Friday, December 4, 2009

Reading the Classics with Paul - Of Mice and Men


Well, this is a definite deviation from the usual bent of my blog, but perhaps you won't mind.  My wonderfully ambitious husband is hosting a reading group on his blog  of the "10 Essential Penguin Classics" (Penguin, as in the publisher, not the cute tuxedoed bird, or the Batman villain). Being, as always, the dutiful wife I'll be doing my best to read along.  I'm trying to keep an open mind, but I may still have to draw the line at the Greek dramas which I've hated since, well, since they foisted them on me in my freshman year of high school. We shall see.

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.

3 comments:

Sedge said...

Oh, heck with it!

FIRST!

(sorry, had to!)

I think we are in agreement on everything you've stated. I've at least driven through Salinas, although I've never spent much time in that area. I think perhaps the actual setting is less important than we might want to believe. One could see the same drama unfold in the midwest, or on a Virginia plantation in the early 1800s. For that matter, similar dramas still play out in the berry fields in the Pacific Northwest.

I think that's one reason I find this book, in particular, a lot easier to read than Grapes of Wrath, because the setting is much less important (although I'm taking nothing away from the masterful descriptions of Steinbeck.) It makes it what much easier to insert yourself in the story. I've never been a migrant worker, but I have shown up broke and with a dream only to work at a place that was "mean". (Not dreaming of working there, dreaming of paying for rent, food, etc.)

I don't want to turn this in to a pity play where we try to compare woes and hard times, suffice it to say we've all had them, to some extreme or another. Still, while either looking back, living through, or looking bleakly forward at our lives when they are at their most vulnerable is one of the truest measure of character. (I did note "The Lowest Common Denominator" blurb on the left, and wanted to bring it in here too.) To bring this back to the story, we get to see Slim stand up in the face of power to help right a wrong situation. This says more about his character than anything told up to that point. We've got the drama of Candy and his dog, who takes a humane step, rather than continue his selfishness. (I know Paul came to very different conclusion about this moment.) Aside from those two instances, we've seen very little unabashedly positive character, as even doubts are cast on George's relationship with Lenny, which on the surface seems altruistic.

As a reader, I dislike foreshadowing for foreshadowing's sake. I think it actually insults the reader a bit, either assuming they aren't intelligent enough to follow the plot, or are too yellow to take the surprises and twists that are part of any good story. However, Steinbeck is a Storyteller with a capital S, and there is such a thing as building to a climax, and this is what I feel Steinbeck does, with his descriptions, his sub-plots, and his pacing. In the beginning, we start slow, relaxing around a fire. A little past the middle, we're already through one small fight, and gearing up for another. If foreshadowing is the same as building anticipation and excitement, I'm all for it!

However, some high school english teachers and poorly written television dramas have ripped all the fun out of foreshadowing, at least for me, and try to get us to think in terms of the foreshadowing, instead of letting it pass. Some of the more brilliant writers have taken this and use it to make their stories even more twisted, pushing their audience in one direction while preparing to rip the chair out from under them in a surprise ending to a plot sequence.

I think the sorts of foreshadowing in this book are innocent enough, but to read the story for the ending instead of for the journey is just cheating yourself of the best parts, and from taking any real deep meaning from the work as a whole. Paul's already labeled my approach to this as an economic one - but I don't think it's that simple. There's more here about politics, the essence of desire, and the hearts of the undesirable.

OK - enough of my rambling on your blog. Glad you're with us!

>>Sedge

Laurie M. said...

Thanks Sedge,

Ramble at will.

I'm glad to see a good time being had by all.

Disjecta Membra said...

Ah, Sedge,
I probably could have been a little clearer in my comment and apologize.

I don't think your POV in reference to George's plan is looking at the book through a purely economic lens at all (and I agree with your observation. In my experience, once people gain their goals through outside funding, job one becomes buying out the outside funder. I would probably do likewise.) But rather I meant to say that your observation reminded me of Steinbeck's economic worldview.
Philip K Dick once observed that a fiction writer ought not let themselves come through their fiction too much. He said a good fiction writer should be able to tell a story and have the reader not know anything about the author. He said having said that, Ray Bradbury is the only author he knew of who could actually do that. Although I would agree that Bradbury is one of the greatest fiction writers, I'm not sure I agree that an author should try to be absent from the worlds they create. Laurie brought up the examples of Austen and Dickens, both of whom very much write from their space-time.
It is my belief that Steinbeck's worldview comes through in his work very vividly. I personally don't think that's a bad thing. But as I mentioned, I think that his economic point of view was very much forged in The Great Depression and I think that shows in his work.
Also as I mentioned before, I will be very interested to hear your further thoughts on this, especially after you read where it goes.
Thanks.