in birds with blue feet or peas and more interested in humans. Just like his cousin and Mengel, he wasn’t saying anything new. Human beings have been breeding selectively for millennia as well. Even Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, said that breeding (of human beings) should be controlled by the state. He thought we had an obligation to be more choosy as a society about breeding so that we could improve our own species. In Ancient Sparta, the elders of the city were responsible for the fate of newborn babies, deciding whether they should live or die. The Romans said that deformed children should be put to death and many babies were drowned in the river Tiber. Even Shakespeare was obsessed by passing on traits, as have been a number of other poets, encouraging the object of his affections to have children and pass on their beauty. But what we know and say is not enough until a science paper has been written about it, and some two and a half millennia after Plato, Galton did just that. By 1883, he even came up with a word to describe this practice of selective breeding among humans: eugenics. The word means “good genes” and was a word used to describe the deliberate and conscious choice of passing on “good genes”.

It didn’t take long for the idea to really catch fire. Here was the science that gave the “elite” the reasons to promote “good breeding” and to put into public consciousness, politics and practice the laws that would both encourage those with certain “worthy” genetic traits to breed, and discourage or even forbid others to breed.

And Hitler is the Twentieth Century’s shining example of how to take that idea to an extreme. He tried to limit the procreation of those he decided were inferior, the “untermensch”, the “inferior” peoples from eastern Europe: the Jews, the Roma, the Slavs, Blacks. The Nazi party took up the notion of the genetic inferiority of such peoples and used it as their way to encourage persecution and the enforced labour of anyone they decided was not fit to breed. The “Final Solution” was the Nazis’ policy to exterminate the Jewish race and led to the Holocaust. It certainly wasn’t history’s first genocide, its most bloody or its most violent, but it is where Galton’s theories ended up. Sadly “eugenics” is often taken to mean that anyone seen to be weak or inferior for any number of reasons can find themselves not just as a social outcast but as the target of a politically-endorsed campaign.

We like to forget that other countries besides Nazi Germany had eugenics policies of their own. We like to think that policies to reward certain parents for reproducing are not methods of “positive” eugenics at work (and Hitler had his own plans to breed a super-race involving kidnapped Norwegian and Swedish women, of course). And we like to forget that our own countries often had “negative” eugenics policies in practice that would make Hitler seem like the milk of human kindness. Marie Stopes, the founder of many fertility clinics and the name behind one of the UK’s leading family planning agencies, women’s rights activist and the early voice of birth control was in fact happy to promote these views as part of a eugenics programme in the UK aimed at stopping the “undesirable” working classes taking over. She thought, like many, that the “feeble-minded” shouldn’t have babies and should be sterilised. In 1921, she became a member of the Eugenics society, some fifty years after Galton first began publishing his views and theories. In the 1920s, eugenics took root in a big way in many countries, including the UK and the USA. In 1910, the USA started their first political acts to curb the proliferation of the “undesirables”.

Societies such as the delightfully-named “Human Betterment Foundation” were inaugurated in the 1910s and 20s. Their missions? Compulsory sterilisation of people deemed to be “feeble-minded”, the poor, the unhealthy and those who upset the moral applecart. Even in the 1980s, there were women in mental institutions across the so-called Developed World… women who had been institutionalised for sixty years for “promiscuity” which was seen as a mental deficiency. The so-called scientists and doctors behind the eugenics policies played hard and fast with whatever they thought to be an undesirable quality. Of course, all of the eugenics programmes, positive or negative, came to an end when World War Two’s atrocities came to light. Suddenly, the “betterment” of society through sterilisation was only two steps removed from a holocaust.

But in the 1930s, what was considered “feeble-mindedness” was a very hot topic. What we lovingly refer to as WASPs, (white Anglo-Saxon protestants) were encouraged. Immigration for non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-protestant countries was limited. Thus German, Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants were encouraged to come to the USA, and Italians and the Irish were discouraged… though they came in their millions. America was not just a place where racism was flourishing but a place where any person who wasn’t “normal” was to be questioned. But these ideas didn’t flourish everywhere. There were relatively few sterilisations until 1927, when a case came to court which opened the floodgates for the sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”. That said, there was one state where sterilisation (and therefore prejudice against those deemed mentally “retarded”) was much more acceptable. Wouldn’t you know it… it was California which had legalised compulsory sterilisation in 1909.

So just how did they determine those not fit to reproduce? IQ tests on the whole. An IQ of less than 70 meant sterilisation in some states. Class was a deciding factor as well. Poverty and the lack of desire to have anything more was sometimes taken as a sign of unfitness. Prostitution was often also a sign of degenerate behaviour and would give you a signed-stamped-and-sealed diagnosis of “unfit”. Immigrants and women of colour were also often targeted (and, wouldn’t you know it, were often illiterate and unable to do well in standard IQ tests… obviously social degenerates!) It wasn’t just women either. Men were often sterilised, especially if their behaviour was seen as aggressive or they showed signs of criminal behaviours.

You might then be wondering how this all connects with George and Lennie. Was the worst thing that could happen the possible sterilisation of Lennie?

Well, not really.

First, on a day-to-day level, you have the fear and stigma attached to mental capacity. If the law says that some people are not fit to breed, then surely that is reason enough not to like them, not to employ them, to think of them as an underclass, as undesirable, as unfit. For many parents with children with diminished mental capacity, they were hidden away and stigmatised (don’t forget, by the way, that one of the leading causes of mental deficiency was actually a vitamin deficiency from a poor diet, so of course more poor people were “mentally unfit” simply because of their poor diet.)The mentally disabled become socially undesirable, a burden on society at best, and the sign of everything that is wrong with society at worst. We’re not talking about enlightened people here. Barnum and Bailey freakshows were still massively popular and anything different or against the “norm” was either something to be laughed at or mocked, or something to be very afraid of. 

