"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

"A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green." This evocative first line sets a strong tone for "Of Mice and Men" which is continued throughout the short novel. The clarity of scenery along with ominous possibilities and yearnings are present on every page of this beautifully realised, theatrical story. The arresting title comes from a Robert Burns Scottish poem "To a Mouse" . A translation from the second last stanza has the line "the best laid plans of mice and men" in it - referring to the way schemes go askew and leave us nothing "but grief and pain". It is most apt for this tragedy.

The novel was published in 1937, early in Steinbeck's career. It tells a poignant story of two itinerant farm labourers in California during the Depression years looking for work and yearning and hoping to save for a better life with a small farm they could call their own. They are an unusual couple - Lennie is large, powerful, lumbering, friendly and slow witted whilst George, his companion , is wily, short and dedicated to looking after Lennie. George has promised Lennie's dying Aunt who was Lennie's only relative and carer, that he would always look after Lennie for her. George keeps his promise on a day to day basis with forbearance and at the climax carrying out a dramatic and ethical dilemma action with selfless love.

The story of two such men may not sound very exciting but it is. A key to this reading satisfaction , along with the strong visual nature , theatricality and central ethical drama, lies with the insightfully drawn characters. I cannot think of many better novels in this regard. There are no caricatures here but real people representing human endeavours : longings and hope , jealousies, kindness, meanness, cruelty, weakness and strength sketched economically and supported by keen dialogue. The story has been successful as a stage play , movie films and opera. It is very adaptable to these story modes and as I see it the fine characterisation is a key here.

Steinbeck's portrayal of the slow witted Lennie and his relationship with George cleverly depicts for us the complexity of human self knowledge and cunning in connecting with the" other". Lennie needs George and George , in his own way ,needs Lennie . There is a particularly poignant section of the book where the only Black person on the farm who is everyone's rouseabout , tells of how the Blacks have been moved off the farms in the area and he, Crooks , is alone . He bemoans the fact that none of the white men listen to him or talk with him. He muses regretfully to simple Lennie "George can tell you screwy things , and it dont matter. it's just talking. It's like bein' with another guy . That's all" We get such a graphic picture of isolated loneliness in the racist context told with breathtaking economical dialogue. We learn indirectly that several of the men in the bunkhouse are somewhat envious of Lennie and George and their friendship and the way they need each other.

The scenes shift quickly in this novella - and after that scene above with Crooks the drama heats up and Lennie who does not know his own strength and has an obsessive interest with softness in all living things, mice, puppies and fatefully the soft hair of women. The only female character in the story, the wife of Curley, a boss, is central to the sad ending of the story . She is simply but sympathetically drawn as a dissatisfied wife looking for excitement. Whilst this is a stock characterisation in a way - this description of her after her accidental death pulls our sympathy in a different direction " Curley's wife lay with a half covering of yellow hay and the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple…."

To me this book is above all about relationships - and the essence of them. Steinbeck has captured so much of this in "Of Mice and Men " to put it in the classic, treasure category. A book to be savoured.

1 comment:

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I think you sum up the strenghts of this novella very well. I had never read any Steinbeck before 'Of Mice and Men'. His settings, or what I knew of them, did not sound very interesting, and I feared the novels would be ultimately rather sentimental stories of 'battlers'.

I am not sure I will be rushing to read more Steinbeck, but I did find 'Of Mice and Men' powerful and moving. As you point out, it is very dramatic. I have not seen a stage version, but it is easy to imagine it on the stage. (This applies to practical considerations as well as the nature of the writing and the dialogue: most of the action could comfortably be staged in a single, bare room, and the number of essential characters is small.)

The ending is a bit shocking. I think Steinbeck makes us feel sympathy for what George does. One can see that it is in large measure an act of love. But I found myself wondering if there was not also an element of patience tested beyond its limits in what he does.

Thank you for encouraging me to read this.