Southgate Schools»Joseph Reynolds

Mr. Reynolds' English Classes

Southgate Anderson High School

Bookmark and Share

Aunt Clara Article

"Aunt Clara" article:

Zen 4 Energy

Friday, March 5, 2010

Lennie's Aunt Clara and Whore House Boss Clara: Allusions to Asylums

The name 'Clara' in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men does not represent a person; it represents American asylums in the 1930s. It might even refer specifically to the Agnew's State Mental Hospital in Santa Clara, California since the institution was a model of progressive treatment in the 1920s and 1930s. Steinbeck gave two very different female characters the name 'Clara'. He could have selected any number of different names, or even a similar one, such as Clair. His use of the identical name for more than one character indicates that they represent the same object. Because these are not primary characters, readers must look harder for clues about their meaning, but Aunt Clara's critical voice in the final chapter affirms the allusion with her psychiatric knowledge of Lennie. The distinguishing element between the two women is their point of view of the asylum. Through Lennie and George, we see Aunt Clara as an asylum from the perspective of the disabled and their families. On the other hand, whore house boss Clara represents the distant public perception of mental institutions. We learn this from the ranch hand characters that Clara's whore house is a danger to all who enter. The ranch hands' image of Clara's whore house, like the public perception of mental institutions, is acquired through rumor, feeding upon a fear of disease and a belief that pretty buildings cannot change what is dirty inside. 


Steinbeck designed the allusion based upon his knowledge of asylums. He lived in a era where society openly discussed eugenics, euthanasia, the cost of care for the disabled, and, if possible, how to value life.i Steinbeck's awareness of asylums influenced this work because Lennie's character is based upon a man Steinbeck knew. In an interview with The New York Times just after the book was published, Steinbeck told the reporter that he had worked as a bindlestiff in the story's county and he created composite characters from his experience. He explained that: 


Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach...I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late.ii 

Steinbeck was also specifically aware of the Agnew's Facility for the Insaneiii, "a neuropsychiatric institution for the care and treatment of the mentally ill,”iv located in Santa Clara, California, less than 100 miles from his home. It was famous during Steinbeck's writing career because an earthquake destroyed it in 1906, killing many patientsv and leaving many other patients In addition to its historical significance at that timevii, Agnew's State Mental Hospital was rebuilt with the most progressive rehabilitation goals in the State. The new building "was redesigned in a revolutionary cottage plan spreading the low-rise buildings designed to bring light and air to patients along tree-lined streets in a manner that resembled a college campus.”viii The Agnew's' Asylum was "intended to be a 'cheerful' place with its decentralized specialized buildings for different treatment purposes and different types of patients.”ix

Steinbeck crafted two women to represent two contrasting views of asylums.x He provided hints through enunciation, definitions and dialog. With respect to enunciation, the name 'Clara' is identical to the last part of the asylum's home town name, Santa Clara. Secondly, the actual sound of the asylum's home town name, Santa Clara, is very close to the sound of Aunt Clara. Few, if any, other given names of women could have served as a crafty. but effective allusion of asylum. For example, Agnew's, the name of the institution, is the name of the donor of the property and the direct use of his name could have led to legal problems. A variant of the name, Agnes, may not have been an acceptable name for both an aunt and a whorehouse boss, or it might have made the allusion too easy for his readers to find.

The foundational character is Lennie's Aunt Clara. She appears just after the introduction of Lennie's desire for rabbits and just before the final rabbit's appearance at the end of the book. The 'aunt' relationship may symbolize an asylum because an aunt is not always blood related, and her relationship to Lennie is not necessarily a biological one. During Steinbeck's life the term, 'aunt', included an endearing use for "[a]ny benevolent practical woman who exercises these qualities to the benefit of her circle of acquaintance; ...or as ‘a term of familiarity or respect applied to elderly women, not necessarily implying relationship’.”xi Early in the book, George does not refer to Lennie's aunt when he explains their relationship to the boss. "He's my...cousin. I told his old lady I'd take care of him.xii The colloquialism, 'old lady' usually refers to a wife or a mother. George did not claim an obligation to Aunt Clara or to 'Lennie's aunt' or even to 'Lennie's people' but to Lennie's 'old lady'. Lennie's 'old lady' could be his mother and not his aunt. Aunt Clara was benevolent like an aunt in that she raised Lennie, but we see no direct benevolence between them in the book. She knows Lennie better than anyone else, and yet lacks the compassion of a relative or caretaker. 

