Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck wrote: “Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.” The base theme of all honest writing, he concludes, is “Try to understand each other.” This is the crux of his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men. The novel is an extended combination of setpieces in which a group of men and one woman, in a number of different permutations, try to come together, try to become a community, try to understand, or care for, or even acknowledge one another. Through it all, the fragility of true community is laid bare: we see the danger of those moments of misunderstanding or self-interest or anger or fear or jealousy that countermand the basic human instinct to cooperate.

The thematic force in the novel comes from its contrast of loneliness and community. There is tremendous loneliness endured by these characters, but also a fragile sense of community and the overwhelming need for human companionship. Thus, we see some of the negative forces that impel us – greed, anger, bitterness – but, much more than that, we see some of the positives, those moments of connection that make us all – to use another Scottish expression alongside that which informs the novel’s title – Jock Tamson’s bairns. And every character in the novel possesses a combination of these positive and negative impulses in varying degrees.

There is much to criticise in Of Mice and Men: it is too pat, too forced, too obvious, above all it is too melodramatic. From the outset there is only one possible way the narrative can end, and this ending is further emphasised all the way through the novel. At every turn it is obvious what will happen next: Curley will undoubtedly pick a fight with Lennie; Lennie will end up doing something bad and hiding out in the pre-appointed spot at the riverside; Curley’s wife will be the catalyst which provokes Lennie’s final midemeanour; the euthanasia of Candy’s dog will foreshadow the ending. All of it flows with an inevitability too great to be truly satisfying. Chekhov’s famous dictum is that, if a pistol appears in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 2. That is true, but in Of Mice and Men, when the pistol appears it has a sign hanging from it in large print saying “this pistol will be fired soon”. All of this serves to lessen the emotional impact of much of the action. As a study of community in adversity it can’t hold a candle to, say, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

But, as ever with Steinbeck, there is so much to admire, and so much that is simply breathtaking. He manages to instil a sense of basic human decency in the most unpromising of material, and his characters are real, heartbreakingly flawed, trapped between the height of their aspirations and the depth of their fears. Only Curley, a one-dimensional pantomime villain, doesn’t feel satisfying. The other characters live. Even Curley’s wife, a character so indistinct she doesn’t even warrant a name, nonetheless comes across as a living, breathing, self-deceiving woman, warranting dislike and pity in equal measure.

The narrative structure is deceptively simple, as much of Steinbeck’s work is. The story is in three acts, each with two self-contained scenes. Through this, Steinbeck works a series of combinations of characters, each of them exploring different facets of the troubled community which subsists on the farm. Principally, of course, we have the story of George and Lennie. Lennie is a giant with the mind of an infant, mentally handicapped and incapable of comprehending the consequences of his actions. George is his friend, nobly sticking by him despite the fact that Lennie causes nothing but trouble. As the novel begins, they are on the move because Lennie was hounded out of Weed on suspicion of attempted rape. The reader is privileged with the knowledge that this was not an attempted rape: rather, attracted by the dress of a little girl, Lennie grabs it and refuses to let go, and when the child panics and tries to escape, this causes Lennie to panic too. As soon as we hear this, we know the scene will be replicated in some form as part of the novel’s climax, and so it transpires. Lennie is incapable of change. But George is shown to be an honourable man: it would be easy for him to abandon Lennie, and few would criticise him for so doing, but he stands by him throughout.

The two men arrive at a new farm and they and we are therefore introduced to a new set of companions. Each of these is flawed in his own way. Most of them are shown to have some hidden dream. Only Carlson appears devoid of ambition or empathy. In turn, we are presented with a series of character combinations which begin to reveal the layers of human hope buried deep within the truculence of these working men. George and Slim, the main man in the mule team and the person to whom all of the men – even Curley, the owner’s son – defer, offer the most intelligent analysis of their respective hopes and fears. It is through his discussions with Slim, for example, that we learn the nature and depth of George’s friendship with Lennie. We know, too, that both George and Lennie aspire to have a smallholding of their own. When Candy, the ageing handyman who has lost a hand in an accident, hears the two talking of their dreams, he offers to help finance it with money he has saved from his compensation for the accident. Growing old, he knows he will soon become too useless to continue to work and will end up in a poor house. This is his means of escape, and he joins George and Lennie in the great dream. They will establish a community of the disconnected.

