`To dare to live alone is the rarest courage; since there are many who had rather meet their bitterest enemy in the field, than their own hearts in their closet. ` Charles Caleb Colton Is living alone truly a rare courage? Or is it a weak act of conformity? In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, we are teleported back to the 1930s, when most Americans were preoccupied with the outcome of World War I: the economic depression. People held tightly onto the concept of survival of the fittest, with each man working selfishly for his well being.
Those who were not “fit” for society- the mentally disabled- suffered from neglect and cruel treatment (Spilka 101). Steinbeck creates one nonconformist, George Milton, who selflessly babysits the dependent and mentally incompetent Lennie Small, serving not only as a nurturing father, but a comforting companion. On their quest to find decent jobs in the lonely valleys of California, the men repeatedly fail and flee because of Lennie’s innocent, yet unlawful mistakes. With every mistake, George drifts further from his dream of owning a few acres of farmland and living contentedly.
One may wonder why George becomes so faithfully attached to such a nuisance that prevents him from excelling in life. The answer lies in their strong friendship, held together by two opposing dispositions that attract from fear of living on their own in a world of lone migrant workers. Unfortunately, George is blind to the truth that without Lennie, he runs the risk of losing not only a part of himself, but a source of his happiness, liveliness, sanity, and most importantly his dream of living off the fat of the land.
Of Mice and Men is a “social” play in that it depicts through specific individuals the whole group whom they represent, shows something of how they came to be as they are, and suggests something of their inevitable defeat. To a point some will feel that this play is obvious propaganda. It persuades to thought. But it does not take the next step and suggest the action which should follow the thought. The story is left yeasting in the minds of the audience. George and Lennie‘s relationship
In the characters chosen, in the frank vernacular these characters speak, in the theme which runs through the series of stirring situations, Steinbeck’s play is so contemporary that not only would it have shocked an older generation but it has the power to jolt some members of an audience today; and indeed characters, speech, and theme are so flavored with realism and with a sturdy rough beauty as to persuade (or deceive? ) some of us into thinking that Of Mice and Men is a genuine, new tragedy. Genuine, Steinbeck certainly seems to be; moving, his story surely is. Perhaps it is a tragedy?
Tragic flaw; man the pigmy in a relentless universe; inevitable devastating catastrophe? Perhaps. Some feel this way about the story, strongly. But the most persistent labelers are not inclined to think so. They rather readily class as melodrama this story which shares with Mamba’s Daughters the tendency to utilize very simple personality as the central character, one for whom the ordinary social standards do not exist but who is himself seen to be the product of the lack of fine ethical standards on the part of society -the recognition of which is, of course, a new kind of standard.
Lennie is a huge hulk of a man, strong enough to lift a four-hundred-pound sack of grain, tender enough, in a childlike sensuous fashion, to derive endless comfort from stroking the soft fur of a dead mouse in his pocket. His chief characteristic is probably his loyalty to George, whom he follows from place to place, job to job, trouble to trouble. The troubles are of Lennie’s own making, not George’s.
The two men have had to flee the last town where they worked because Lennie had taken a notion to feel the soft red silk of some girl’s dress. The louder the frightened girl had screamd, the tighter the terrified Lennie had hung on until George arrived in time to hit him over the head with a fence picket and drag him off to hide in an irrigation ditch until the posse passed them by. After some wandering, the two arrive at a new job, tying grain sacks for a thrashing crew.
They find their bunks in the bunkhouse and take stock of their fellow-harvesters: Slim, the tall, tanned, expert driver; Candy, a gray-haired old man with a stump-arm who sweeps out the shack; Crooks, the colored stable man, lonely, defeated, sociable; Curley, the Boss’s son a mean little fellow always picking a fight he can win — who has recently married a girl with a questionable past and one eye on a better chance; and other hard-working, directionless wanderers.
Lennie has been tutored by George to do no talking and, in case of trouble, to make his way back to the marshy bank of the river where the two spent their last night before arriving at the new job. Lennie carries out his orders, constantly reminded by George’s quick, warning eye; he keeps still and he works hard; he even evades a quarrel which Curley tries to pick with him.
His aim and ambition, his utopia, is the achievement in real life of a certain story he gets George to tell him over and over — a story about a couple of acres of their own they’re going to have some day, a little house, a cow, a few pigs, and most entrancing to Lennie a lot of furry rabbits who have to be fed. Some day the two of them will quit their tramping from place to place. George has explained the story countless times for Lennie’s benefit. Guys like us that work on ranches is the loneliest guys in the world. They ain’t got no family. They don’t belong no place.
They come to a ranch and work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake. And then the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothin’ to look ahead to. LENNIE (delightedly): That’s it, that’s it! Now tell how it is with us. (Takes hat off places it above him on ground. ) GEORGE. (still almost chanting): With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar-room blowin’ in our jack, just because we ain’t got no place else to go.
