Unintentionally, I am starting CBR12 with one of the most depressing books I have ever read. Of Mice and Men is a short novel — a “play/novelette” in the words of its author, John Steinbeck — published in 1937 and turned into a play and film almost immediately. I have to confess that I have no recollection of reading Steinbeck in my school days, but my 10th grader is going to be reading this soon so I thought I would check it out. I recommend the Penguin deluxe teacher’s edition as it contains a very informative forward by Susan Shillinglaw.
Of Mice and Men is the story of two characters — Lennie and George — who have been traveling together in California looking for work on farms. It’s the 1930s and the depression and Dust Bowl have made it hard for men to find steady work, but California farms need laborers during their busy seasons. As the story opens, George and Lennie have arrived at a new farm, and we learn of several problems right away. Lennie, a large and very strong man, is intellectually disabled; the two men had to flee from their last work place due to some problem with the law involving something Lennie did; Lennie is drawn to small soft creatures like mice but doesn’t understand his own strength and unintentionally harms them; and George, while frequently exasperated by Lennie’s behaviors, understands that Lennie can’t help how he is and feels a responsibility to take care of him. They spend a night under the stars together before reporting to camp, and George makes sure that Lennie understands to find George back at this spot if anything goes wrong at this work place. If you are familiar with Chekhov’s Law/Gun, you know that we’re going to end up here again and thus Steinbeck introduces a sense of foreboding to his story.
While the reader definitely gets the sense that something bad could happen, Steinbeck also manages to introduce a sense of hopefulness to the story. George, the ringleader, has a dream that he shares with Lennie and that helps them endure hard times. George tells Lennie that he knows of a plot of land for sale and that they could easily buy it once they save enough money. Then they could have their own home and small farm, grow their own food, work their own land for themselves and even have rabbits (for Lennie). The dream serves as an inspiration to others at the camp as well and helps forge connections among people who might not otherwise have bothered with each other. One of the themes that Steinbeck focuses on in this story is the loneliness and anger that people feel when they lack community and connection. Each character is lonely and alone in some way. Curley’s wife, as the only woman on the property, and Crooks, the black stable hand, are especially alone amongst white men. Steinbeck gives his characters an opportunity to express their loneliness and anger, the frustrated need for connection. The vital importance of human connection is expressed in a conversation between George and Slim, the wise and ageless jerkline skinner. Slim marvels that George and Lennie travel together; most men are alone. George replies,
“I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get to wantin’ to fight all the time.”
“Yeah, they get mean,” Slim agreed. “They get so they don’t want to talk to nobody.”
The truth of this is borne out through the rest of the story. Men who are alone and angry are a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
Although Of Mice and Men is a well known story, I will not reveal the ending in case there’s anyone out there who would prefer to read it without having it spoiled. According to Shillinglaw, Steinbeck based the character Lennie on someone he really knew, and I believe it. The world is full of Lennies who meet a similar fate, and that is something that I think is featured in most classroom discussions of Of Mice and Men. As the mother of a young man with an intellectual disability, I have very strong feelings about Lennie and what happens to him in this story, but on the whole I think Steinbeck’s portrayal of loneliness, anger and disaffection amongst people who cannot, despite their best efforts, attain their dreams is spot on. Of Mice and Men is a timeless story and a reminder that there are many, many people out there who are alone and in danger. Human kindness and connection are as vital to our existence and food and water.