Crooks: character and function

Joel Aroeste, Kevin Craig West, David Bunce; photo: Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography
This page aims to provide more than just a summary profile of Crooks; it is a study and analysis of Steinbeck’s use of form, structure and language – as well as the novel’s cultural and historical contexts.  The  analysis should be a useful basis for an essay on how Steinbeck presents the character.   I recommend looking up the quotes and examples in the text because that will enhance your understanding of their significance and enable you to develop your own response.  The page numbers for the quotes refer to the pocket Penguin 2006 edition of  ’Of Mice and Men’

Crooks is an important character: he is the novel’s outsider – far more so than the new arrivals, George and Lennie – and his life is separate from the other ranch-hands.  His bed, a ‘long box’  has the chilling association with a coffin and he sleeps on straw, as the animals do.   His ‘crooked back’ (22) is a physical symbol of his personal and social impediment – as well as being the literal result of dangerous working conditions.  He is isolated by his colour, being the only non-white person.  Because he is, to quote from the novel, ‘a stable buck and a cripple,’ he has become ‘more permanent than the other men’ (75); one suspects the reason for this is that finding another job would be so difficult that he stays put.  Knowing that Lennie ‘don’t understand nothing’ (80), Crooks confides in him and it is through this narrative device that we discover that ‘there ain’t a coloured man on this ranch an’ there’s jus’ one family in Soledad’ (80).  Crooks also represents the negro in his 1930s racial oppression: through dramatic irony, Steinbeck shows the reader Crooks’ bitterness and resentment, which Lennie does not notice, when he says ‘If I say something, why it’s just a nigger saying it.’ (80); this disregard is so matter-of-fact that, when Candy says earlier, ‘The boss gives him hell when he’s mad’ (22), George expresses no surprise at the injustice.  Whilst Crooks himself refers to himself as ‘black’, endemic racist attitudes are seen in the repeated everyday use of the word ‘nigger’ (22)  and it remains unclear whether the view that he stinks, is a racist insult or due to the smell of the liniment, which he uses to relive his back pain.  In any case, his colour is the cause of his exclusion from the bunkhouse and even when he is allowed in at Christmas, it is at the cost of having to fight one of the ranch-hands.  The reader can understand the reason for Crooks’ revengeful ‘private victory’  and ‘pleasure in his torture’ (81) of Lennie.

Candy, as intradiegetic narrator, is the means of introducing us to Crooks; he includes the information that Crooks ‘reads a lot.  Got books in his room.’ (22), and Crooks himself later puts this observation into a surprising perspective when he explains, ‘Books ain’t no good.  A guy needs somebody – to be near him.’ (82); Steinbeck writes that Crooks ‘whined’ about this but he clearly expresses the man’s loneliness later when Crooks ‘gently’ explains how confused a man can become when he has no human companionship: if a man ‘got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so’ and ‘he can’t turn to some other guy and ast him …He got nothing to measure by’ (82/83).  This is why, when Candy comes to Crooks’ room, the reader understands why ‘it was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger’ (84), despite his morose mood when saying that ‘Guys don’t come into a coloured man’s room very much.’ (85).  This is a sensitive portrayal of a lonely man.

Against the outside world, which demeans him, Crooks builds his own protection.  He claims that visitors ‘are not wanted’ (78) and privately retaliates against insults: ‘Well, I tell you, you all of you stink to me’ (77).  After Curley’s wife scorns him among ‘all the weak ones here’ (87) and insults him as one of the ‘bindle stiffs’ (itinerant) (89), he overcomes his self-enforced, unnatural caution to insist that she leave his room .  It is at this point that we see the powerful weight of prejudice and racial bigotry; just because she is white, a few words from her could result in the ‘nigger’ being ‘strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’ (91); the night-riders in other novels set in the same period, such as ‘Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, as well as the song ‘Strange Fruit’ are no mere literary landscape.  The irony that ‘a coloured man got to have some rights even if he don’t like ’em.’ (93) is that his rights only extend to not having the key human right, ‘Freedom of Association or, for that matter, the freedom to live.

Crooks has a world-weary cynical nature.  When he first hears of Lennie’s version of The American Dream, he is far too aware of the harsh realities of The Depression to be swept away by idle imaginings and he ‘interrupts brutally’ (85) when Candy and Lennie are talking about making rabbits pay.  (The rabbit motif, a central thread of the novel, will be discussed on pages devoted to themes and dreams.)  He declares:

I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches…an’ that same damn thing in their heads … a little piece of lan’ … never a goddam one of ’em ever gets it (85)

Despite his experience and belief that there is no joy and that ‘nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.’ (85), Crooks is nevertheless drawn in, when Candy tells him of the dream ranch, to the extent that he even offers ‘to work for nothing’ (86).  The emotional appeal of the ‘guys comin’ in an’ settin’’ (93) and the dream of self-fulfilment are too great for him to resist.
Steinbeck, however, does far more than simply present a bitter, lonely embattled man: that is his nature, yes, but Steinbeck gives him a structural function as well.  Crooks has the characteristic features of a tragic hero, almost in the traditional, Aristotelian sense.  He comes from an independent, self-sufficient and successful family background; his behaviour is that of ‘a proud, aloof man’ (76) and he explains, ‘I ain’t a southern negro, I was born right here in California’ (79).  The flaw (hamartia) which causes Crooks’ downfall (peripeteia) is his pride; the wounding of which leads him to confront Curley’s wife, despite the contextual reality that white supremacy is the dominant ideology of the time.   He finally goes through the process of self-discovery (anagnorisis) and admits: ‘What she says is true’ (93) and we see his downfall as him being forced to  retire ‘into the terrible protective dignity of the negro’ (89) and reduce himself ‘to nothing’ (90) with ‘no personality, no ego – nothing to arouse either like or dislike.’ (91).  This is the total and piteous destruction of the character who had aspired to higher things.  His hollow words:

‘‘Member what I said about hoein’ an’ doin’ odd jobs?  I didn’t mean it.  Jus’ foolin’. I wouldn’ want to go to no place like that.’

are pitiful.

Furthermore, our first, intermediate and last images of Crooks are those of his physical discomfort (94), his ‘lean negro head, lined with pain (56) and his ‘thin, pain-tightened lips’ (76).  The portrayal goes full circle with our final impression of his enduring pain and whilst rubbing his back with the ever-present bottle of liniment; this creates a dramatic sense of pathos in the chapter’s concluding paragraph.


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