Reading the Classics with Paul - Of Mice and Men
The first we are reading in this series is Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. I should start by saying, his book East of Eden has long been among my top five favorite works of fiction. I first read it in high school, wrote a paper on it in college, and have read it at least twice since. I've read Of Mice and Men before, at least once, but not within the last decade. I've also read Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck was an amazing writer, with an impressive and highly accessible body of work. Like Dickens and Jane Austen (the first that pop to mind), he is very much a writer of his own time and place. As such his works have a firm cohesiveness, and real consistency. His stories and characters are not only believable - it's harder to imagine they are not real, and that Steinbeck was not truly a witness to them all. Beyond that, you could easily imagine any of the characters from one tale being friends to, or relations of, those of each of the others. Grapes of Wrath could have told the traveling tale of any of these ranch hands. Adam Trask's spread from East of Eden could easily have been the setting for Of Mice and Men. Were it not for the fact that I know he had no son named Curly, I'd be tempted to run with such a theory.
When I read Steinbeck I feel like I'm entering a familiar world - not a pleasant one, mind you - but a familiar one. Being a native Californian and long-time resident of the northern end of the state, his landscapes are mine. I know those creeks and sycamores. I know those grass covered hills and valleys checkered with crops. But it's more than that. Steinbeck doesn't just know the land. He knows the people in it. He renders their hearts as simply and vividly as he does the landscapes. I know it's true of the land, because I live there; and it's because I know the landscape of my heart that his characters have the ring of authenticity as well. Like another well-beloved writer, C.S. Lewis, who I also happen to be reading at the moment, the greatest strength of his fiction is his honesty in observation and depth of understanding of human nature. This is why I say that although his world is familiar, it is not pleasant.
In Steinbeck's world, darkness and light are in constant and steady competition, the dark always a nose in the lead . His world is like the heart of a man ever walking at dusk along the edge of a chasm, leaning toward some faint light, always on the brink of some conversion. His dark nature steadily pulls him, as inexorable a force as gravity, leaving his arms just too weak to keep a lasting hold on anything good. His world is the real world of real men. In his world there is hope in despair and there is beauty in the midst of darkness. In his world hope lies wherever hearts are still capable of treasuring beauty.
So, through the bushes and into this world burst Lennie and George. Lennie, is a giant of a man with the mind of a small child: simple and single-minded in his hopes and delights, and nearly entirely selfish. Like every child, he is a darling, and a monster. Mostly he loves things that are soft. He means no harm. Really, were it not for his size and his very human capacity for rage, he would be entirely harmless. The dead mouse in his hand, sets the tone for the whole story - a hanging on to a thread of hope in the face of what cannot really end in any way but tragedy.
Reading Steinbeck is like watching a movie. He sets a scene; he introduces characters; he incrementally, just as if we were there, lets us learn what these people are all about. He gives sub-plots which are prophetic, foreshadowing the final outcome and yet in such a way that the climax is no less a shock. This is so much like life. How our little lives are a microcosm of a whole world of humanity. In this, Steinbeck is a genius.
George, well, it's not so clear what to think of George. Is he a good guy? Is he a jerk? As I read on I find that, like all of us (if we're honest about it) he's both. Is he taking advantage of Lenny? Possibly. Does he love Lenny? Well....he just might. Why are they on the run? Is it all really Lenny's fault, or does George just trick him into thinking it? Why on earth are they together? And then there's this dream. Poor Lenny wants to hear it over and over like a child's fairy tale. They'll lay low, stay out of trouble, work hard and buy their own place. Then no one can tell them what to do. Then Lenny can have rabbits, nice soft rabbits, lots of them. With that dead mouse in mind, I shudder at the thought of the rabbits. We know there's no way Lenny can be trusted with rabbits. Why would George tell him this? He had to know it could never be - unless he figured they'd breed faster than Lenny could pet them to death. But, Lenny's whole future and all his dreams are so pathetically wrapped up in this fiction that I wish it could be true for them, and yet, for the sake of the rabbits, hope it's just a dream.
It is intimated early on that George and Lenny are running from some trouble up in Weed involving a Lenny and a little girl. All we need is the image of the dead mouse to get an idea what kind of trouble that might have been. They've been lying low for a while, and now headed to a new place of employment, a new world of people to whom we are introduced one by one, most of them roustabouts much like themselves. One man, Candy, has been there a very long time, along with his aged dog who had lived with him even longer. Candy's devotion to his faithful, blind, and crippled pet was a beautiful and tender thing, but it was not allowed to last. The demise of the dog cast a dark shadow over our characters' new situation, warning us of the coldness in that place toward the useless affections of the heart. The introduction of Curly, the boss's son, the only one in the story with the power of wealth and authority, and the only one who is a pure antagonist, introduces live danger. He doesn't like big men. He's got his eyes on Lennie. Surely nothing good can come from this. And as if there were not enough evil tidings, in strolls Candy's wife....
Well, I'll leave my thoughts here. This is a short book. We read one half this week and will conclude the rest next week. I'll add my closing thoughts then. If you've read this far, I thank you for putting up with my ramblings, and I hope you'll be convinced to do some reading of Steinbeck for yourself.