Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reading the Classics- Of Mice and Men- Part 2

Okay, Book Groupies! We've finished Of Mice and Men. I am very much looking forward to all of your thoughts on this second half of the book. Here are a few of my own thoughts.

Now begins the parts of the book I tend to remember when I would think back on having read it over 15 years ago (this triptych of sections I remember well and also the thing earlier with Candy's dog. Oh, and I guess the first scene with the dead mouse and beans. Really it's the mark of a good storyteller if you can remember most of the major plot points and some detail work after having read it once over 15 years ago.)

Before we get too far into it, I wanted to mention that Edward Albee's play Zoo Story kept popping into my head during this week's reading. If you've never seen it, do or just get a copy of it. You can read it in an afternoon. If you have two people, you can read it out loud as it's a two character play (I read it out loud, appropriately, to my dogs a while back and did both of the voices.) There's alienation, loneliness, desperation, being in extremely depressed circumstances with aspirations, cruelty to the helpless or weak, but especially the thematic similarity of how people do not talk to one another and do not listen to one another. Society puts these fears and weird, fabricated structures of hierarchies and social duty and appropriate behavior that leaves some people behind. If people would only talk to one another, smile, love one another. And it's all within the realm of the plausible, but I think it speaks to human nature that we will not. We can be united. We can have peace. But we don't. On some level we like the fear, alienation and violence or, at least, we find the rewards worth the risks we create when we marginalize others.

The scene in Crooks' room mainly revolves around the three characters that Curly's wife calls weak. And she's right if by weak you mean stripped by life of the illusion that they are not lonely and desperate. In the beginning of the scene, Lennie has a moment in his simplicity of doing exactly what would solve almost all of the problems and conflicts in the book. He comes to Crooks with no preconceptions or prejudices, just simply and earnestly seeking his company, and wins him over (albeit not for very long) with a disarming smile of friendship.

There's also the racial stuff which once again is a facet of man's inhumanity to man. Crooks is an outcast on two levels, both with his race and his back. He is so used to his condition that he almost runs off the company that he's so desperate for. And again we see Lennie's mixed up tenderness, loyalty and raging, powerful violence, just a hint, just a reminder.

Curly's wife also hits the nail on the head when she says “You're all scared of each other, that's what. Ever' one of you's scared the rest is goin' to get something on you.”

Well, that fairly sums up the history of human civilization, doesn't it? But be careful, Mrs. Wife, there's nothing people hate more than having their precious fears taken away. Although I don't know about you, but most of my burgeoning sympathy for her melts away as soon as she goes after Crooks like that. People who do not have much power often grab hold of the tiny corner they can grasp and swing it like a sword at anyone they can.

And then we reach the climax. Already the scene in the barn has the weight of the book on it as lights up on Lennie and the puppy. The train has wrecked in exactly the way we feared it was going to. Curly's wife enters into the scene which, in case you didn't know and haven't read it before, you will probably remember this for the rest of your life. Lennie does try to do what he's supposed to but a) he's already screwed other things up so bad in his mind at that moment and b) he doesn't try hard enough. Or, rather, his panic slowly builds upon panic.

Curly's wife continues the flirtation which clearly started when she ascertained that Lennie crushed Curly's hand (I strongly suspect that may have been her motivation for showing up in Crooks' room.) Needless to say she is completely unaware that the man-child in front of her is already in a state of hyper-panic. Her mind is elsewhere.

We begin to understand her a little better. We probably didn't need her to tell us that she really doesn't like Curly, but there it is and it explains a few things. We also get a little glimpse of innuendos of the past of a fast and loose young girl with big dreams. Big dreams shatter hard. She is a very young, not terribly wise in her choices (in that respect a little like her husband), but also very lonely and desperate girl. Also very sure of her self and her world view which, in a moment, will prove fatal.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to liking to rub soft things. It became clear to me again from the text that Lennie doesn't like puppies and rabbits and mice and girl's hair or dresses particularly. He like to rub soft things compulsively and on his terms. It could just as well have been a swatch of velvet as a living being. Coupled with his low IQ and misguided judgement of his own strength,well, it also proves fatal.

It is a horrific scene.

I mentioned last time that Steinbeck claimed that Lennie was an actual guy. He said this happened when he was young and working on ranches, but it wasn't a young woman, it was a ranch foreman who mouthed off to the real life Lennie. The foreman got up in Lennie's face and Lennie broke his neck. The real life Lennie was in a mental institution to Steinbeck's knowledge and given those days not likely to ever leave (also not likely to ever be capable of doing much of anything.)

