KN, Year 9
Of Mice and Men, considered by many a gem of American literature, at first glance it seems remarkably commonplace. A simple, relatively short recountance of a well-known period in history, nothing special, nothing overly extraordinary. Derision for the book was widespread even at the time of publication. These pessimistic views are shared by many of the literary elite, men such as Alfred Kazin, who, in his study “On native Grounds”, described the book’s “calculated sentimentality” and “moral serenity”, concluding with a rather harsh description of it as “melodramatic”. Views which I will attempt to contradict in this essay, for they are far from the truth. When one looks deeper at Steinbeck’s masterpiece what emerges is a tale of immense complexity, ranging from obvious themes of friendship and loyalty, to deeper, underlying ones such as sexism, racism, ethics and morality. All Culminating in a rather more twisted view of The American reality, than the Dream, so avidly described by George.
What is important to understand from the very start is that Steinbeck was never a true philosopher. I would describe Of Mice and Men not from an abstract, moral philosophical viewpoint, but as a real life experience, designed to make the reader pause and think broadly, outside of the traditional spectrum. This is the key point, Steinbeck does not attempt to radically reform the views of his readers, but rather to make them consider whether what he describes is the way it should be. He raises questions, he does not try and answer them.
The conclusion must therefore be that anything which one infers from Of Mice and Men was specifically designed to agitate, to sow doubts, perhaps even to anger. Comparisons between Steinbeck’s non-teleological way of thinking and Socrates are easy to be drawn, for, as the latter believed, the first step towards philosophizing is provoking thought, then asking the question.
Moral issues represent the core of the book, the most striking are naturally the dilemmas faced first by Candy, then subsequently by George at the end of the Book. I shall begin, rather aptly, with the former. We are told almost as soon as George and Lennie arrive at the ranch, of an old, blind, arthritic dog which is owned by a kind, loving but disabled person: Candy. The dilemma faced by the latter comes when Carlson, a fellow ranch worker, demands what he has been suggesting for what appearsto have been an extended period of time, to shoot Candy’s dog. Carlson claims that this is because “That dog is so God damn old it can hardly walk … [has] got no teeth, is damn near blind and can’t eat”. Carlson suggests that to kill it would be a kindness, to let him live would not be pleasant for dog or owner, nor, he remarks almost casually, does it smell very appealingly. In the end Candy succumbs, obeying the suggestion of Slim, for “Slim’s word is law”. The dog is taken outside, and, after a period of palpable tension, the dog is shot. The reader left sombrely to wonder at whether it was the right decision, ignorant that they will soon be mulling over the very same question, but in largely different circumstances. I shall not fixate on this incident any longer, it is not central to the story, it does however, give us an insight into the end of the book.
“The voices came close now, George raised the Gun and listened to them…He raised the gun and steadied it, he brought the muzzle close to the back of Lennie’s head, his hand shook violently but his face was set, he pulled the trigger…”. To me the death of Lennie came as something of a surprise, I did not think that George would really be willing, despite his continual complaints over Lennie, to shoot his only true friend. After much deliberation I conclude that it seems less an act of kindness but of selfishness. Previously Candy remarks that “He was the best damn sheep dog I ever saw”, yet, when he becomes more of a burden than a profit, Carlson forces himself to let go. Only at this point, holding the gun at his friend’s head does George truly accept suspicions which must have plagued him for years. The dream Lennie and George both shared was one they could not realise together. Like Candy’s dog Lennie had become too much of a burden, therefore he was discarded. Clearly I simplify the thoughts which must have gone through George’s head, the very fact that George was the one to do it shows a certain degree of kindness, he does not want Lennie to feel betrayed, perhaps he does not want to see the look on his friend’s face when the other’s shoot him, and George is powerless to intervene. For me the thing which really decided whether George’s actions were that of kindness or self-promotion, is that Lennie could have escaped, they had done it before. Instead George waited, waited for the dogs and men who he knew would come, that way he could console himself that it was not willingness but necessity which lead him to an action that I believe he only settled on at the last moment. All that time, siting together in the bushes, listening to the approaching hounds, George was deciding whether he should be the one to do it. A certain phrase aptly describes the moral anguish which George felt in those last minutes of Lennie’s life. “I’ve got you an…” It seems that George could not bring himself to say “and you’ve got me” for he knew this was a lie. It is easy to say that George betrayed Lennie, though admittedly his hand was forced, yet in those few words one truly understands the enormity of the decision which George has to make in a matter of seconds. These are not the actions of a man out solely for himself.