We also learn several facts about Aunt Clara's physical appearance which offer a glimpse into the institutional world. She was "a little fat old woman. She wore thick bull's-eye glasses and she wore a huge gingham apron with pockets, and she was starched and clean.”xiii In the end, we learn that she knows Lennie better than anyone, even George.

Aunt Clara's physical stature was little and fat. In California, there were few state-funded mental institutions despite a great social need. In terms of overall state services, asylums were a small part, a little part. Yet in terms of need,by 1920, the Agnew's asylum was overcrowded by 20% and had a waiting list of more than 800 people.xiv So, an asylum, within its little body, it was overflowing with patients. Steinbeck may also be referring to the cost of mental health resources in the state. Agnew's Asylum aimed for a self-sufficient farm atmosphere, though it was far from financially self-sufficient. The budget for California asylums in 1898 was almost 1.5 million dollars.xv


If fat does not refer to the number of people within the California asylums or the cost of these asylums to the state, then it must refer to Agnew's Asylum's prosperity. Lennie loves to talk about how they will "live off the fatta the lan'” and have the best of everything. Yet Lennie and George's dream for a place of their own and their desire to survive and prosper by relying on what they can grow and raise sounds very similar to language used by the Trustees of the Asylums in their reports to the State of California. Agnew's State Hospital's occupational therapy program included participation in the operations of the extensive orchard and farm, gardening, industrial therapy and occupational rehabilitation programs for men and women:

Those at the farm will...spend more time out of doors and many of them can be occupied with farm. [R]ugs carpets baskets brooms toys shoes and different other articles are manufactured...this is not alone very beneficial to the welfare of the patients but means quite a saving to the institution...The farm...has been very productive enabling us to diminish our cost of maintenance and at the same time provide the patients with a great variety of vegetables and an adequate supply of milk eggs etc.xvi

Indeed, Agnew's Asylum was designed to feel more like a home or a college than an institution with work, re-education and even performance in on-site theatrical productions.xvii The institution could be so fulfilling, that "the fatta the lan'” at Agnew's Asylum is so "fat", they will need nothing else to be happy. 

Aunt Clara's her old age could refer to the length of time mental institutions have been in society, particularly if the discussion of euthanasia and cost of the mentally ill was at issue. Steinbeck may have wanted to note that caring for the mentally ill is not a recent phenomenon. Societies have found ways, other than by euthanasia to care for these people over hundreds of years. Cost was a pressing consideration for states. As early as 1920, California accountants were projecting the savings to the state of deporting non-citizens housed in asylums.xviii If Steinbeck is drawing upon the Agnew's Asylum specifically, this could be a reference to the decrepit Agnew's Asylum just after the 1906 earthquake.xix


One of the most important aspects of Aunt Clara is her vision. Bull's-eye glasses are thick, convex lenses, curving outward.xx Bull's-eye glasses were used by people who had cataracts before contemporary eye surgery techniques became standard. People with cataracts are becoming blind to the outside world. The exterior rules no longer apply in the institutional setting. George describes Lennie as "strong and quick and Lennie don't know no rules.xxi His physical strength can be used, but he has been blind to the rules of society. Additionally, Aunt Clara's knowledge of Lennie's vices, including his manipulation of George demonstrates her knowledge of Lennie. She knows him so well she can be in Lennie's head and step out of it. Lennie does not get into trouble at Aunt Clara's place; Aunt Clara complains that Lennie is always getting George into trouble. 


Steinbeck points out that Aunt Clara's clothing was protected with a gingham apron and the apron had pockets. The interiors of mental institutions, particularly its patients also need protection. They need protection more than other governmental functions. Aunt Clara's protection is a cotton cloth that typically has stripes or checks woven into it. Stripes could symbolize prisoner's uniforms or imprisonment. This is consistent with the medical professionals' perspective of their patients because the institutionalized were not always called patients; sometimes they were called inmates.xxii Given this medical model's influence, health care professionals continued to see their patients as a social burden, whether or not they resided in the institution. In part of Aunt Clara's attack on Lennie, she blames him for George's lack of freedom because the institutional perspective also views mentally ill people as a burden to society, even if they function well inside of the institution. Aunt Clara says, "All the time he coulda had such a good time if it wasn't for you. He woulda took his pay an raised hill in a whore house, and he coulda set in a pool room and played snooker. But he got to take care of you.”xxiii A concerned caretaker would not be angry at someone's behavior because it prevented another person from going to a whorehouse and playing pool.



