Character analysis of Crooks in Of Mice and Men

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.

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Of Mice and Men character analysis: Crooks

There’s a whole world you have to understand in order to understand Crooks, just as there is for Slim and for Curley’s Wife. Like the other characters in Of Mice and Men, Crooks is an archetype: he represents many other people like him. In particular, he represents blacks in America at this time. With all this, it’s important to remember he’s a man too! He’s not just a stereotype.

So… what was the situation?

We all know about slavery, right? It’s not a problem for us to get our heads around the fact that slavery was a large component of life in America around 300 years ago.

But just because slavery existed – and let’s get this straight – slavery has ALWAYS existed, as long as there were people of little value – it doesn’t mean everyone in America liked it. In fact, 25 ‘Union’ states in America in 1861 decided that they liked it so little, and 11 ‘confederate’ states liked it so much, that they went to war over it. Of course, the rich, industrialised Union states won four years later and slavery was abolished for all intents and purposes. If you want to read more about it, then the best fictional account from this time is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another great account of life around this time is the absolutely epic Gone With The Wind. 

Did it get any better for blacks in America after the civil war?

Not much. So they had ‘freedom’, but does Crooks have freedom? Is he any better treated than he would be were he a slave? It was freedom in name, if not in reality.

Plus, whilst in 1865, the 13th Amendment was adopted in the USA, prohibiting slavery and any forced labour (except as punishment), some 11 years later, the first of a series of laws was passed called the Jim Crow laws. The 11 confederate states started to pass laws that segregated blacks from whites. “Separate but equal”, the laws said. In 1950s America, the laws were still going on, and a certain Martin Luther King didn’t think separate meant equal.

Lots of things were segregated by law: schools, public places, toilets, restaurants and, of course, buses (which is what got MLK riled up, but we’ll get to that)

So the USA was a very divided place (and don’t get me wrong, there was racism against Italians and the Irish, the Chinese and Japanese as well as black Americans) so that it would be pretty typical to see a sign like this:

California was one of the states that had sided with the Abolitionist Anti-Slave movement and won the civil war, but it didn’t mean prejudice and hostility didn’t exist. Segregation like the Jim Crow laws didn’t exist to the same degree in California, but there were other influential factors.

Like the KKK.

I guess practically everyone has heard of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group who like to persecute, terrorise and even sanction murder of non-whites?

This growing movement was creating a kind of racial tension in the USA throughout the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in rural areas. Lynchings were common. A lynching, for those of you who don’t know, is where you take a person and you murder them by way of trial and judgement. You decide that for whatever reason, they need the death penalty. And you are the best person to hand out that death penalty. And if that means hanging them from the nearest tree, or torturing them, or skinning them alive, or setting them on fire, you’re the best person for the job.

Almost five thousand people were lynched in America in an 80-year period. About three-quarters were black.

I can think of some egregious and outrageous acts that people have committed on other people – holocausts and war crimes – but it never makes it right. This is just as distressing to me – I hope it is to you too.

And this is Crooks’ reality. When Curley’s Wife says “I could get you strung up from a tree so easy, it ain’t even true”, this is what she means.

And she’s right. It would have been insanely easy for her to get a lynch mob together. Look how easy Curley manages it for his wife, whom nobody except Slim and Lennie seem to like.

An absolutely great book to read to accompany this is To Kill A Mockingbird – which everybody should read anyway. If you can’t, at least watch the film. It’s told by a young white girl whose father is a lawyer. He comes to represent a black man on a rape charge and realises that there is no way on earth the man, Tom Robinson, could have done it. Watch the court scene and you’ll see for yourself.

Despite the fact it’s blatantly obvious Mayella made it up for a bit of attention and drama, Tom is not just accused but sentenced.

So you can see why there was a ‘great migration‘ of black people from the 11 slave states to the ‘free states’ from 1900 to 1930. Crooks no doubt is one of those migrants. Perhaps he had a dream himself, a dream of equality. It’s ironic to me that less than 30 years after the book was published, Martin Luther King was just beginning to have a dream of equality. At the time the novel was published in 1937, it’s inconceivable for Crooks to have a dream. He doesn’t even have a single hope of such a future. Of course, MLK probably never dreamed that 50 years after his speech, there could be a black president. Still, I guess it was something of a dream of freedom that drove so many people from the slave states represented in dark red and black here:

to the states represented in 1990 here:

I guess when they got to the state of California, they realised life there was much the same, despite the fact that California had been anti-slavery. Life certainly doesn’t seem much different for Crooks.

In the next post, I’ll tell you more about how this all relates to Crooks! Enjoy!