If them other guys gets in jail, they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. LENNIE (4who cannot restrain himself any longer. Bursts into speech): — But not us! And why? Because — because I got you to look after me — and you got me to look after you — and that’s why! (He laughs. ) Go on, George! (p. 14) So George begins all over again about the rabbits and the garden and living off the fat of the land. If George tells the story often enough, Lennie can work and save his money and keep out of argument indefinitely. As the days go by, Candy is drawn in on the enterprise too.
He has money saved up; he’ll put it all into the venture. The three elaborate their dream together. But Curley’s wife is no asset to the men’s peace of mind. She is always appearing at the door of the bunkhouse “looking for Curley. ” The men make no attempt to conceal the fact that they prefer their jobs and good pay to her favors, but still she pops up unexpectedly in places where she ought not to be found by Curley. For Lennie, life moves along rather happily after Slim gives him one of the new Shepherd pups which he can pet to his heart’s content out in the barn.
Better than a mouse, the puppy is, and not so much danger of crushing its head. George, too, feels better about life; he begins to set stock by his own story of the two acres and the little house; he can no longer spend his money the way the other men do because he keeps thinking how much carrot seed he could buy with each dime. Finally the day comes when he computes that in another month his money and Lennie’s, added to Candy’s savings, will be enough to buy the place and to make a start. Suddenly George smells the “carnation stuff” that Curley’s wife “dumps on herself.
” She has been eavesdropping. She doesn’t like the name she’s being called; she doesn’t like living here with nobody to talk to and Curley’s refusing to take her to dances any more. Her harangue is broken into by the sound of voices approaching. Almost immediately Curley is there. When he sniffs the carnation perfume in the room, his anger bursts into flame. His accusations shift to George; sooner or later someone has to shut him up and George prepares to fight. Lennie, in terror, gives a high nervous chuckle, whereupon Curley turns on him, lashing out with both hands.
Big Lennie takes a punishing, tenaciously remembering George’s repeated admoni- tions to keep out of trouble. Suddenly George has had enough, if Lennie hasn’t. “Let him have it, Lennie! Let him have it! ” he shouts. So Lennie lets him have it, crushing Curley’s right hand in the grip of one of his own huge palms. By the time the fighters are separated, Curley has to be taken to the hospital to have the hand saved. The ensuing days make George more wary, Lennie more silent — and more devoted to his pup. They just aren’t going to be drawn into any mix-up which will make them lose the pay that will buy the little farm.
One Sunday afternoon Lennie is in the barn dully stroking the body of his dead puppy, which he has crushed with an affectionate “bounce. ” Now maybe George won’t let him tend no rabbits if he finds out the pup got killed. Curley’s wife comes into the barn. She hides a suitcase and coat in the grain box; she means to make her escape that night. Then she sees Lennie and knows that he has seen her. She begs him not to tell. They fall into conversation, each talking more to himself than to the other one. She reviews her past life and its disappointments; Lennie talks about his future with George and Candy; outside the men pitch horseshoes.
Lennie is nuts, Curley’s wife says, not unkindly. No, Lennie insists, he just likes to pet soft things with his fingers. Things like velvet. He once had a piece of velvet of his own. Curley’s wife understands. “A person can see kind a what you mean. Sometimes when I’m doin’ my hair I jus’ set there and stroke it because it’s so soft. ” Her hair isn’t coarse like Curley’s, she says, but fine and soft. She lifts Lennie’s hand to her hair to “feel and see how soft it is. ” Lennie likes stroking the soft hair. “Oh, that’s nice,” he says over and over. His strokes become harder and Curley’s wife grows frightened.
She screams and Lennie clasps his other hand over her nose and mouth. Now he is twice as terrified as she is; if George hears her making a fuss, he’ll be mad and maybe he won’t let Lennie tend rabbits. He shakes Curley’s wife violently until her neck snaps sidewise and she lies quite still. Then he realizes that something is wrong; that he’s “done another bad thing. ” In a daze he partly covers her with hay, whining pitifully like a child. With the dead pup in his arms he slips off through the door. After the horseshoe tournament is finished, the men find Curley’s wife and are sure at once who did the deed.
Curley calls for men and guns to go after Lennie. Slim speaks to George quietly. There’s no doubt that the broken neck is Lennie’s work, he thinks, but they mustn’t let Lennie be caught and locked up, strapped down, confined in a cage. That isn’t the way for Lennie. Yeah, George knows; and he puts a gun in his pocket. On the sandy bank of the river Lennie waits for George just as he said he would if he ever got into trouble. Reluctantly he buries his dead pup; there is enough the matter as it is. After a while George finds Lennie and barely has time to hide him when the other men come up.
