Thursday, December 3, 2009

Reading the Classics- Of Mice and Men- Part 1

I think it's kind of charming when a very early edition of an author's masterpiece identifies the author as "author of" what is now one of their lesser known works.

Welcome, Book Groupies. Here is the first post of our Reading the Classics Book Group. Below are some of my thoughts on this, the first section of Of Mice and Men.

Initially I was a little surprised at this choice on the part of the good people at Penguin Classics. Not because I don't think it's a masterpiece, but more that left to my own devices I probably would have gone with The Grapes of Wrath. I think we can safely assume that someone sat down with a list of authors of that time period: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, maybe even Woolf or, on the other chronological end, maybe even Wolfe, and settled on this. Well, two thirds of the way through I have absolutely no misgivings about this choice. It is masterfully written and, yes, I would agree that no one should leave this world without having read this book.

One of the things that occurred to me early in this book revolves around a common response that I don't really understand. Of Mice and Men is one of the “commonly challenged” books which means librarians and high school teachers are often dealing with uptight parents over certain aspects of the text. The reasons they give are mainly about the language (although the fact that almost most of the “foul language” is blasphemous, I think it's probably pretty tame by today's standards. I'm not readily remembering any language that one couldn't hear in contemporary prime time sit-coms) the coarseness, the mentions of prostitution, and I'm guessing just the hardness of life in the book. Get used to it, kid.

One of the things that struck me very early in my reading is that I'm not sure your average high school kid of today would really understand the book. I mean the text and story itself is fairly simple, but the harsh reality is probably outside of the experience of your run of the mill Gossip Girl watching, self-absorbed adolescent. The mirror held up to nature is a little too clear perhaps for the constantly socially reinforced narcissist. In a culture where everyone under 30 is promised that they'll be a rock star at any moment now, what do they know from the cares of common people? Grim reality hasn't gnawed on most of their skulls yet. But don't get me wrong. I think that's all the more reason everyone should have to read this right before graduating high school. In retrospect, I think it's one of the rare instances in my public school education where I actually was being prepared for the real world. I wish I'd understood that at the time.

I think you have to have some work experience and some of the harshness of life experience to fully appreciate the picture that Steinbeck is painting. The men in the book are striving for dreams that may seem pretty small. They are living fairly bleak existences. Like one character (I think it was Slim) remarks, the workmen spend so much time alone and they don't want to talk to anyone anymore. They get mean and they get so turned in on themselves that they want to fight everything else. Anyway, this time reading through the harshness of the place doesn't seem all that far fetched or extraordinary to me now after working a few years with manual laborers and going a few months between jobs. I think Steinbeck pretty much nails it.

It's seeming to me that one of the major themes may be along the lines of tenderness and both our strong desire and complete inability to find it. As though we're all fumbling around in the dark for something we could locate immediately if we'd just turn the lights on.

So, we start with... Well, actually we start with some description of a place and I don't know about you but I was transfixed by Steinbeck's descriptive powers. George and Lennie come hiking through the area we've already established ourselves in (the whole novel so far seemed very theatrical to me. As in like a stage play with scenes opening and closing in one set place. It was adapted kind of famously for both the stage and screen several times. The original Broadway production was directed by George S. Kaufman of the Algonquin Round Table.) George (character in the book George, not George S. Kaufman) is grumbling over the bus driver who left them there. Lennie is mainly concerned with petting mice, rabbits, ketchup on his beans and the promise of a puppy. The mouse also serves to show us that while we love Lennie, we also fear his raw, unfocused power. Lennie gets scared, Lennie panics, Lennie adores cute things, Lennie is strong as a steer.

In later interviews Steinbeck claimed that Lennie was a real person he was acquainted with back in the days when Steinbeck was a gandy-dancer or a bindle-stiff or one of those jobs that sound like a Victorian anachronism. More on that next time. I made the connection in my mind that the book was published in 1937 and that Karloff's Frankenstein was one of the more iconic images of that decade. If you've seen that film, the thing with the mouse should draw some parallels. Also a study in misunderstood tenderness. Although it would seem that any connection was entirely sub-conscious at most on the part of the author. More likely coincidence if you believe in that sort of thing.

One thing I'll mention here in this scene is a question I would like everyone to think about as they read the next section and bring to the table next time. Who are the protagonists and who are the antagonists in this book? The answer seems a little easier in this part, but I think that might change for some of us as we conclude next time.

