Monday, January 9, 2012

Great Novellas: Of Mice and Men

Moving on with the Great Novellas, I want to talk about Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  I absolutely adore East of Eden, (you can see my thoughts here if you're interested), but I haven't actually read very many other works by Steinbeck.  After feeling guilty about this for some time now, I finally settled down to read Of Mice and Men, and I certainly wasn't disappointed.

I think it is important to evaluate this as a novella, for this adds challenges and strengths to the piece.  Because he decided to write the story in a shorter form, we do not get a long history for the characters, nor is there time for them to really develop and grow.  Yet in a few words, Steinbeck delivers a profound message about friendship, dreams, prejudices, and hard times.  People have written countless pages of study to analyze this story, and we can find interpretations of it from innumerable angles.  But without diminishing the value of analytical study, I do want to say that I think we must admire this novella for its simplicity.

I read somewhere that Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men so it could be easily translated as a play.  The dialogue is more significant than the descriptions, and the setting is contained within the realms of a stage.  Again, this emphasizes the simplicity that reigns in the story without taking away from the messages embedded within it.  There is nothing to distract us from the interaction between the characters and the huge changes in the plot that occur.

The relationship between George and Lennie is beautiful.  Its uniqueness has become the source of dozens of pop cultural references, for it is equally inspiring as it is heartbreaking and as strange as it is enviable.  The two men are not bonded by blood, but their loyalty to one another is unbreakable.  They don't merely enjoy each other's company, but they have built a need for one another.  We don't know why they started traveling together, and I think it would have bogged down the text if Steinbeck had tried to explain it.  Instead, it is more moving that we simply are aware that they are friends and that they have a shared dream.  Loneliness swarms around them; it is palpable on the lips of Candy, Crooks, Curley's wife, and everyone else they encounter.  Because of this, the other characters obsess about the unusual relationship of George and Lennie.  Whether they are mocking it or questioning it, they are intrigued by this friendship.  Moreover, Lennie himself is intriguing.  He exists as a paradox, a lion with the heart of a lamb.  He has the physical capability for any feat of strength, but his mind and his heart have limits.  Lennie is drawn by softness, and his affection for small animals is touching.  Yet part of his paradox is that he ends up killing them by showing his affection too strongly.  Sadly, this characteristic is a harbinger of his fate.

There are so many things we could learn from Lennie, such as accepting people without judgment and staying loyal to your friends.  I love his scene with Crooks, the African-American of the group who has been completely shut out by everyone else.  Crooks is the one who wisely delivers the most famous line: "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you."  But Lennie has his problems, and we can't idolize him.  I think Steinbeck sought to write honestly more than anything else, free from fairy tales and sugar-coating.  It's hard, it's unfair, it's disappointing, and it's so very real.

Of Mice and Men packs in so many aspects of human nature in so few pages.  It swells in moments of hope and friendship, and it twists through an impossible decision at the last.  It's no wonder that so many people have devoted time to study this slim novella.  I can't help but think about this in context of Steinbeck's magnum opus, East of Eden, which he produced 15 years later.  I can see some themes that are more fully developed and a perspective that has radically grown.  But Of Mice and Men has accomplished exactly what it could have hoped to do: it has sealed two unforgettable characters into our minds and our popular culture forever.


Andrew Shaughnessy said...

This is a good one. Short and powerful.

Any brief thoughts on Grapes of Wrath?

Jillian said...

What struck me about this work is that the simplicity of most of the novella (in appearance, not writing, of course), makes the segments of the novel that are sudden drama feel like a gunshot in comparison. It's the contrast that I remember.

Amy said...

Ah, Andrew, if you read my little confession at the beginning, I have not yet read Grapes of Wrath. I'm trying too hard to cover a variety of authors rather than investing in the ones I already know I like!

Jillian, I think that's an excellent point I hadn't pinpointed before. That is probably exactly why the dramatic ending has such a big effect. Thanks for the comment!

steelsuzette said...

Apparently I need to reread this book. :-)