Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reading the Classics with Paul - Of Mice and Men, conclusions


As I announced last week, my dear and gifted husband is hosting a reading group on his blog  of the "10 Essential Penguin Classics"   Dutiful wife that I am, I'm doing my best to read along. This is the second and final installment of our first reading together, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck.  You may read my thoughts on the first installment here.

There are two events which occur early in the story, which set the tone for and inform the events that follow - or perhaps there are three: The dead mouse in Lennie's hand in the opening scene, the putting down of Candy's loyal and beloved dog by the self-serving and uncaring Carlson, and, though this may just be an extension of hints from the dead mouse, there's Curly's crushed hand.  There's been some discussion within our group of the use of foreshadowing, that it can be abused; but the consensus among us seems to be that Steinbeck used it well. I would say, when used rightly, or in this case brilliantly, it brings a realness as uncanny as life.  I can't tell you how many times I've looked back, it's usually back, at my own life only to see clearly the shadows which forewarned of each tragic event, though I did not, or would not, see them at the time.  I've looked on the lives of others I know, those close to me, those not close at all, and seen shadows looming of which they appear oblivious.  Few of life's human tragedies, at least in my experience, appear without notice from the ether.

George, I think, sensed this.  The others lived in a place of permanent gloom and groped about for small comforts, or patches of light, bits of warmth - brothels, pulp-fiction, puppies, horseshoes.  George, on the other hand traveled, seeing the looming cloud following him, hoping it could be outrun, or outsmarted.  It hadn't cloaked him as it had the others and become usual.  He had his dreams, and they were his ray of sunshine. And as unlikely as it would seem, as he was clearly no hero, no great man, George's humble dream, his little light, illuminated for a time a small circle of hope to others along his path. For Lennie in particular, that hope was the only light he knew.  One might wonder what made him to differ from the rest - why he dreamed of something beyond the next bottle or the nearest whorehouse.  What set him apart was Lenny.  Lenny was the cloud, but Lenny was also the reason for his hope.  Though Lenny was doom personified, because he was without malice, and powerless to be anything other than what he was, George had compassion for him. In the end it became clear what I sometimes doubted - George loved Lenny.  It was not a perfect love, but it was a committed love, and it was the best love George had to give.  It was this love that kept him dreaming, this love that kept him striving and thinking beyond the next meal and the weekend. Love set him thinking beyond his own animal instincts.  Love set him apart from every other character in the story.

Candy loved his old dog; but in the end his cowardice proved stronger. First, he would not stand up to the one who, for the sake of convenience, wanted the dog dead.  Finally, he allowed the dog to die at the hand of the one who hated it. He failed a test, and in the end found himself less a man than he was before.  Candy's remorse left a mark on George's soul: "You seen what they done to my dog tonight?  They says he wasn't no good to himself nor nobody else.  When they can me here I wisht somebody'd shoot me, But they won't do nothing like that, I won't have no place to go, an' I can't get no more jobs....I ought to have shot that dog myself, George.  I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog."  No doubt these words informed George's final actions.

When Carlson's gun went missing, I didn't guess the end.  Perhaps Lenny took it for self-defense, or maybe George took it, remembering the dog and wanting to protect Lenny from the heartless Carlson. But, with the echoes of the single shot which brought an end to Candy's dog still ringing, and the words of Candy still fresh in my ears, "I shouldn't ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog," The end, when it came, seemed right.  Not good - right. When Paul told me the fate of the real "Lenny" of Steinbeck's experience, I was able to sense our author's desire to right the wrong.  The real "Lenny" broke the neck of another man,  and was institutionalized - in a day when such a fate meant an existence about as close to hell as this earth can manage. Steinbeck sought the best end his realism would permit, a more merciful tragedy.

As always, Steinbeck's hope is in man and, though he would doubtless never have put it this way, in the last vestiges of the image of God stamped upon him.  And this, I think, is what makes him one of the great writers. He sees things as they are.  He sees the limits of man, the darkness of man, the hopelessness of man.  He sees the glimpses of beauty, the love and longing, the hope and desire. He doesn't pretend or offer false hope.  His fiction is honest, stories that are not lies or pipe-dreams.  Knowing nothing really of Steinbeck but what I glean from his fiction, I would say he was a humanist, possibly a deist, maybe a socialist, definitely a realist - and that's all. That he was not a Christian man is clear, and, in a sense this makes his work especially valuable to those who are.  It is easy for Christians in our day to enter the enclaves of their own sub-culture, and buffer themselves with layer upon layer of separation from the harsh realities of life - and from unbelievers.  We can separate ourselves from the deep cries of pain of the world of hopeless humanity. We can become reliant upon platitudes, cliches, pat answers to the point that we are no longer even honest about our own pain, our own darkness, our own ugliness. We hide the light we've been given under a bushel and in doing so not only darken the world around us, but extinguish the light in ourselves.

1 comment:

Sedge said...

Would it make George any better or worse if his "dream" was just a tool of compassion for Lenny? I'm not convinced that George ever believed in his dream, if it ever really was his.

Even when offered the money and kindness of others who want to share the dream, he kind of shrugs it off, letting them dream it too, but never really reinforcing it for them, like he knew it was just a dream, and never really going to happen.

So, if we assume he creates this dream, then the logical object of that creation is Lenny. Whether it is to control Lenny, corral Lenny, or just to give the poor guy a nice thing to think about, in the end it's as real as a fantasy novel, or a religion for that matter. I could easily see Steinbeck poking a little fun at the constructs of religion here.

Every biblical (and most non-biblical) depictions of heaven are much the same - most of them don't even make sense, once you think about them. Streets paved with gold? many-roomed mansions? It's just someone creating a dream and letting everyone else believe it, whether the originator does or not. Meanwhile, life continues on just as cruel as ever.

In following these dreams, I think we all have a little Lenny in us, childishly wanting to have faith in the impossible, while escaping the reality of our existences.

Wow - I'm coming off really dark here. Such was not my original intent. There is a value to faith, although we don't really find it in this book. I don't take comfort in clinging to beliefs that make as much sense as Santa arriving down the chimney of your trailer with no fireplace, making it to billions of houses in a 24 hour period. However, the spirit behind such thoughts, the concept of there being something far greater than any of us, which is so far beyond our understanding that the best we can do to describe it is speak in hyperbole, this spirit and faith can be used positively. Perhaps we see this in George, who knows a bit about how the world works, and is content with it, silly dream or no.

There, I better stop while I'm on a bit of a positive point.