Compare & Contrast Of Mice and Men & The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: SCARLETT BROOKS

Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will compare Steinbeck's representation of both protagonists and antagonists in Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. When finished, you will be able to analyze the differences in the novels' treatment of character and theme.

Mice and Grapes in Historical Context

In comparing The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to Of Mice and Men (1937), it's important to understand that Steinbeck wrote Mice first. In Mice, Steinbeck was just beginning to explore the condition of Dust Bowl migrant workers in California.

Of Mice and Men 1st Edition Cover

In Grapes, he takes his exploration to the next level, creating a rich, full portrait of a family in crisis. In order to highlight the migrants' experiences in Grapes, he flattens his portrayal of the forces acting upon them. Therefore, one of the main differences between the two novels is the representation of antagonistic forces.

Grapes of Wrath 1st Edition Cover

Protagonists vs Antagonists

The protagonist of a story is a main character who's acted upon by some force. The protagonist experiences a problem or conflict and has to figure out how to deal with it. On the other hand, the antagonist is the problem-causer, the force acting upon the protagonist. Think of it this way: in a horror movie, the antagonist is the ax-murderer, and the protagonist is his intended victim.

The antagonists in Of Mice and Men are complex characters, while those in The Grapes of Wrath are flat. A flat character doesn't have much of a personality and is in a story to illustrate a single idea. In Grapes, the antagonists are evoked as impersonal banking systems and agribusinesses, faceless land owners, dumb machines, and various kinds of lackeys: land and labor contractors, law enforcement personnel, and at the very bottom of the food chain, three-dollar-a-day men.

Flat Antagonists in Grapes

In Chapter 5 of Grapes, Steinbeck describes the banking system as follows: 'The Bank--or the Company--needs--wants--insists--must have--as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling.' This antagonist is flat because it is completely impersonal and has a single purpose: to feed its hunger and destroy anything that gets in its way.

The 'three-dollar-a-day man' is also flat, even though Steinbeck gives us a concrete example of what he means. Toward the end of Chapter 5, Steinbeck introduces a young tractor driver whom an evicted tenant farmer recognizes as 'Joe Davis's boy.' When asked why he's 'doing this kind of work...against your own people,' Joe Davis's boy says simply that he has a family to feed and earns three dollars a day. Joe Davis's boy is a flat character because he illustrates a single idea: that when confronted by a force more powerful than themselves, some people will take the attitude that it's better to join it than to try to beat it.

As the plot of Grapes progresses, Steinbeck introduces antagonists that are higher up the food chain than the three-dollar-a-day men, and these antagonists are meaner and less sympathetic. In Chapter 20, a land contractor appears in the Hooverville where the Joads are staying. He says he needs men for a job but won't guarantee the daily pay rate. When the character Floyd challenges the contractor, he calls to a sheriff's deputy who ends up accidentally shooting a woman as he tries to defend himself against Floyd. The contractor and the deputy are both flat and represent the kind of person who feeds off the larger system and gains a little bit of power in the process. However, this kind of power is hollow, as the system views them as disposable.

Complex Antagonists in Mice

Steinbeck's representation of antagonistic forces in Of Mice and Men differs from that in Grapes in that all the evil forces are concentrated in one main character: the farm owner's son Curly. Unlike the various antagonistic forces in Grapes, Curly is somewhat complex. He is a 'little guy,' and insecurity about his size compels him to pick fights with much larger men like Lennie. Curly also has a young, pretty, willful wife who disrespects him by flirting with the migrant workers.

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