Well, what a magnificent and eye opening read this was! I have to hold my hands up and say this was given to me back in the 90’s – yes, that’s right – I’ve had this book for over a decade and not read it (and it’s not the only one – that’s why I really did need to do a book ban!) – and it has been long overdue a read. It was its choice as a V&A Book Club read that finally made me pick it up, and I am delighted that I did.
First things first, I am writing this post taking the view that most people know the plot and the ending of this novel, and as such won’t have anything ruined for them by me discussing the plot much more in depth than I usually do. If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men, and don’t want the plot to be spoiled for you, I’d suggest you don’t read any further!
Of Mice and Men is well known to be a novel about friendship, loyalty, loneliness, and the American Dream. It appears to be a very simplistic, very thematic, not much going on between the lines sort of book. Two guys, one huge, strong, and simple; a friendly giant, if you will, named Lennie, and one small, wiry, wise guy with a dream, named George, travel together across the Depression hit United States, drifting from ranch to ranch, getting their $50 here, and $50 there, working other men’s land. They haven’t got anything but each other; a deep affection, despite their obvious differences, exists between them, and as much as George protests about Lennie being a millstone around his neck, without whom he’s be able to live his life the way he really wanted, they both know that they need each other in their own ways, and will never willingly be parted.
From its very first pages, this novel has a sense of foreboding about it that lets the reader know that no good will come from this job, and that no happy endings will come to fruition for these men. The two guys carry on to the latest ranch where they will work for a month, get their ‘stake’ and hopefully save enough to get a patch of land of their own, where Lennie can raise his beloved rabbits and they can both have a secure home that gives them the ability to do as they please. It all just seems too simple; too good to be true. The ranch is a place of barren masculinity; the big, draughty barn, the clinical bunks, the apple boxes nailed to the walls as shelves for their personal bits and pieces; razors, soap and dog eared top shelf magazines. It is a place where every man is for himself. They are all alone in the world, living transient lives that discourage relationships and attachments to people, to places, to things. To the men already at the ranch, Lennie and George’s situation is completely odd, and as such, they are suspicious of their relationship from the start. What are they hiding by keeping together? Why does George speak for Lennie? Is Lennie really as harmless as he appears? Around every corner seems to lie suspicion, questions, danger.
Quickly, however, George and Lennie’s arrival appears to create a new sense of camaraderie amongst the men, especially as Curley, the boss’s son, takes an instant dislike to the new arrivals, and threatens to ruin their chances of making their ‘stake’. The men band together to protect Lennie and George, and when Lennie crushes Curley’s hand after he accuses George of flirting with his wife, the men round on Curley to let him know it won’t be worth his while squealing to his Daddy. Lennie and George walk into the ranch with the confidence of having a dream, and believing they will achieve it. This rubs off on the men around them, who seek their friendship, and even ask to join them on their piece of land, which is almost in sight. Hope exists, if only for a little while, and this only serves to underline the previous hopelessness and loneliness of these rancher’s lives.
The men live in a world closed to females, and women are not welcome unless sought in the stripbars of the local town. Curley’s wife, a coquette, dressed in red, prowling around the barn in search of someone, anyone, who will pay attention to her, is not an attraction but a danger zone; her presence signals trouble, and trouble is what these men can’t afford to stir up. It is somewhat inevitable that she will be the catalyst for the novel’s tragic ending; she picks the wrong man to flirt with in the childishly innocent Lennie. Lennie, as we find out from the beginning of the book, likes to pet small animals. Mice, puppies, rabbits; if it’s got fur, he’ll stroke it. Sadly, he doesn’t know his own strength, and so his pettings too often turn to crushings. When Curley’s wife offers to let Lennie stroke her hair, she doesn’t realise how strong he is, and soon her distress angers Lennie, who shakes her violently to make her stop screaming, breaking her neck in the process. This is a bad thing Lennie knows he’ll be in big trouble for, but this time there is no easy way out, and George’s decision to kill Lennie humanely before Curley does so brutally, is an eerie and not entirely comfortable echo of an earlier incident in the novel when Candy, a fellow rancher, is forced by another of the men to put his faithful dog, his only friend, down. Afterwards, he laments allowing another of the men to do the deed – it was his dog, and he should have been the one to shoot him – and it is this sentiment that influences George to go and shoot his own faithful friend, who has stuck by him through thick and thin, to prevent him from suffering at the hands of another.
We had quite a heated discussion at book group for a book that appeared so thematically simple. There is a lot going on underneath the surface that we picked up on. We thought about why it was that these men preferred to work in such an environment, travelling alone, moving on regularly, never settling down. Were they not able, or just not willing, to form deep enough attachments to people to want to stay somewhere permanently? Their keenness to get to know Lennie and George shows their deep seated need for human relationships, so why have they chosen to turn their backs on a conventional, community based life? Was it fear? We thought about the deep loyalty Lennie and George share, and how indicative it is of the natural human reaction to protect those amongst us who are weak. We (well, cynical me, anyway) also thought about whether Lennie was as innocent as he appeared. It interested me that every time he caused harm, he did so in anger; he crushed Curley’s hand despite being told by George to let go; he threw his puppy against a wall after he realised he’d be in trouble for hurting it; he shook Curley’s wife because her screaming threatened to get him in trouble. I don’t claim that Lennie is malicious; all he ever wants to do is not get in trouble so that he can pet his rabbits; but his natural response to harm others when angered did make me question whether he was the ‘gentle giant’ he is superficially painted as. I felt a latent danger in Lennie that George was desperately trying to cover up the whole way through. And what about how easily George and Candy give up that dream of living on their own patch of land at the end? Did they ever really want the American Dream anyway, or is it easier for them to just carry on drifting, no ties, no responsibilities, forever? Finally, was it right for George to take Lennie’s life? Can a man be treated the same as a dog? As lovingly as George did it, can it ever be justifiable for a man to make such a decision on behalf of another? We weren’t sure. Lennie died happy, but need he have died at all? Much to discuss. We argued, disagreed, and came to the conclusion that we all loved it anyway, regardless of our views on the plot and the motivations behind the characters’ actions.
So a short, but incredibly powerful, and moving novel that explores what it is to be human from a variety of different angles. I loved it. I loved the writing style. I loved the setting. I loved the brooding, masculine atmosphere. I loved everything about it. And now I want to read everything Steinbeck ever wrote. Anyone got any recommendations?