Slim, at a sign from George, misdirects the men down various roads; but they arrange to meet back at the river. When Slim is gone, George calls to Lennie. Lennie wants to go hunting with the men; he likes hunting. But George, rather huskily, orders him to sit down. Lennie senses deep difficulty and begins to plead. “George! Ain’t you gonna give me hell? ” He wants it like he’s always got it before; he prompts George, repeating the words of past recriminations. And then he comes in with his usual refrain: “I can go away. I’ll go right off in the hills and find a cave if you don’t want me.
” This time George doesn’t rise to his cues. Through stiff lips he assures Lennie gently that he wants him to stay right here. LENNIE (craftily): Then tell me like you done before. GEORGE: Tell you what? LENNIE: ‘Bout the other guys and about us! GEORGE (recites again): Guys like us got no families. They get a little stake and then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody that gives a hoot in hell about them. LENNIE (happily): But not us. Tell about us now. GEORGE: But not us. LENNIE: Because. . . . I got you — GEORGE: Because I got you and — LENNIE: And you got me and we got each other. That’s what gives a hoot in hell about us.
George goes on with the old story. He has Lennie sit down by the river and look across; look hard enough and he can see the little place . . . . a cow, a pig, and chickens; down in the flat a piece of alfalfa — for the rabbits — GEORGE: Right across the river there. (Slowly taking the Luger out of his pocket. ) Can’t you almost see it? LENNIE: Where, George? GEORGE: Over there. You keep lookin’, Lennie. Just keep lookin’. LENNIE: I’m lookin’, George; I’m lookin’. GEORGE: That’s right. It’s gonna be nice there. Ain’t gonna be no trouble, no fights. Nobody ever gonna hurt nobody, or steal from ’em. It’s gonna be — nice.
(Placing gun at back of LENNIE’S head. ) LENNIE (happily): I can see it, George. I can see it! Right over there — I can see it! George fires. As Lennie crumples and falls, his heavy body crashes down a small willow tree. The voices of the men are heard in the distance growing louder, nearer, as the curtain falls. (p. 106) Conclusion In Of Mice and Men, land, which is synonymous with home and family, assumes tremendous importance as well, but more from a social than a religious point of view. Men like Lennie and George have been dispossessed of land for so long that they can’t remember when they ever had a home.
Like the poor migrants sailing to the New World and the pioneers traveling to the American West, the land is not essentially part of their lived past, their remembered history. It is, rather, a dream of the future, of an impossible Eden. The idea of an Edenic life on one’s own land opens Of Mice and Men in a description of a willow-bound pool in the foothills of the majestic mountains. This description, with its use of the color gold and the sense of harmony has an almost dreamlike quality. At the same time, Lennie and George’s plan to own their own farm is a dream of a return to Eden where they can “live offa the fat of the lan'”.
The farm dream, with its rabbits and chickens and vegetable patch, is an idyllic one of ideal independence and freedom. As in Eden, they will be free there from the back-breaking labor to which they now travel, going from farm to farm. George explains to Slim that the dream is one of independence and the satisfaction of reaping his own crops. George’s third incantation of the land dream, just before Candy joins in, echoes the Eden-like portrayal of California missions sent back east in the early 1840s. That Eden in reality is sullied is signaled with Lennie’s return to the pond, where there is now a “shadow in the valley”.
A shade has fallen over the scene, and a serpent, Biblical symbol of evil, glides over it. The destructiveness emerges in Eden as a heron devours the snake. No sooner has this snake been devoured, however, than another appears. The story of George and Lennie’s dream of land is, of course, the American Dream of self-sufficiency, plenty, and freedom. That story begins in America with the settling of the New World by England and Europe’s poor. There was not even the remotest possibility in the Old World for most of the poor to have the freedom and respect that come with land ownership.
They were doomed always to live on and work someone else’s land, as are Lennie and George. Only with the opening up of a New World to these emigrants–a New World often described as Eden–was there a possibility of a decent life. While the plans of many, like those of George and Lennie, were doomed to failure, others found what they were seeking–a plot of land by means of which they secured not only an independent subsistence, but personal esteem in the eyes of the world. Works Cited Burkhead, Cynthia. Student Companion to John Steinbeck. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. John Steinbeck The Years of Greatness, 1936-1939.
Ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993. Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding of Mice and Men, the Red Pony, and the Pearl A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. Knowles, Lori P. “Of Mice and Men: Patenting the Oncomouse. ” The Hastings Center Report 33. 2 (2003) Steinbeck John, Mice and Men, by, The Viking Press, Inc. , New York. copyright, (1937) Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. “John Steinbeck on the Political Capacities of Everyday Folk: Moms, Reds, and Ma Joad’s Revolt. ” Polity 36. 4 (2004)
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