The moment between Lennie's departure and Candy's arrival is, in my humble opinion, one of the greater moments in one of the greater novels ever written. Don't miss it. The dog cowering at what she knows is over there, two heaps of death a few feet away from her new puppies. Curly's wife, in death, stripped of all of her terrible armor, looking alive.

The men arrive and it goes pretty much how one would imagine it. I wasn't sure where Carlton's pistol went and I was wondering if Candy was going to off himself over Crooks' prophecy over their farm dream coming true. Instead, like so many of us, he lives on with that despair and we leave the character of Candy, a man who had very little upon meeting him, now stripped of everything as well.

George accesses the situation. If they had a week to let Curly cool off or if Curly wasn't there, Lennie would probably spend the rest of his life in a mental institution drugged or lobotomized out of life, but still living. But a far more likely outcome was Curly shooting Lennie in vengeance.

In the end, George does the most loving thing he can do. Of course, it must be done and it is horrible. But in the final moments, George gives Lennie a beautiful rest of his life. He stays true to his promise to Aunt Clara and looks after Lennie. Instead of the terror of the other options, George gives Lennie his rabbits.

George is also stripped of all dreams. No one ever does make it out of that loop although it looks like they can. The carrot is on the end of the stick which keeps some of them working and the Earth spinning. But no one ever gets out. George is resigned to the other life, the life of one month's work blown on a weekend's joyless release, then back to work Monday morning. Twas ever thus.

But in the final moment, maybe there is hope. Steinbeck gives the very last moment to who might arguably be the most abominable character in the book, which is to say Carlton. George never turned into that and you know he never will. George's motivations were love and hope. I don't know where he will end up now that those are stripped from him.

My gosh, I've cried for hours over this tiny book. What a masterpiece.

Well, that's all I have (actually, I had a whole other bit about who I would cast in my film version but I think wisdom edited that out of this post.) I certainly hope this experience was rewarding for you. I know it was for me. Thank you for joining me. Again, I look forward to all of your comments. Very soon I shall post an announcement for the next book in our Reading the Classics series.


  1. I've posted my final thoughts here.

  2. Haven't figured out how to send people to my post yet (just not very computer savy) but my review is- there is so much darkness in this book I really appreciated the way Laurie looked at the different levels of love in it. Which made me think very differently then my thoughts about this book since the first time I read it many years ago. I also agree with Paul that even though I first read this maybe 40 years ago I still remembered the main parts.

  3. Well, well. I was hoping to get these comments up over the weekend, but better late than never, I suppose. Not like there's really a deadline or a grade involved. The latter half of the book was definitely the part I didn't remember. I'm not even sure I got that far when I read it last time. It rewards, though.

    Still, there's a lot about nothing. Sure, Steinbeck attempts awkwardly to make some social commentary with the scene in Crooks' room, which perhaps then was really something, but now falls a bit flat and seems really contrived, and overall unnecessary. There's the blathering of Curly's wife, which is practically unreadable. True, perhaps unschooled women were somewhat illiterate, but I refuse to flatly believe that they talk that much worse than the working class men. Still, no-one really cares or wants to know the hopes and dreams and problems of the harlot, and her mean spirited whining does nothing to shed any light on the actual story.

    But I said it rewards, and it does. The harlot gets what we all were rooting for, which is an early exit to her miseries. Lennie gets euthanized, as pleasantly as can be achieved at the time. George gets to move on with his life, and keeps his job for now. I don't find George heroic for his actions, although there is an argument for his compassion in making Lennie's last moments pleasant. However, if I stick by my earlier point that Lennie should be the focal character of the story, he holds up. He doesn't grow in any discernable way, but I don't think we expect him to. I didn't really see character growth from anyone else, so I suppose that might be asking too much. He simply does what one could imagine any man-child would do - give in to temptation, get irritated easily, panic when the situation gets out of hand, and feel remorse and self-loathing afterward. Really, that cycle is not too different from how any of us handle our lives, although we want to think we're more savvy and sophisticated than a man-child.

    Overall, this book felt like it would have made a better short story, perhaps in the 10-20 page range. I'm thinking "A Piece of Steak" size tale. It reads quickly enough as is, but there's definitely some editing that could have taken place to improve it a bit. It's like an hour long episode of television that was originally written for a 30 minute slot.

    Maybe I'm just being mean, and should say this is the greatest thing ever, but I still think it feels like a vignette out of one of Steinbeck's other stories, or like a Mark Twain sketch, just expanded enough to be published as a standalone novel.

  4. Paul,

    My post is complete, and posted on my blog. For some curious reason, I am still unable to post the link in your blog.

    Please come find the article: Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck, Vanitas, Darkness, and Hopelessness.