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[277] Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

” ‘I said what stake you got in this guy? You takin’ his pay away from him?’
‘No, ‘course I ain’t. Why ya think I’m sellin’ him out?’
‘Well, I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.’
George said, ‘He’s my . . . cousin. I told his old lady I’d take care of him. He got kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid. He’s awright. Just ain’t bright. But he can do anything you tell him.’ ” [II, 22]

Written in 1937 and set in post-Depression California in which farming was still affected by the economic downturn, Of Mice and Men depicts the grim, pessimistic and futile lives of migrant workers. Focusing on two characters who arrive in the Salinas Valley during peak season, Steinbeck creates touching scenes between Lennie a big, severely limited worker who does not know his own strength (often seen as a simpleton), and George, a whippet-thin man who serves as Lennie’s constant companion and protector.

George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. ‘Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re in’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.’ ” [I, 13]

Through this unique friendship between George and Lennie, Steinbeck plays out yet another variation of The American Dream, and yet it still revolves around independence and the pride of being one’s own man. Lennie and George want this independence more than most men, but have less than most men to achieve that dream. In their case, it isn’t a white picket fence, but a farm where they can raise rabbits.

‘O.K. Someday—we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and—‘
An’ live off the fatta the land’,’ Lennie shouted. ‘An’ have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George.’ [I, 14]

As the pair lands a job at the ranch, they realize the inevitable situation: the predatory nature of human existence. In order make a living, they have to interact with the community to which they are the obvious outsiders. But ironically, nearly all the characters on the ranch live in loneliness and isolation. Curley’s wife admits to Candy (the oldest and spent), Crooks (the only black person), and Lennie that she is unhappily married, and Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need. The characters are rendered helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they. The novel suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness. This is made the most obvious in the interaction between Crooks (the black with a crooked back) and Lennie.

[Crook’s] voice grew soft and persuasive. ‘S’pose George don’t come back no more. S’pose he took a powder and just ain’t coming back. What’ll you do then?
Lennie’s attention came gradually to what had been said. ‘What?’ he demanded.
‘I said s’pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more.’ Crooks pressed forward some kind of private victory. ‘Just s’pose that,’ he repeated. [IV, 71]

The scene in which Lennie swears that George would never abandon him and that he can always count on George’s companionship sets up for the tragic ending that they are destined by their misery never to enjoy true companionship and happiness. But in sparing oneself of the continuous suffering and the lost hope of dream ever being attained, Steinbeck shows that escape can be another form of happiness.

107 pp. Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]