It is at this point that certain comparisons can be made between O’Henry’s “The Roads we Take” and “Of Mice and Men”, the former illustrates perfectly the darker side of George’s thoughts. “Bolivar cannot carry double.” Are the words Shark Dodson spoke to Bob Tibdall, talking of the only horse they had to carry both of them. He showed himself to be rotten inside only when it came to the division of profits. Perhaps George used Lennie as a tool? A tool he was attached to, but a tool, nevertheless. Lennie, like Bob, never suspected treachery, he trusted his friend. As Bob described it “we’ve been pards, me and you, Shark Dodson, for three years,” yet when it came to taking real trouble for someone, George, like Shark, wasn’t willing, he did it once and he wouldn’t do it again.
The reader is driven to wonder how much George could have done for Lennie. It is clear that in Weed, faced with similar circumstances, George evaded capture, so why not now? This is, to me, the most telling evidence that the end of the book demonstrates our choice, not necessity. George chose to wait for the gunmen, rather than risk his life again for a friend who, like Bob Timball, was now a burden on him/Bolivar. In the decision between what is right, and what is easy George chose the latter. A brief extract from the book illustrates what would have happened had the situations been reversed. At the start of the novel an argument broke out over the rather trivial matter of ketchup. When George gets angry at him Lennie talks, rather honestly I believe, of how “I wouldn’t eat none, George. I’d leave it all for you. You could cover your beans with it and I wouldn’t touch none of it.” It is not a co-incidence that Steinbeck put this in, it demonstrates that whilst Lennie may not have the capacity to help George, he would do so willingly, whereas George does so partially out of necessity and due to a guilty conscience.
That is not to say that one should not sympathise with George, he sacrificed much to save Lennie, he saw that Lennie was a burden, cumbersome and with a condition which meant he could never be independent. George could not be expected to look after Lennie indefinitely, it is clear from the very start that Lennie’s ambitions are to tend rabbits, George’s ambitions, are to start a family, own a house and make a living. Perhaps that was what George thought of before he pulled the trigger: that, wherever I am, he will always be there with me, and “Bolivar cannot carry double”.
The dream that Lennie and George both share, is to have something which they can call their own. In the Great Depression of the 1930’s a dream widespread throughout the poverty stricken American working class was that of simple possession. Both George and Lennie desired to escape from the economic prison in which they were so inexorably confined. Ranch owners such as “The Boss” profited hugely from the dependence of the working class on jobs. Salaries were low but working hours were long; the mass migration to California meant that jobs were sparse but contenders plentiful, if you weren’t willing to work for a dime, someone else would.
In this jumble of themes, economic depression, continual moral dilemmas, other, arguably more important aspects of the book, often go unnoticed. In particular the theme of sexism, which inevitably puts Curley’s wife in the limelight. In a rather rudimentary, but very effective way Stienbeck introduces the theme of sexism. Curley’s wife, important as she is in the narrative, is not even given a name, one wonders as to whether this is a lapse by the author, or does she represent all women? I would suggest that she is wholly defined by her relation with males, if she hadn’t been Curley’s wife, she would not have been anything at all. On the surface Steinbeck presents her as enticing, she revels in control of males, her outer shell is suitably summed up by George, “Jail Bate”. The overly misogynistic outlook from all the men on the farm suggests that the attitude to women as “lesser mortals”, is one which goes beyond the confines of the ranch.
In order to understand Curley’s wife it could be argued that we should look at how Steinbeck wished to portray her. During the Broadway production of his novel Claire Luce, who played Curley’s wife, asked Steinbeck how he saw her, Steinbeck replied that “she is a nice kind girl and not a floozy. No man has ever thought of her as anything except a girl to try to make. She has never talked to a man except in a sexual fencing conversation”. Perhaps after reading and deliberating over this it becomes easier to sympathise with her situation. Curley’s wife is the only woman on a ranch and is therefore immediately predetermined as “jail bait” and must on some level behave as such simply to give her life a meaningful definition and purpose. Perhaps she takes revenge on males in general, to her they are objects, just like she is to them, but unlike them, she has not known anything else. As Curley’s wife reveals so poignantly in the barn with Lennie, who is perhaps the only person in the world whom she has ever been able to relate to, she wanted to go to Hollywood, be a film star, make her millions, it seems that the more one is oppressed, the greater their ambition. What seems to keep her going is the meagre hope of a letter from an obscure film director who once said she had the makings of an actress.
The desire to become a star is not unique to Curley’s wife. In “The Furnished Room” by O’Henry, Miss Eloise Vashner likewise dreamed of stardom, she unlike Curley’s wife, followed up on her plans, entered a big city. However, driven into despair by the lack of success in a world of male dominance, Miss Vashner kills herself, ending a life riddled with misery; hopeless and forgotten, the only memory left of her is in the smell of mignonette, lingering in a grubby, forlorn room.
