'Of Mice and Men'by John Steinbeck
Character Study: Crooks the stable-buck
by Christopher Webb
In the novel "Of Mice and Men" the character of Crooks is used by John Steinbeck, the author, to symbolise the marginalisation of the black community occurring at the time in which the novel is set. Crooks is also significant as he provides an insight into the reality of the American Dream and the feelings of all the ranchers: their loneliness and need for company and human interaction. The reader has to decide whether Crooks deserves sympathy, or if he is just a cruel, bitter and gruff stable-buck.
Crooks is a black man, but at the time the novel was written, blacks were referred to as "niggers", meant as a white insult. Being a nigger, Crooks is ostracised by the whites at the ranch and he resents this. As he says (p. 74) "If I say something, why it's just a nigger sayin' it" and this shows his anger at being pushed to the side. Being oppressed has made him seem cruel and gruff, but also has turned him to self-pity and the notion that he is a lesser human. He says to Lennie (p. 72) "You got no right to come in my room.....You go on get outa my room. I ain't wanted in the bunkhouse and you ain't wanted in my room." He continues by saying that the whites believe he stinks and one can interpret this as a way of saying that the whites would find it a disgrace that a nigger should breathe the same bunkhouse air as them. "S'pose you couldn't go into the bunkhouse and play rummy 'cause you was black...Sure, you could play horseshoes 'til dark, but then you have to read books." shows that Crooks pities his own circumstances and vulnerability. However (p. 73) "his tone was a little more friendly" and (p. 77) "I didn't mean to scare you" gives us the impression that Crooks has a kind heart under his blunt exterior.
Crooks brings into perspective the loneliness experienced by all the characters in "Of Mice and Men" by saying (p. 77) "Sure, you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain't no good. A guy needs someone - to be near him. A guys goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya, a guy gets too lonely, an' he gets sick." He is telling of the need for human interaction, the need for company and the need for someone to care and provide security. The oppression Crooks experiences in living in a barn and not in the bunkhouse where he could play rummy as one of the group leads him to this desperate plea to be realised as equal. Just because when he cuts himself, the blood he bleeds is looked upon as different from a white perspective, this does not mean he is not entitled to benefit from human nature. John Steinbeck is portraying here the feelings of Americans of his day and age: their aloneness and their salvation - in the American Dream.
It becomes apparent that the treatment of Crooks has made him cynical. Whenever the American Dream (i.e. the hope of all ranchers that one day they will have independence, land for themselves and be answerable to no-one) is mentioned he dismisses it. He says scornfully (p. 78) "I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches with their bindles on their backs an' that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an' they quit an' go on......An' never a god-damn one of 'em gets it." This stark realism gives us an impression that Crooks has absolutely no hope. However (p. 77) "I remember when I was a little kid....had a strawberry patch. Had an alfalfa patch....Used to turn the chickens out on the alfalfa on a sunny morning" reinforces the idea that everyone has a dream, a goal and a fantasy. Crooks may be pessimistic, yet even he, the marginalised, fearful, gruff, resentful, alone "nigger", has a dream, the hope of one day experiencing the joys of his childhood again.
Should we interpret Crooks as a cynical, evil, unimportant person? After all, he's only an "nigger". Yet one can fell sympathy for this ostracised man who, under his rough exterior, has humanity and all its qualities. Crooks gives us the most vivid picture of life at the time of the novel: its hopes, fears and injustices. And does Crooks also relate to life today? Are we any happier at having houses, independence, freedom of speech? Do you have to be black to experience oppression?