Finally, Aunt Clara was starched and clean. Aunt Clara provides an image of what an institution is like for the insiders. It serves as a caretaker without any emotional closeness. Steinbeck slips in that Aunt Clara was starched, not the apron. Starched means stiffened.xxv This starch could refer to a separation or a distance, but it definitely contrasts with the softness that Lennie craves. Distance suggests the relationship is not a close one. However, an institution can feel like a place of benevolence for those who have been excluded from society. Asylums at the turn of the century addressed what they believed to be a broad range of causes of insanity.xxvi Once inside, the outside world became a distant force.xxvii A stiffness is a contrast to Lennie. Lennie likes to pet soft animals, like mice and puppies, but he is very strong and often kills his tiny pets. This stiffness can explain why there was never an effort to touch him or show him compassion even when George who has been responsible for him, has been able to feel compassion for Lennie. George was a person; Aunt Clara was not. 


Whorehouse boss Clara is a different story. The second Clara we meet runs a less than desirable whorehouse, according to her competition. We hear the description of her place third-hand through the ranch hands.xxviii This outsider view of Clara's whore house from Suzy's perspective is accepted as truth by the ranch hands, but George seems skeptical of the ranch hands' description since none had actually been there. He is the one that asks for the source of the information and the reader learns that this is Suzy's perspective. Through Suzy's eyes and then through the ranch hand's voice, a mental image of a mental institution is formed. What we know of Clara and her whorehouse is from an outsider's perspective. We do not have Clara's opinion, or anyone that has personally been there before.

Clara's whorehouse is distinguished by its Kewpie doll lamps, it homemade rugs, and a danger of being burned. Clara's Kewpie doll lamp is a particular type of doll first manufactured at the beginning of the 20th century, around the opening of the Agnew's Asylum, but its meaning is tied into the childish nature of the object interconnected with a functional object. 


Clara's place is also defined by the risk of syphilis Whit says that Susy "says, 'there's guys around here walkin' bow-legged cause they like to look at a Kewpie doll lamp.'”xxix They are referring to the way a man might walk who has contracted a venereal disease. Syphilis was a major issue in Steinbeck's time as it was for mental institutions, including Agnew's Asylum. For example, it was a factor in nearly one-fourth of all admissions in 1920 with more then 10% of these in the later stages that affected the nervous The message is that if you think that these institutionalized people are safe, you are at risk of catching whatever illness they have. 


The final distinction between Clara's whorehouse and Susy's whorehouse is made through a negative inference. Susy "[d]on't let no goo-goos in, neither.”xxxi The conclusion Whit expects George to draw from this is that in Clara's whore house, he will have to hang around with goo-goos. A goo-goo describes "An imitative representation of baby talk” or "of the eyes or glances: amorous, ‘spoony.”xxxii. The goo-goos at Clara's whorehouse will stare at George with amorous or spoony eyes and speak in "baby talk”. That is no place for a man to be, according to Whit. George does not respond to this claim. It is the type of response that family members may have when mentally ill people are caricatured. Whit's wit can only bring out a protest of silence, for in George's mind, it cannot be explained. 


In conclusion, Lennie's Aunt Clara and whore house boss Clara are representative of the public's image of the asylums; Lennie's Aunt knows them personally while the whorehouse boss Clara has never been described directly. Given Steinbeck's general knowledge of the issues of his time and his experience with a 'real' Lennie, he knows that mental institutions are experienced in such different ways that a discussion of euthanasia for the socially useless members of society cannot be effectively explored until they see Clara's whore house for themselves. For intellectuals without direct first-and knowledge, they will see costly and dangerous adults walking in circles with their childlike minds. Advocates of eugenic euthanasia should at least see with their own eyes what Aunt Clara's apron protects before making social policy decisions.


See Pernick, Martin S. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print. This book provides a historical perspective on eugenics, euthanasia and the use of film to influence cultural values.

Parini, Jay. "FILM; Of Bindlestiffs, Bad Times, Mice and Men." New York Times 27 Sept. 1992, New York ed., Film Reviews sec.: 224. New York Times. New York Times. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.