George is a character of great longing. Although he has these dreams, and even moves toward his goals, we quickly see that those dreams are not the real reason why one could argue (which I very well may be doing right now) that he is the one character with hope in this story. What gives us hope for George in the character he reveals in his relationship to Lennie. Also the reasons he later gives for travelling with Lennie. I don't think any of us are fooled, even in this scene by the riverbrushes. George has strong affection for the helpless Lennie (much as Candy has for his dog.) But he also in conversation with Slim later reveals that he travels with Lennie because he doesn't want to be that hard-hearted, cold, mean, selfish rancher which seems to comprise most of the rest of the characters in the novel.

They arrive and we meet Candy and his stinky dog. The boss appears and seems kind of hard nosed but everyone seems to understand that he's okay, just doing his job, just being a boss. Carlton, the fat guy (or did I make that up myself because of the man I associated him with?), makes an appearance and he's kind of slimy. Curly makes an appearance and he's mean and hot headed, but almost immediately we realize that he's also a man who makes very poor and rash choices.

Enter Curly's wife. It's clear to everyone that she is trouble on her own and mixed with a volatile husband, it's not difficult to sense an explosion in the works. It is clear that her eye wanders to other men and not in a lazy eye kind of way.

We're set up for a lot of horrible things and we all know they're coming. Even Lennie knows and we wish George would listen to him and leave that mean place. Although I found myself thinking during that exchange “And do what, Lennie? Go to another mean place? Because it's all like this.”

Slim seems to play his cards pretty close to his chest and I admit I have no memory of where his character ends up. I don't trust him, but maybe that's just my distrust of top feeders speaking. One of the other more adult (as in grown up) themes of the book is that while workers are always needed, none are individually particularly important without a special skill. Slim is the only one there who is important and everyone knows it and treats him as such. One of the key differences between modern adulthood and childhood (which given what I've witnessed of modern school agendas I'm a little surprised this book is taught in them) is the crushing realization that you are not special or important. The dreams of the men, including George and Lenny's dream, mainly seem to point to wanting to “make it.” The sad realization on our part is knowing full well that none of them probably ever will. Another one comes when we then look at ourselves and our own dreams. Are we doing the same thing? Can we ever really “make it?”

There is a well done (as in I didn't realize it was happening at the time) sort of whirlwind tour through the brains of the men and what they care about. There's the guy with the booze and cat house dreams of blowing all of his pay as soon as he gets it. There's the entertainment and celebrity junkie thing with the western magazine. Also a bit of fame and jockeying for position.

Carlton does the unthinkable to Candy. Slim, whose word is law with the men, backs him up. There's a reflection on the fragility of life, the world's harshness toward the helpless things, and, again, the stark truth that they are not special. My mind drew a very strange parallel to David, Uriah and Bathsheba. There's a man who has a very selfish desire and he's willing to take and destroy the only important thing to someone else, some weaker person, to gain his own satisfaction. So often in life this happens. I think about this sort of thing every time I walk past the clothing section of Costco. How often in our wealthy culture do we do this without even knowing it?

The scene of waiting for the sound of closure is grueling and masterfully written. Everyone knows how wrong it is, but no one did or maybe even could have done anything about it. So they have to sit and wait. A naked lunch moment where everyone sees exactly what's on the end of their fork.

Lennie gets a puppy and we all kind of hold our breath. We're both happy for him and worried for the puppies. Lennie's fixation on the puppy gets a little unnerving, to the point where he's willing to lie and hide for his pleasure. And we begin to see hints of Lennie's desire to possess rather than a big-hearted love and compassion for the weaker, soft thing. Is that a shadow I see in the foreground?

George, Lenny and Candy get positively drunk on their fantasy of a ranch of their own and, again, hope is hinted at. I'm not ashamed to admit I teared up when George realized that they might actually be able to go through with their dream. While they are basking in hope, the smell of doom fills the room.

Curly, Slim and the rest come back in and, frustrated by his impotent attempt at focusing his rage on Slim, Curly starts savagely beating Lennie. The violence is shocking and the end even more so as Lennie sort of, as it were, “kills a fly with an atomic bomb.” Don't miss that once again a soft and tender thing, in this case Curly's hand, is crushed. It's a motif, people!

So, as I said, now you can link to your own thoughts on this section on your own blog or you can post your comments in the comments section. Sedge and I are on Google Wave with a version of this book group. I'm still a little hazy on exactly what that means, but if you're itching to get on Google Wave, I can probably get you an invite.

Next week we will finish the book. So read through the rest of the book and report back next Friday!