Is this then why George is so protective over Lennie and so keen that he keep his mouth shut and prove himself first?

Second, the law was finding more and more ways to institutionalise and marginalise the mentally “unfit”. “Booby Hatches” – essentially prisons for the mentally disabled – were common. That might not be so bad, you might think. Three meals a day, appropriate care. No. In 1911, the Carnegie Institute published a report advising for “euthanasia” (extermination by its pretty name) and many institutions were either criminally neglecting their charges by the 1920s, or worse. One institution deliberately fed their patients with TB, resulting in a death rate of 40%.

One of the most insightful (and, frankly, horrifying) resources on eugenics in the USA is at the Eugenics Archive, where Paul Lombardo says this:

 In 1914, Harry Laughlin published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws.

Just how many of those boxes would Lennie tick? We never know his history – his so-called Aunt Clara took him in and raised him. We’re always left to wonder why she did so – was she a real aunt? Was he an orphan? Where were his real parents? Perhaps she was really his mother and in which case, what had happened to his father – why would she not say that she was his mother?

If Aunt Clara were really Lennie’s mother, there are many reasons she might have pretended to be a good-hearted “Aunt” instead. If she was unmarried, sex outside of marriage could be seen as a sign of promiscuity and would in itself be seen as a sign of Aunt Clara’s own “unfit” nature. Many, many children were brought up by grandparents who they believed to be their parents because of the stigma attached to unwed mothers or young mothers. It’s a different world now! Another reason might be that the state had a sort of “three strikes and you’re out” thing – third-generation “imbeciles” were the subject of many compulsory instititutionalisations and sterilisations.

As Lombardo says,

By 1924, approximately 3,000 people had been involuntarily sterilized in America; the vast majority (2,500) in California.

It was a threat and a huge social stigma. His story of the first sterilisation is haunting when you consider the possibilities of Lennie’s background…

Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old girl from Charlottesville, Virginia, was picked as the first person to be sterilized. Carrie had a child, but was not married. Her mother Emma was already a resident at an asylum, the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and the Feebleminded. Officials at the Virginia Colony said that Carrie and her mother shared the hereditary traits of “feeblemindedness” and sexually promiscuity.

So to bring this all back to Of Mice and Men, and how Steinbeck explores the issue of disability… well, I feel he’s kind of divided. On the one hand, he presents Lennie as a character who is both a partner to George but also absolutely incapable of surviving on his own. The “booby hatch” is a place that “ain’t no good” for Lennie, and what George does is essentially euthanasia – he gives him a kind and dignified death instead of being shot in the guts by Curley or dying of starvation and exposure out in a field, covered in rabbits.

Steinbeck presents Lennie’s mental disability without ever putting words to it.

Through all of our sympathy for Lennie and our understanding of how circumstances lead to the situation – a situation that most new readers can foresee as Lennie’s behaviour escalates and the amount of foreshadowing Steinbeck presents us with – we must remember that he IS a killer. Though it is much more of a horrible accident than it is murder, he still kills Curley’s Wife. So we must always remember that by the time he kills Curley’s Wife, he would have been sent to prison, not to a “booby hatch”. Both state prisons in California were permitted to carry out the death penalty. In 1937, California moved to death by gas chamber instead of death by hanging. When Steinbeck makes the parallel with Candy’s dog, that George “hadda” kill Lennie, that it was the kind thing to do, with Slim forgiving George and the way the situation is presented, we’re reminded constantly that the only other options are Curley shooting Lennie in the guts or him being taken away and locked up, few people would argue that what George does is wrong. That leaves us with the nagging fear that Steinbeck thinks that those with mental disabilities are incapable of functioning in society without harming others, and that the only solution is to euthanise them. What he presents us with, ultimately, is a tale where a man who is mentally impaired is unable to prevent himself from killing or harming others and has no hope of a future. No matter how sympathetically he presents Lennie, no matter how much we see that it was a perfect storm of coincidence, we’re still presented with a killer who is killed in turn. Complex he may make it, but his solution could not be clearer or more simple: Lennie must be put down like a dog.

For the first time, I really felt quite uncomfortable re-reading the novel. I’ve always felt that Steinbeck presented Lennie realistically, warts and all. We find his “quirks” quaint and amusing; we find his mouse-petting strangeness oddly endearing. Nobody is ever outraged by this man who kills mice and carries dead things around in his pockets, or who needs advice on cleaning his face when he’s eaten beans. But when you look at the novel in black and white, as a tale where a man of mental incapacity kills a woman and is then killed himself, it’s a pretty brutal tale where every single character in the novel, including the “God-like” Slim finds it perfectly acceptable that a man has been shot. Steinbeck’s done such a good job on selling it to us that even I think that there was no other option. I’m an anti-capital-punishment kind of person who thinks everyone has a right to life. And yes, even I’m convinced by the power of Steinbeck’s tale that, given the circumstances and the historical context, it was better for George to kill Lennie than any of the other alternatives.

That’s what a good job Steinbeck does.

So how does Steinbeck present mental disability? As a topic profoundly complex, with no easy solutions, no hope of treatment and no hope of a future. Mental disability may have been painted in a sympathetic way, but we are left in no doubt that Lennie is a danger to himself and to others and that, nowhere in the current system, is there a place for him. A depressing depiction indeed.

Further resources:

Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile is set at the same time as Of Mice and Men and is a fictional account of life on death row with a man of limited mental capacity, John Coffee. It’s also a great film with Tom Hanks. I can promise you that it will enlighten you on how Lennie’s life might have been had he been caught.

Jack London’s 1914 story Tales From The Drooling Ward also has some parallels and thought-provoking moments. It’s a quick read and it will give you a view of life from the inside.

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