Further evidence of the profound loneliness of Curley’s wife is in her dialogue with Candy, Lennie and Crooks in the latter’s room. Using the prerequisite excuse of “Have you guys seen Curley” she seeks out company, upon finding the weak and vulnerable all in a group she immediately assumes her hardened shell. She admits that her purpose in coming was for conversation, the only person she can talk to is her husband, an arrogant, self-obsessed man who has no care for her loneliness. When Candy reveals their plans to buy a farm she goes to great lengths to see them crushed, apparently, if she can’t fulfil her Dreams, no one else can either. Talking derisively of them being the Weak ones Curley’s wife describes how one could “give these men a little money and they would spend it all on whiskey”. She seems to revel in tormenting the men, especially Lennie, who is too kind and innocent to stand up for himself.
The darker side of Curley’s wife is most apparent during the confrontation between her and Crooks. Crooks, surrounded by new found friends and with a glimmer of hope in his otherwise dismal life stands up to Curley’s wife, and she, venting her anger on the only thing more vulnerable than herself, crushes him. Threats of lynching make Crooks, suddenly so emboldened and proud, retreat back into his consigned demeanour, he immediately asks the others to leave him, he has been humiliated. The few vengeful remarks of a desperate white woman are emblematic of the racism which American society of the 1900’s was riddled with. Crooks seems to experience a glimmer of hope, perhaps sparked partially by memories of his happier childhood. He is offered a chance to join the farm and, seeing hope in an otherwise bleak world, agrees. Yet a single dialogue pushes him back into his lonely misery. It must be emphasised that it does not appear as though Curley’s wife has any inclination or desire to kill Crooks. He seems to be a means of venting her vengeful emotions, suppressed by a self-obsessed husband and a world which has been so desperately unfair to her that she has ended up talking to the lowest of society at the time: the disabled, the black and the ignorant.
What Steinbeck skilfully demonstrates is that this racism does not appear to be forced, or even acknowledged, it is an inevitability. A consequence of events played out decades, even centuries before the characters time and as such beyond their humble control. American society of the 1930’s saw no other way than to treat black people as inferior, to think otherwise would be madness, and few considered the reasons behind it. A brief narrative by Crooks is a demonstration of Steinbeck’s belief that racism is not natural to human’s, for, as Crooks remarks, he got on fine with the white children. Then the adults passed on their views and he became an outsider, hated for no other reason than the colour of his skin. The fact that the children had played with him was seemingly irrelevant, their own experiences were overpowered by the generally accepted rule, the reasons for which they did not even think to enquire.
As with much of the most respected literature, the idea of fate is widespread throughout the book, it is on this that I shall conclude. From the very first mention of the occurrences in Weed, one gets a feeling, comparable to the sword of Damocles, of impending disaster. It was almost a pre-requisite of the book that someone would die, and that Lennie’s incredible strength, coupled with his ability to get into perilous predicaments, was always going to lead to something unpleasant. Everywhere they went people wondered at how, in the economic and social climate, two men could stick together through all the hardships. The answer of course was, that they couldn’t. The life paths of George and Lennie’s, intertwined for so long, were inevitably going to go their separate ways, what was not predictable, was that one life, wouldn’t go anywhere at all.
The death of Lennie is universally sympathised with, he, of all the characters in the book, never asked for a fight, never wanted an argument, his innocence and total trust in George is that of a child in his father. One wonders at the injustice of it all. Lennie killed Curley’s wife not out of anger, or even irritation, but out of fright. She in turn came to him because of her own predicament, eternal confinement on a ranch, pursued jealously by a husband who, though he does not care for her, would rather die than see her with someone else. Oppression leads to anger, and anger leads to tragedy, a message all too apparent in this novel.
“Of Mice and Men” is a story of hardship and disaster, chance, and inevitability. It explores themes far surpassing those of friendship and loyalty. In a mere hundred pages it gives us an accurate portrayal of one of the most turbulent periods in American history; demonstrating, far better than any textbook, what life was like for the backbone of society, the poor, the working class: the labourers. Yet perhaps most importantly of all is that it is interesting to read. This is often glanced over by many critics, so bogged down in exploration of symbolism that they forget the true purpose of any novel: to be read. There are many works exploring, in detail which no novel could hope to surpass, racism, or sexism, but they incomparable to Of Mice and Men in passion and eloquence. Steinbeck skilfully imbues the book with suspense, the characters – personalities, and the whole story- a realism which no textbook could ever achieve. It is for that which the book is lauded, and it is for this reason that it is read, years after the demise of its erstwhile writer, and decades after its publication.