  1. Well stated. Perhaps I am more the pessimist of the two of us here, and I will explain that more in a minute. First, I think it's interesting you bring up Grapes. So far, this book reads to me almost like an aside from Grapes - some short story arc that just never made it in the published work. It's not too hard to imagine one of the Grapes characters in the place of George, or George and Lenny meeting up with the main characters in a field somewhere. Even more to that point, the tone of the two works is somewhat similar, especially in their treatment of the bleakness of the working class man, and the futility of his hopes.

    I also get the Frankenstein reference, but the movie image that leaped into my mind today was the main character from the Green Mile, another fabulous literary work (and a great movie) coming from the damaged mind of Stephen King. He's yet another example of the gentle giant, and there's even a mouse involved. I wonder how much of the Green Mile was actually influenced by this book.

    So, on to my pessimism. You noted that you teared up a bit at the point where George finds himself close to realizing his dream. I had a completely different reaction - perhaps because I've been offered a lot of opportunities that simply didn't pan out, and the idea of someone else putting up the bulk of the seed money just to me seems foreboding, for lack of a better word. It almost cheapens the dream, because now George doesn't have to realize it himself. I still believe in hopes being acheived through hard work and persistence, and anything less ends up a hollow, empty achievement. Perhaps I am more bleak than even Steinbeck, but we shall see.

    While you are noting the possessive and crushing nature of Lenny, I am taking Lenny almost for granted, in many ways. For me, so far, it's definitely been the story of George - but I don't sympathize with him, or even necessarily think of him as a protagonist. While he has a seemingly redeemable personality trait, in caring for Lenny, I think he's also got a lot wrong with him too. I probably dig a little deeper on Curly as well, although here, it's all negative for me. He's almost a perfect villain figure, with no redeemable qualities that I can fathom, aside from whatever sympathy may be gained by his unlikely (or perhaps deserved) acquaintance with a strumpet of a wife.

    There's plenty more story to go, and truth be told, I remember very little of the rest of it. I don't know if I can feel comfortable predicting much more before finding out how Steinbeck leaves these characters. I know I will be disappointed if George is able to get any closer to realizing his dream.

    Until next time...


  2. I think if memory serves this one was published two years before Grapes, so it may have been kind of a "testing ground." I could totally see the Joads showing up.

    You raise an interesting point. I think one, as an exercise, could read Steinbeck from an economical ethics point of view. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but one could. I do think, from what I know of him, Steinbeck's economic ethics point of view was forged in reaction to the Great Depression (I might suggest thinking of what FDR would have thought of this part of the story.)
    Not that I think we should take too much biographical information of the author into the reading, but in this case I think one could make an argument in that direction. One could also say that I would be reading too much into it to suggest such thing. I would stress that I do not think this is a subversive economic ethics story, a la Orwell, by any means. But one could note that element.
    I will be very interested to hear your thoughts, as the story continues, on this aspect of the story.

    Agreed on Curly. It was a stretch for me to ever say the "he makes poor choices" thing. He's a fairly disgusting character.

  3. Thanks for getting me to read Steinbeck again. I've posted my thoughts here:

  4. Excellent, Laurie! Your thoughts are read and appreciated. I would comment on them, but I think they are all pretty much ground already covered in Paul's ramblings, as well as my own. I expect the end-of-book wrap up will provide us with enough grist to mill over.

    I was curious if each of us in the group should post an entry as to where their discussion will be. Mine will be in a Google Wave, which anyone having access to Wave is welcome to read, and those that don't - Paul and I have invites left. I will also probably continue to cross-post my thoughts here on Paul's blog.

    So, if there are any others that have intentions of leading their own discussions, please linky-link them here, for all of us to read (and join in the fun!)

  5. Paul,

    For some reason, I can't paste my hyperlink here. Therefore, you will just have to come to my blog to read my review of this week's assignment.

    I wrote about the Kewpie doll lamp, and its significance in my own life.

    PS Me thinks you should poke around your comment tools. I seem to always have a problem leaving commments on your blog. I don't seem to have these problems on Laurie's. Maybe, if your nice, she will tell you her secrets.

  6. emily and i both watch gossip girl and we are smart! sometimes you just like watching stupid stuff because then you don't have to think about anything for a while. plus, they have nice clothes. we had to read this book in 9th grade, I think I understood it well at the time. I also read East of Eden that year...

  7. If only someone could make me understand what Google Wave is, I could maybe work up some interest. So far all the buzz I hear is...What is this thing?...Which begs the question, "What is this thing?" and so I ask...

  8. Thanks for the getting me to read something I never would have read on my own (except back in high school). I did remember this book unlike the many others we had to read. I like reading everyones comments but don't have much to add at this time.