The facility was also known as the Great Asylum for the Insane, Agnew's Asylum, and Agnew's Insane Asylum.

United States. National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. National Park Service. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.

In some reports to the legislature, the Trustees identify the residents as "inmates”. Provide example/cite

Find original source: During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the center became infamous as the site of the Santa Clara Valley's greatest loss of life resulting from the quake. The Daily Palo Alto reported: "The position of the people in Agnew's is critical; a number of insane persons having escaped from the demolished asylum, are running at random about the country." 117 patients and staff were killed and buried in mass graves on the site. The main building and some others were irreparably damaged. Source: "Agnew's Developmental Center." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 3 Mar. 2010. See also Crazyhorseghost. "Agnew's Insane Asylum 86." HubPages. Hubpages, Inc. Web. 3 Mar. 2010.

. To the left of the entrance is a small historical society plaque stating the building was known as "the great asylum for the insane.” "When the Going Gets Tough." Context Magazine Feb. 2002. Context Magazine. Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, Inc. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.

FREUD must be considered because Aunt Clara's final words are "from out of Lennie's head”(100), but I'm out of time. After Lennie recognizes that he killed Curley's wife. Freud's story of Dora with an aunt complex – Lenny's "craftily” actions were sly, cunning, intentional, with an intentionality George does not see. Aunt Clara "stood in front of Lennie and put her hands on her hips, and she frowned disapprovingly at him.” (101) Also look at doubling.

"Aunt." Def. 1.b. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.

Steinbeck, 22

Steinbeck, 100-101

Page # California. State Commission in Lunacy. Twelfth Biennial Report of the State Commission in Lunacy for the Two Years Ending June 30, 1920. Sacramento: State of California, 1921. Print.

1898 Report

Page 28. California. State Commission in Lunacy. Twelfth Biennial Report of the State Commission in Lunacy for the Two Years Ending June 30, 1920. Sacramento: State of California, 1921. Print. By FRED P CLARK Medical Superintendent New Buildings.

Inmates at Agnew's State Hospital performing in A theatrical production. 1900s. Photograph. Silicon Valley History Online, Santa Clara, California. Santa Clara City Library. Santa Clara Library. Web. 3 Mar. 2010.

Page 21. California. State Commission in Lunacy. Twelfth Biennial Report of the State Commission in Lunacy for the Two Years Ending June 30, 1920. Sacramento: State of California, 1921. Print. Financial Benefit Derived by the State Through the Efforts of the State Commission in Lunacy TABLE No 4

To consider: "When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie jus come along with me out workin'. Got kinda used to each other after a little while.” Did her death represent the 1906 earthquake? Or possibly the waiting lines for entrance?

Another potential related topic to research: A definition of bull's eye glass as an artifact of an era when window glass was mouth-blown. Used often in colonial front doors.

Steinbeck, 27.

This language is used throughout reports to the State of California. The photograph description provided by the Santa Clara Library, for example, also uses this language.

Steinbeck, 101.

Some of the claimed causes of insanity in 357 patients as stated in commitments from July 1 1890 to July 1 1891: Alcoholism, Abstaining from food, Cigarette smoking, Death of mother, Disappointment in love, Domestic trouble, Dissipation, Death of employer, Excitement over invention, Epilepsy, Exposure, Financial anxiety and homesickness, Heredity, Hard work, Injury on head, Inhaling benzine, Inability to support family, Jealousy, Loss in stocks, Louisiana lottery, Morphine and cocaine, Misfortune, Nightmare, Opium, Overwork, Prize fighting, Reverses in business, Religion, Reading works on miraculous cures, Softening of brain, Spiritualism, Study, Shock from accident, Typhoid fever, Worrying over women. Report of State Insane Asylum at Agnew's, 1891, Table IV, p. 21. For causes of insanity for admission this fiscal year by medical diagnosis, see Table 5, page 22. For information on the treatment of syphillus, see page 32 of report.

Note: Santa Clara's new image was to convey a sense of hope for its patients by ensuring proper care for patients. Imagine the public anger in the Great Depression if Agnew's was as the Trustee's described.

I need an OED cite.

Steinbeck, 52-53.

Steinbeck, 52.


Steinbeck, 53.

Goo-goo. OED

Posted by Kim at 3:23 PM

Site updated on May 21, 2018