Book report: Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck Essay
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In the 1930s Europe considered America a place of hope, opportunity and prosperity. It was believed to be the land where everyone was equal and successful, whilst also evading religion, political narrow-mindedness and outdated ideas of Europe.
Various quotations illustrate the concept of the ‘American Dream.’ The people of America believed that freedom and equality would be gained if they fulfilled the American Dream.
However, life for those Americans turned out to be very different, thus the failure of the American Dream.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’ That nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In 1929 the stock market collapsed, hence the great depression and the start of John Steinbeck’s career. This was due to unemployment, strikes and wage cuts by modern society, which Steinbeck was at liberty to witness. Steinbeck was experienced with working on cattle and fruit ranches as a boy, which were severely effected by the depression. He could only sympathise and relate to the millions of people who were suffering. America was not a paradise but a place of anguish and despair.
Steinbeck’s personal involvement with the struggle of the people, who depended on the soil for their livelihood, meant he could write a series of novels and short stories depicting the suffering. Such novels include The Pastures of Heaven about southern California farmers, In Dubious Battle concerning a strike with migratory fruit pickers, and one of the stories I am reporting on, Of Mice and Men (1937) about farm labourers yearning for a small farm of their own. Steinbeck’s most widely known novel, and the other book I am reporting on is The Grapes of Wrath (1939), an account of a migrating family to California.
Steinbeck died in 1968 after he had received the Nobel Prize for literature, awarded to him in 1962, which he considered one of his greatest achievements.
In the book Of Mice and Men, the outset begins in a romantic setting, familiarised by using poetic imagery, which is familiar to Steinbeck’s style. Steinbeck focuses on the river running through the Salinas Valley, south of Soledad. He then develops the description of the opening setting by commenting on trees on the valley side and mountains in the distance before the two main characters emerge from the woods, which expands the reader’s perception of where the story begins.
Immediately the relationship between the two characters is apparent, as George is in charge and takes responsibility of his own actions and of his friend’s, Lennie. Lennie is incapable of his own well being, possibly being mentally handicapped, and relies on George to keep him safe from harm. It is clear that although George gets frustrated and occasionally angry with Lennie, because Lennie can’t always understand, he still has a warm, kind side to him, which is shown when he constantly protects Lennie, keeping him away from danger. Although Lennie does unintelligent things and forgets most things George tells him, the reader only feels pity for him. Lennie also feels self-pity when George has told him off, and uses guilt to soften George again.
The two men are two in thousands of labourers all yearning for the same dream. They want to be content, which to Lennie and George means their own land and farm. The way in which they set out to achieve this is to get a job. They try to follow the American Dream, regardless of others who aim to dishearten their dreams, such as Crooks who believes he has seen hundreds of labourers who follow the same path as the Lennie and George.
Their dreams of their own paradise fail to happen after Lennie accidentally kills the wife of a violent character, Curley. Lennie previously has killed mice and a dog after petting the fine hairs on their backs to hard. We later find out that the last town George and Lennie were in chased them out after Lennie accidentally frightened a girl, because he liked the feel of her dress. A similar incident happened with Curley’s wife when he feels her soft hair and accidentally breaks her neck.
Curley and a group of men set out to kill Lennie for what he had done, George then joins them, so he isn’t involved for Lennie’s actions, of course he tries to persuade Curley not to kill Lennie. The climax of the story is when George can’t see any alternative apart from killing his best friend who has brought him so much trouble.
In the book The Grapes of Wrath a family migrate to California, in an attempt to also follow the American Dream. Forced off the land, which the Joad family have lived on for generations, they travel across America with three hundred thousand other unemployed people, all seeking work in California seen as the ‘promise land.’
The story starts after Tom Joad, who appears at the beginning of the story to be the main character, has been put on parole. After Tom Joad has found his family again they set off to California. Along the way various obstacles and challenges force the family to be split up by the end of the story. Whether its death or abandonment the family is shortened to the strongest characters.
Towards the end of the novel, the reader has shared the family’s journey, and understands each characters way of thinking and the relationship between each character. The reader also feels they can relate to the problems the family has over come, which helps the reader see the great depression of America through a suffering family’s eyes.
In the first chapter of Of Mice and Men various paragraphs are devoted to the vivid description of both George and Lennie, which goes as far to describe how each individual walks. However, in The Grapes of Wrath there is no paragraphs devoted to the description of each character, instead the reader gradually makes an image of the characters from what they do, what the say and how they develop through the story.
Steinbeck’s writing is done in such a way that the reader can instantly share the same emotions towards another character as the main characters. This is obvious when George is protecting Lennie from Curley in Of Men and Mice and when the menacing uniform and authority of the deputy sheriff intimidates Floyd in The Grapes of Wrath.
“His eyes passed over the new men then he stopped. He glanced coldly at George and then at Lennie. His arms gradually bent at the elbows and his hands closed into fists.”
” He wore riding breeches and laced boots. A heavy pistol holster hung on a cartridge belt around his waist. On his brown shirt a deputy sheriff’s star was pinned.”
The way in which Steinbeck writes like this not only depicts the immoral and treacherous characters it also helps the reader understand what each character is thinking by sympathising with the characters. This was shown when Candy’s Sheepdog in Of Mice and Men is shot after Candy’s close work colleagues almost ‘gang up on’ him to have it killed for it’s own good. The reader sympathises with Candy when he looks around the room at each friend, trying to find hope that they agree with him, to keep the dog alive and after the gun fire is heard the reader sympathises with Candy’s mourning silence.
