In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.
It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).
“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.”John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.
When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:
“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.”
This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.
What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.
The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.
Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.
Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.
*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of these titles from the links, I receive a commission from Amazon. This does not affect the price of the books anyhow.