Roughly a hundred pages, and easily transformed into a play and movie, Of Mice and Men would seem to be John Steinbeck’s tightest construction. It has a plot that does not seem forced even though its design is very schematic. Like ancient Greek tragedies—or those of Steinbeck’s contemporary and fellow Novel laureate, Eugene O’Neill — the doom is foreshadowed from the beginning and fate moves inexorably to cut down men and to dash their plans.
For the migrant and stationary (maimed) farmworkers, the plan is of owning a small farm rather than working for others. The hulking mentally deficient Lennie is fixated on being in charge of the rabbits on the farm George is going to buy with their save-up earnings. The reader may wonder if even rabbits can breed fast enough to maintain their numbers with a caretaker who tends to pet animals to death. He doesn’t mean to kill the soft beings to which he is drawn, but. . . There was that woman back in Weed. The dead mouse. Then the puppy. . .
For George, who “looks after” Lennie (and probably only is hired because he delivers so formidable and mindless a worker as Lennie) the farm is a dream. That is, he knows it is never going to happen, because he is never going to save the money to buy it. And then a prospective partner with assets jolts him into transforming fantasy into plan. And George could have complained to Steinbeck, “You only build me up to tear me down—down—down.”
There is a lot of repetition in this short novel, not just Lennie’s obsessive telling and being told about the farm he and George are going to have. And there is also room to show the pain of racial exclusion. (In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck recalled that there was only one black family when he was growing up in Salinas. A family, even in Steinbeck, may provide a bulwark against a hostile world, but Crooks has no family and is excluded from the amusements of the bunkhouse, forced to rely on the cold comfort of books: “Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody—to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” Hmmm. And often even when he does, as Curley and Lennie do.)
There are two slabs of would-be lyrical nature writing. I don’t think that Steinbeck’s inclusion of Crooks works, since his plight is not parallel in any significant way to George’s or Lennie’s, but the two passages about what is happening in the woods other than what the humans are up to seem to me to contribute to showing the indifference of the cosmos to the fate of the characters.
Steinbeck’s sexual (and other kinds of) politics
There’s a bully, the rancher’s son Curley in testosterone overdrive because he is unable to satisfy his newly acquired wife. She is constantly on the prowl. Steinbeck does not bother to giver her a name, so let’s call her Eve—the archetypal woman disrupting a male paradise, offering fatal temptation to those poor witless creatures, human males. Steinbeck does allow her to give voice to her own loneliness and frustrations cooped up with a bantam who is all crow but whatever his sympathies for her plight, he has her brings down destruction on her games, George and Lennie’s plans, and her own life.
In that Steinbeck’s two recurrent mythical archetypes were the Garden of Eden and the Knights of the Round Table — with special emphasis on women disrupting homosocial utopias with heterosexual desire and jealousy— I do not think that I am imaging the “logic” of misogyny here. And a terror at female sexual initiative (see “The Snake” from The Long Valley for more openly expressed distaste. Also, as usual, there is a wise man’s man (here named “Slim”) based on Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts .And while I am on the subject of Steinbeck’s misogyny, the idealization of the woman as beautiful and peaceful-appearing once she is safely dead bears mentioning.)
There are racial politics and sexual politics and class differences, but I don’t read Of Mice and Men as a “protest novel” or even “political.” If anything, the sensationalizing of the “animalistic” dangerousness of a seemingly placid hunk from “the lower orders” is illiberal. (Steinbeck was a liberal, but a hawkish liberal supporting wars waged by liberal presidents, including the unpopular one in Vietnam.)
After Eve is the catalyst for The Fall, there are Cain and Abel. The ending of the novel seems to me a variant on the knowing one killing the unknowing one. The real-life model was, like Tularecito in The Pastures of Heaven, sent off to the state hospital for the criminally insane at Napa. Incidentally, the real-life model repeatedly stabbed with a pitchfork the rancher who was going to fire his friend. I bring this up, possibly heavy-handedly, to emphasize that the source and victim of violence was male and provided the possibility of a more political economic critique. Making a woman responsible and enacting a death sentence on her were Steinbeck’s modifications—modifications paralleling much of his other writing.
Obviously, I have some qualms about what Steinbeck created. With some major flaws (besides the slackness of the scene in Crooks’s room, I mean Lennie’s hallucinations at the end: it seem to me a mistake in that the perspective through the rest of the book is external and I suspect a misguided attempt to compete with Faulkner in this), Of Mice and Men remains a powerful book, probably Steinbeck’s most accomplished fiction. It clearly continues to be widely read.
Appendix: On the suitability of the book as reading matter for pre-adults
George’s mix of patience and impatience for Lennie and the tragic ending are what I remembered from reading Of Mice and Men in junior high school. Given the high level of violence graphically portrayed in much current American culture, I was puzzled that the book was the book that ranked fifth in attempts to remove books from circulation in libraries last year. I reread it to try to guess why.
In the opening scene, George uses a lot of profanity. Would-be book banners might not get as far as the casual acceptance of prostitution as a fact of life. And I suppose that the third “p” could be read into the book, too (Curley’s wife flirting with the childlike innocent — except that it seems to me that she is interested in the man, not the child in Lennie. . .).
I certainly do not think that the book should be banned, but I think that it is a book for adults. Not because of the profanity or the sex or the violence — all of which are ubiquitous in America 2001 A.D. — but because I do not think that very many (if any) adolescents can understand the kinds of desperations driving the characters. Teenagers have their own desperations, but the kinds of disappointments the characters have had are opaque to adolescents.
As I said, I read the book for the first time myself in junior high school. I don’t think that I was in any way harmed by reading it, but I am sure that I failed to understand Curley and Curley’s wife, in particular. I might have understood some of George’s anguish, especially in the final act, but doubt that I understood his weaknesses. Of course, had anyone told me that I wasn’t old enough to understand the book, that would have ensured my reading it to prove any paternalistic adults wrong. (I wish I could find the book report I wrote on Dante’s Inferno in 8th grade to see if I understood anything of it then!) I would urge others who may have read the apparently simple book at similarly young ages to reread it. It may be more troubling to adult readers who can understand more of it than to adolescents!
(I also think that Steinbeck’s The Red Pony has much for adults to ponder and much to unsettle younger readers, too.)
©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray