The character of Crooks is an authorial achievement on several levels. First, Crooks broadens the social significance of the story by offering race as another context by which to understand Steinbeck’s central thesis. The reader has already witnessed how the world conspires to crush men who are debilitated by physical or mental infirmities. With Crooks, the same unjust, predatory rules hold true for people based on the color of their skin. Crooks’s race is the only weapon Curley’s wife needs to render him completely powerless. When she suggests that she could have him lynched, he can mount no defense. The second point to note about Crooks’s character is that he is less of an easily categorized type than the characters that surround him. Lennie might be a bit too innocent and Curley a bit too antagonistic for the reader to believe in them as real, complex human beings.
Crooks, on the other hand, exhibits an ambivalence that makes him one of the more complicated and believably human characters in the novella. He is able to condemn Lennie’s talk of the farm as foolishness, but becomes seduced by it nonetheless. Furthermore, bitter as he is about his exclusion from the other men, Crooks feels grateful for Lennie’s company. When Candy, too, enters Crooks’s room, it is “difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger.” Yet, as much as he craves companionship, he cannot help himself from lashing out at Lennie with unkind suggestions that George has been hurt and will not return.
Crooks’s behavior serves to further the reader’s understanding of the predatory nature of the ranch-hands’ world. Not only will the strong attack the weak but the weak will attack the weaker. In a better world, Crooks, Lennie, and even Curley’s wife might have formed an alliance, wherein the various attributes for which society punishes them—being black, being mentally disabled, and being female, respectively—would bring them together. On the ranch, however, they are pitted against one another. Crooks berates Lennie until Lennie threatens to do him physical harm; Crooks accuses Curley’s wife of being a tramp; and she, in turn, threatens to have him lynched. As she stands in the doorway to Crooks’s room looking over at the men, she draws attention to their weaknesses. Deriding them as “a nigger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep,” she viciously but accurately lays bare the perceptions by which they are ostracized by society. Like Crooks, Curley’s wife displays a heartbreaking vulnerability in this scene, readily and shamelessly confessing her loneliness and her unhappy marriage. But because she is as pathetic as the men who sit before her, she seeks out the sources of their weakness and attacks them.