Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of Mice and Men

I promised I would have this up this weekend, so I better get to it.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, is not what I thought it was going to be. I mean, I knew the ending, but I didn't know how much impact such a short novel could have. Steinbeck has been revered for much longer than I've been reading him, and it's easy to see why. His writing style is ahead of its time and his voice is unique. Steinbeck said that he wrote this book as "a kind of playable novel" in which you could read the book as prose, or you could translate it into a play without needing to add any sort of set direction. It really is written like a play in the sense that every detail is pointed out (the lighting, the location of objects, etc.), but it's written in prose that doesn't feel over-crowded with minute details.

Of Mice and Men is the story of Lennie and George, two drifters who go from farm to farm looking for work.  But instead of leaving because they want to, they tend to leave because Lennie, who's not playing with a full deck of cards, has inadvertently gotten into trouble.  As much as it annoys George that he has to constantly look out for Lennie, it's obvious he loves him and would do whatever possible to protect him.

****  Is it safe to assume you've all read this already, or at least know what happens?  If not skip down a few paragraphs, because there are going to be spoilers.  ****

Unfortunately, the only way to protect Lennie in the end, and to protect anyone he comes in contact with, is to end his life.  After accidentally killing the boss's daughter-in-law, Lennie runs away to the river he and George slept near the night before beginning work.  He sits there and waits for George, who has promised to come for him so they can leave together and find work elsewhere.  However, because of the heinousness of the crime and the type of man that is the husband of the murdered woman, George knows there will be no running, and there will be no more work.  He knows they can't outrun the group of men after Lennie, and he also knows what those men will do if they find him.  So George does the only humane thing he can.  He finds Lennie, just before the others do, tells him the story of the house they're going to have when they get a little money together, and shoots him in the back of the head.

Now I know that sounds awful, but really, if anyone else had found Lennie, he would've been shot where he would feel the pain.  He would have been tortured.  In an act of foreshadowing, Steinbeck had earlier given another workhand a very old, arthritic dog.  This workhand was subsequently convinced that the dog would be better off if it was put out of its misery.  The man who killed it explained that when he shot it in the back of the head, the dog would feel no pain.  This is how George kills Lennie.  He didn't want to, but he knew it was the only way to keep this grown child from knowing more pain than he could logically comprehend.  Even though George claims throughout the novel that he'd be better off alone, it's obvious he will never be the same without his friend.

The question I find most interesting is this: Did Lennie know what was coming?  He's not bright, but he's not that dumb, either.  If you've read the book, I'd be really interested to know your thoughts on this.  My take is that he knew.  He could hear the others coming for him and he and George weren't running.  Instead, he asked George to tell him their story, calmly, looking out over the riverbank and envisioning what might have been.

****  Ok, spoilers are done.  ****

Steinbeck's use of dialogue is superb; it really brought you into the time period.  This is a side of American history that I was never taught.  (Did anyone really get a taste of this time period in school?)  Steinbeck shows us the white, lower class, working field hand instead of the prosperous farm owner I feel we are typically told depicts the American spirit.

4 out of 5 stars.  I really liked this novel. I'm impressed with Steinbeck's writing style and the succinctness of his prose, despite the photographic details.  You can't help but like Lennie (and even though I didn't think I would, I liked George as well).  What happened to them was the only thing that could happen, given the time and place, but that doesn't make it any less tragic.

6 comments:

  1. I don't think he knew what was coming. I think he was scared, and knew something terrible was going to happen, and asked to hear the story for comfort from that. I don't think he really had a firm concept of death, wasn't there a scene where he kept playing with a dead puppy he'd been to rough with?

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  2. I haven't read this since high school. I loved it then but it's so sad. Nice review!

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  3. Jeane, you raise a very good point. He kept playing with the dead puppy, but he still knew it was dead. I just don't think he understood what "dead" meant, other than it couldn't play back. I think, though, that he had to have heard the gun when George cocked it, and he never even turned around to look at it. To me, that says he knew what was coming. Then again, maybe he was so consumed with the picture of the farm George was painting that he didn't hear it.

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  4. One of my absolute favorite reads from high school. It completely turned me on to Steinbeck. Maybe I should pick it up again...

    I seem to remember thinking that Lennie didn't know what was coming. If I get around to reading it again I'll let you know. :)

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  5. Gosh, I haven't read this book since high school and I actually forgot what happens at the end. The main thing I always remembered about the book was Lennie's extreme love of animals and how he would love them and pet them to death. Sometimes I almost feel the same way, but I restrain myself of course. I need to reread this one!

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  6. This is one of those classics that I know all about yet have never actually gotten around to reading. After all, I'm from the part of California where Steinbeck spent much of his time and actually wrote about - I feel like I should be well versed on his works. Maybe this summer when I have more time to read I'll dig into this and other Steinbeck books. Great review.

    Jennifer @ justicejennifer.com (my Open ID credentials aren't working - whatever that means).

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