Of Mice and Men By John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, London, 2000, pp.106, £8.99 (paperback).
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a novella sized story (about 100 pages) that can be read in one sitting. But a short book does not make it less artful or less critically demanding.
This is one of those books we promise to read, ‘one day’ – along with other classics – but never quite get around to doing so. I, for example, always found the title peculiar. ‘Who are the mice? Or, what of the mice?’ I would ask myself. My curiosity had not translated into reading the book until I recently became interested in gleaning a little bit about the lived experience of transients during the Great Depression. I’d heard somewhere that this was the kind of material Steinbeck worked with.
Although Steinbeck expert Susan Shillinglaw, in her remarkable forward to the Penguin Modern edition, warns the reader not to approach the story as a work of historical fiction (in fact she says it is ‘an anachronistic text, insisting on its artistry, not its historicity.’ (x)) I found it deliciously tempting to ignore her prescription and look for vital clues into both the social and biographical conditions of the nomadic life of rural America.
And what insights did I gain? That the life of a nomad was harsh, unpredictable and lonely, especially if one was a black man. A warning, the ‘n’ word is used liberally in chapter 4 (66-82), but it was still tolerated at the time of first publication, in 1937. Steinbeck is a small ‘l’ liberal, and the only black man in the story, Crooks, is the moral compass of the book. He is morally and intellectually superior to the other characters (he has a ‘tattered dictionary and a mauled copy of the Californian civil code for 1905.’ (67)) and has a grasp of his station in life and the circumstances that constrain him. Because of these sensitivities, he safely navigates his way through the dangers of a white frontier world.
I asked three questions in this critical review: What is the book about – the plot? What are its key themes? And, why should we read it, if at all?
In summary, this book is about the insular friendship between two men, George and Lennie. George is older, smarter, more resilient and the dominant one in the relationship. Lennie is a gentle giant who is very slow, socially unaware, emotionally brittle and has no sense of, or control over, his physical strength; which gets the pair into constant scrapes with their hosts.
What drives George and Lennie across the physical landscape, is the American Dream, the desire to improve their lot in life through hard work and prudence, so they can buy a place of their own and become the authors of their own destiny. To ‘live off the fatta the lan’ (16) is a common refrain throughout the book.
The hope and excitement this endeavour generates, and the risks and consequences of not realising a modest level of economic prosperity, and the dignity and social mobility this brings, is perhaps what gives this morality tale its timeless appeal. How different are George and Lennie’s aspirations, from our own?
George and Lennie travel from town to town in search of gainful work, but end up having to flee a job on account of Lennie’s unintended misdemeanours. When they arrive at a particular ranch in Salinas Valley, California, the setting of the story, it is the strange and tragic events involving Lennie and the boss’s son’s troubled wife (referred to as Curley’s wife, she has no identity of her own), that leads to the abrupt and shocking dissolution of George and Lennie’s brotherly bond, ending the story on a jarring note.
The key themes of the book are friendship and loyalty and how these bonds are tested and often torn asunder by the impersonal forces of modernity.
As an interesting footnote, in the voice of Curley’s wife one can sense the early stirrings of the the kind of cultural feminism articulated so gracefully in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. ‘Ain’t I got a right to talk to nobody…I coulda made somethin’ of myself…Maybe I will yet.’ (87) That this yearning comes to naught may leave the reader pondering the author’s sentiments toward women as equals. But Steinbeck is a humanist, and Curley’s wife’s fate is a statement of criticism against the patriarchal times, not an affirmation of the status quo.
Of Mice and Men is a good yarn which expresses the dialectic of optimism and pessimism of the Great Depression as well as providing a close up snapshot of a place and time, teetering precariously on the edge of rapid urbanism and its doubled edged sword of convenience and selfishness.
To borrow a cliche, you could do worse than read this novella. Once you start travelling with George and Lennie, as the third but invisible companion in this road story, you probably won’t put the book down until the bitter end.
And about the mice? I think the mice are symbolic of the fragility of modern life (as are the pups and rabbits which Lennie obsesses over) of all that is pure and innocent, perhaps beautiful, in the world; threatened by the impersonal nature of machinery which we have become alienated by, even when it promises a better life.
Maybe that is why Lennie keeps unwittingly killing his pet mice, as he strokes them with the innocence of a child, but with the brute force of a grown man. He has no sense of proportion of his physical strength.
Likewise, we moderns fail to grasp, or are compelled to overlook, the violence which the benign idea of progress has unleashed upon the relationships we cherish the most.