Thursday, January 24, 2019

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Like a classical tragedy in novella form
Though John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men is often required reading in American high schools, I’m just getting around to reading this one in my middle age. I have run across film versions of this over the years, of course, so the plot held few surprises for me, but I still found it to be a very compelling read. The story is set in California during the Great Depression, but the themes it explores transcend time and place. Of Mice and Men is a master work of American regional realism, yet it has the taut concision and the mythic quality of one of Aesop’s fables or a classical Greek tragedy.

George Milton and Lennie Small are two migrant farm workers who drift together from ranch to ranch looking to take on work. George is a small, wiry, intelligent man while Lennie is a big, hulking fellow with a mental disability. Though not related, the two grew up in the same town, and George promised Lennie’s aunt before her death that he would take care of her nephew. Among their fellow migrant workers, the fact that the two travel together is unusual, and the pair share an uncommon loyalty to one another. That said, George isn’t always happy about the arrangement, as he continually scolds Lennie for being such an encumbrance. It is revealed that Lennie’s childlike intelligence has caused problems at their previous places of employment, bad enough that the two have had to flee violent repercussions. When the play opens, they have just landed a new position harvesting barley, and George hopes such troubles with Lennie will not repeat themselves. Despite their poverty, the two have a dream of saving enough to own a small patch of land, where they can grow their own crops and Lennie can tend to a herd of rabbits.

Steinbeck obviously wrote the book with the intention of it being adapted for stage and screen. Despite being written in prose, the structure of the narrative is very much that of a play. Each chapter is a different scene and begins with a couple paragraphs briefly describing the setting and the characters present. From that point forward, the text is almost entirely dialogue. What little physical description is present is written in the cursory style of stage directions. Though the story takes place in rural settings, there is little description or the natural environment. Most of the action occurs within barns or bunkhouses. Steinbeck offers no interior views into the character’s minds; instead, they soliloquize. Events that take place towards the conclusion of the drama are heavily foreshadowed in a manner that would probably go over just fine in a stage production but feels a bit heavy-handed in a prose work. In fact, if anything’s keeping Of Mice and Men from perfection it is this script-like format, which prevents Steinbeck from taking full advantage of the novella art form.

If this were set on the East Coast, rather than in Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley, one could easily mistake this for a Eugene O’Neill drama. Though stark in its stage setting, Steinbeck’s grittily naturalistic depictions of human behavior generate a gripping psychological realism. Despite the Depression setting, the reader recognizes these characters and feels the plight of ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation. Whereas The Grapes of Wrath may have the grandeur of a historical epic, Of Mice and Men is a more personal, microcosmic study of humanity, yet the actions of its characters impart a universal moral lesson, almost like a biblical parable if not for its brutal fatalism. Belying its brevity, Of Mice and Men is a profound reading experience that despite its age has lost none of its emotional resonance.
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