(A Book Review of John Steinbeck ‘s Of Mice and Men )
The early 1930s was a time of poverty, homelessness, and pain in America. Families were breaking apart. Violence in the form of labor strikes and an impending world war was in the air. All of these are mirrored in John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men published in 1937.
Though a lean volume, Of Mice and Men is nonetheless a powerful dark tale, a parable of two men journeying through a world of pitfalls and brutal, inhumane experience. When the novel begins, we are treated to a peaceful and beautiful forest scene along the banks of the Salinas River a few miles south of Soledad. Then suddenly the calm is broken, animals scattered about as two men arrived, and the environment seemed troubled of their presence. We are introduced to George Milton and Lennie Small whose initial descriptions are opposites. George is small and quick, with clearly defined features. Steinbeck makes it apparent that he is the “brain” of the pair. In contrast, Lennie is huge, slow-witted, and shapeless. Throughout the novel he is described and depicted in animal terms than human. Given their contradictions, what ultimately binds them is their dream of some day owning a land they could call their own; a land that they will nourish and care for, roots they can believe in as they live “off the fat of the land” — a piece of the American Dream. We enter their lives and drawn into their passage we witness their dream, hope and courage.
As George and Lennie arrived at the ranch Saturday morning we meet an array of characters who are more symbolic than real. As such the ranch represents a microcosm that makes up various aspects of the American society in 1930s. For the most part George and Lennie are the working class looking for a better life but unable to overcome the system that holds them down. Slim is tall, a master craftsman; he inspires confidence and his word is law. Carlson, on the other hand, is course and insensitive as his lack of concern and understanding for others’ feelings clearly illustrate. With Slim and Carlson, Steinbeck presents us his view of man’s high potential and his low reality. Candy is old age, no longer respected as in the past but instead pushed aside. He is worried that soon he will be useless as his dog. Crooks is the black man turned into a “nigger” and isolated from the rest of the society. He is the character used by Steinbeck to show the effects of discrimination. Curley’s wife shows us that love has become empty and often replaced by lust.
Faced with poverty and the emptiness of their lives, most of the people on the ranch have isolated themselves from others. People are always moving into and out of their lives. Their solitude is a way of protecting themselves. The most obvious example of this is Crooks. He has been forced to live alone, but he has turned his lean-to into a personal sanctum. However, what separates George and Lennie from the other ranch hand — and what relates them to the reader the most — is that they have each other. As Lennie often say to George, “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you…” But in the end, George can’t always have his eyes on Lennie. Relationships in the world of the ranch are doomed to failure.
With Of Mice and Men Steinbeck tried out a new form he called the play-novelette, that is, the novel would be like a play. By using circular pattern of locales — taking place in only a few locations — a minimal narration which is much like a stage direction, sparse action with lots of dialogue, dramatic lighting and foreshadowing to connect his plot, makes it balanced and thoughtful in structure. Overall, the novel is tightly ordered and intentionally written in an arrangement that uses theater conventions to produce unity and convey a message.
Since Steinbeck sought to represent the common man through his characters, one can easily notice his use of the conversational and direct ranch language that involves slang words and lots of cursing. As a reader it evoked within a rich “earthly feeling” which makes the land endearing and a sensation of digging my feet on soft fertile soil. This style effectively worked along with the naturalistic themes the book raises.
The title of the novel originated from the poem of Robert Burns from the line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft-gley,” or often go astray. George and Lennie have schemes of their own that promises joy. Unfortunately for them, achieving this will never be easy since they have few skills and resources. It is even made more difficult for Lennie is mentally retarded; his strong body, child like innocence and fascination with soft things work against him.
The image of mice and men are also central to the book. The characters who link themselves with the dream — George, Lennie, Candy and Crooks — are mice who want to be men. They are nobodies who want to find importance and self-respect. For a while we sensed that along with this dream something kindled and gave meaning to their lives — and to some extent their futures. George has a real place in mind; Lennie knows the color of his rabbits; Candy becomes a businessman counting his profits; and Crooks no longer feels like a cripple. Without it life would be an endless stream of days with little or no consequence at all. But the dream is almost never attained due to obstacles that become apparent. In the end micehood prevails.
The author previously planned to title the book “Something That Happened” as I had researched. If he could have titled it that way he would have demonstrated his feeling that there is no power controlling what happens in this world. Things just happen as they ought to be. Nature goes on, bringing with it life and death. People come into the world and go out of it, and they are only barely noticed. Life is fairly mechanical. Throughout the novel there is a sense of the ending’s being inevitable. There is no way for Lennie or George to prevent the impeding tragedy. In that sense, events that occur are just “somethings that happened.”
The title Of Mice and Men adds more resonance and nuance to it and to the holistic view of the book. The latter title gives emphasis that we still strive to develop schemes to overcome our small role in the universe. We build hopes to find a better place. But in the end we fail. The first title would give readers the feeling of emptiness, while the other radiates with a searing pain.
Published by Bantam Books
(Mass-Market Paperback, 1988 Edition)
Read in: April 12-15, 2010