Later, when all the men have gone to a cathouse, leaving Lennie behind, he visits Crooks in his room. Crooks is black and disabled, a double outsider who is excluded from the community of men on the farm and suffers intense loneliness. He doesn’t want Lennie invading his private space, and he knows the giant offers no real prospect of conversation, but he is also deeply lonely. It is Crooks who makes some of the most telling points in the novel. "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody. Don't make any difference who the guy is, long's he's with you”, he says aloud. Crooks is dismissive of the trio’s grand plan for establishing their own place, but it is obvious, to us and him, that what he wants more than anything is to be included in their plans. He offers to join them for no pay. His is one of the most poignant histories in the whole novel, and when he is threatened by Curley’s wife, his response is horrifyingly realistic. He turns himself into a non-person, divesting himself of all personality and outward appearance and disappearing into a shell of nothingness. He becomes a blank, an invisible man. It is the only means of escape for outsiders in a world dominated by those who disparage them. It speaks of cruelty and abuse. It was against this sort of intolerance that Rosa Parks rebelled in 1955 when she refused to make way on a Montgomery bus for a white person. For a moment, in that room, in Crooks’s automatic defence mechanism, we are taken into another world, and it is a repellent place. This is beautifully, powerfully written. Crooks’s defence is, of course, what Lennie cannot do: when Curley is looking for trouble, Lennie calls attention to himself by laughing at his own thoughts and Curley, thinking he is laughing at him, lashes out. The capacity for invisibility, then, is a powerful defence mechanism, and all too often it is called on by the dispossessed of the world.

There are a couple of animal relationships in the novel, too, and each of these is significant. Firstly, there is Lennie and his pets, a mouse in the opening scene which he has petted too forcibly and killed, and later a new-born pup which he is given at the new farm and which, again, he is too rough with and kills. Nothing Lennie does is out of malice: he simply does not understand his strength or the consequences to others of that strength. And secondly we have Candy and his old dog, a lame, ill, half-blind thing, probably not far from death. In an early scene, Candy is persuaded, against his will, that the dog needs to be put down and Carlson takes it out and shoots it. The dog is Candy’s only friend. Companionship is lost. It is a poignant moment but, of course, the euthanasia of the dog, with a bullet in the back of the head, is a direct foreshadow of what George does to Lennie at the novel’s conclusion.

The catalyst for that ending is the final meeting of Curley’s wife and Lennie. From the outset, it is obvious what will happen, but it does not make it any less horrifying when it does. Again, Lennie cannot understand his own strength, again he is panicked by the panic of someone else, and again this fatal conjunction of events overwhelms him. He breaks Curley’s wife’s neck. Before this, however, we see something of her nature, and this scene is important in terms of turning her from being merely a McGuffin into a character in her own right. She is na├»ve, not particularly bright, as manipulable as she is manipulative. She dreams of a career in Hollywood but we know such dreams are as impossible for her as the dreams of a smallholding are for George and Lennie and Candy. She simply wants something better. She wants something good. In her heart, she knows it won’t happen and she settles instead for marriage to Curley and a loveless life and endless longing.

Thus, through this series of character combinations we are taken into different conceptions of personal happiness and its link to community. There is genius at work in prosecuting these descriptions. To create sympathy for characters who are as resolutely self-centred or pathetic as some of the characters in Of Mice and Men is remarkable.

The ending, although utterly predictable, is nonetheless very complex. It is simplistic to portray it, as many have tried to when banning the novel from libraries, as advocating euthanasia. Clearly, there is a direct correlation being drawn between the killing of Candy’s aged, infirm dog and the killing of Lennie: the inference, then, is that euthanasia for dogs and for humans should be regarded in the same way, and the concomitant of that, the argument goes, is that euthanasia for mentally ill people must therefore be acceptable. But that is too reductive an evaluation of what is happening in this novel. It ignores the rest of the contextual detail of the narrative and reduces everything to a contrast between those two events. This is exactly the opposite of what Steinbeck is trying to posit in this deceptively complex piece of fiction.

It is important not to make twenty-first century judgements when reading twentieth-century novels. It is important not to decontextualise the events of this novel and suggest that they must offer a single and perfect solution to any example of the issues raised. What Steinbeck so carefully displays in this novel is the complexity of human nature and human community. Within that particular community of men, at that time, the only course of action that was humane is that which they take: they kill the dog because it is in pain and nearing its end; George kills Lennie because he knows the alternative is either lynching or incarceration in a lunatic asylum. Both decisions were honestly made, both caused inconsolable pain to the people who made them. Within the fragile community of the farm, those were the only viable options. Within the structures and beliefs of that community they were the right decisions to make, the honorable thing to do.

To extrapolate from that and suggest that, in any circumstance, euthanasia is correct, is to simplify Steinbeck’s narrative too much. If one attempts to do that, the beliefs of that close-knit community, which led to those decisions being made, are adulterated with modern-day sensibilities, and this renders the actions meaningless. It is for precisely this reason that Cormac McCarthy offers a completely neutral description of the violence of the 1840s west in Blood Meridian: to do otherwise, to filter it through modern-day sensibilities, would completely lose the impact of the story. Of Mice and Men must be read within the context of its own narrative, and any meaning which one can derive from it must be derived within that context. If one can take a message from George’s actions at the end of the novel, it is not the facile suggestion that “euthanasia is correct”, it is that “love forces us to do things we would rather not”. That is an altogether different, and more complex, and more sombre message.

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