“A shot sounded in the distance. The men looked quickly at the old man. Every head turned toward him.
“For a moment he continued to stare at the ceiling. Then he rolled slowly over and faced the wall and lay silent.”
Steinbeck doesn’t use sympathy to portray the characters in The Grapes of Wrath as well. Although both Grandpa, Grandma and Rose of Sharon’s miscarried baby die there is too many other obstacles facing the family at the same time, so the reader doesn’t completely understand the family’s reaction to each death.
In Of Mice and Men my most liked character is George. I have a great amount of respect for him for the amount of patience he has with Lennie, which I don’t think I could have myself. He also devotes most of his time to Lennie’s needs and well being, which I think is admirable. George is a small migrant ranch worker, with well-defined features, who has dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own land, to be his own boss, which means he is not only ambitious but commendable.
George has worked with Lennie since Lennie’s Aunt Clara died. George’s patience endures Lennie’s frequent mistakes, which prevent George from working toward his dream, and living life normally without being run out of the previous town. George’s constant yearning to live life normally contributes to George’s final actions to break his long companionship with Lennie, which result in the climax of the story when George kills Lennie.
The main reason I like George is his ability to demonstrate various emotions, when he is dealing with Lennie. In Of Mice and Men George demonstrates anger, patience, sadness, pride and hope, to convey his relationship with Lennie.
In The Grapes of Wrath my most favoured character was usually the main character. However, at the beginning of the story this would appear to be Tom Joad, who has just been put on parole, but towards the end of the story the mother of the family or Ma, had taken the main character’s role. Both these characters are strong characters, and are constantly working to the benefit and protection of the family during the journey to California.
Tom Joad is a particular favourite character of mine due to his revolutionary ideas and actions he takes to ensure not only his family is safe but also the migrating workers, known as ‘Okies’ have work. This leads him into various fights and other conflicts he has to overcome, which make him the most heroic character in the story. His heroism leads him away from the family on his own political path for the justice of the workers.
Ma is at the beginning on the story a weaker character than she is towards the end of the story. I think this is due to the obstacles and triumphs she endures along the journey. I have great admiration for Ma as she takes responsibility for the family at the end of the story, even though Pa is still with the family at the end and he was ‘head’ of the family at the beginning of the story.
Tom Joad and Ma are the strongest characters in The Grapes of Wrath, and although Tom Joad is heroic and eventually follows his principles and beliefs of the rights each worker should have, I think Ma is the most liked character. Ma is driven from the extreme of living whilst also dealing with death in the family, which drives her to her own extremes and even violence. Ma has developed the most as a character through the story, which I admire the most.
Both Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath are written in third person and written in the past tense, both with dialect which express the characters, and help the reader visualise and individualise each character in both books. Of Mice and Men uses far more descriptive writing than The Grapes of Wrath which I think is more necessary in a short story than a novel like The Grapes of Wrath. The descriptive writing is used to describe the setting and the characters movements and mannerisms, where as this isn’t needed as much in The Grapes of Wrath as the Steinbeck portrays this detail throughout the story, not all at the beginning.
“For a moment the place was lifeless. And then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool. They walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other… The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite, huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily…”
“He smiled and his full lips revealed great horse teeth.”
In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck also uses various metaphors as sub-plots. When Carlson and the other labourers try to convince Candy to have his loyal dog killed, they make remarks about the dog, which George could relate to with Lennie. This subtlety is better understood when the reader finds out its George who kills, his ‘worthless dog’ at the end of the novel, who is actually Lennie. Carlson’s comments could also be interpreted as they were meant for George about Lennie.
“…He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy?”
When George is playing solitaire in the bunkhouse, he never invites Lennie because Lennie would never be able to understand the card game. This maybe interpreted as George wanting to be ‘solitaire’ without the burden of Lennie, which may foretell George’s final decision to be a solitary man.
In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck’s style of writing is different from the use of metaphors. He has sub-chapters, which occur in the book often to tell a separate story away from the family. These stories all have the same theme as that of the family’s story, but they are about how they effect the other Americans who aren’t migrating. These chapters show different ideas of the main story, and perceive the suffering of the unemployed differently, which to the reader is helpful to understand the issues raised by Steinbeck about the depression.
One of these chapters is set in a Cafï¿½ en route to California, which is witness to all the passing migrants. The owners of the Cafï¿½ comment on the lack of business the migrants bring. However, the owners actually feel pity for the migrants and this is expressed when one of the owners sells a migrant some sweets for his children for a reduce price. Although when the owner is confronted about why she did that she tries to continue to comment on the migrants uselessness, when it is clear she doesn’t really believe what she says, she is just saying it for present company.
I enjoyed both the books I read, because of the ideas, issues and principles behind Steinbeck’s themes. Each issue and problem the characters in each story had to over come were thought provoking, and I think I would have dealt with the problems in the same way. I think these books appeal to people with political knowledge and who like reading about people faced with difficulties.
Although I liked both the books, for their political and human side I think I enjoyed the human aspects of the books more. Therefore I enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath more due to its involvement with the characters. The climax of Of Mice and Men wasn’t as effective as it could have been if the reader was more familiar to the relationship with George and Lennie, then the reader would have understood George’s difficulty of killing his best and closest companion. The Grapes of Wrath lets you know the characters, to a certain extent that when the story ends and the family hasn’t found happiness in California, the reader continues to think about if they ever will. I am sure to read The Grapes of Wrath again.