Aug 16, 2011

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men tells the story of George and Lennie, two itinerant farm hands who find work in a ranch in the Salinas Valey, California. But due to a misunderstanding among the ranch’s inhabitants, George and Lennie’s “best laid schemes” do indeed go awry in a tragic finale.

I’m afraid it’s impossible to say more about the plot of Of Mice and Men without giving it all away. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that most readers will know beforehand that this is a book where Something Very Bad happens. I hadn’t read an ending this sad since Ethan Frome last year – I didn’t think there was anything out there that gave Ethan Frome a run for its money, but I was proven wrong. But even though both novellas are relentlessly dark and tragic, they’re actually completely different in tone. Wharton’s is stark; Steinbeck’s is filled with tenderness. So much so that he has been accused of sentimentality, which I don’t think is something anyone would ever dream of saying of Wharton.

I did not find Of Mice and Men sentimental; I found it moving, haunting, masterfully written, complex, and open to several readings. Many of these I’m happy with; others not so much. But this is not of course at all a bad thing – ambiguity, multiple interpretations and numerous narrative strands in tension with each other are to me the hallmarks of great fiction.

The introduction to my edition, written by Susan Shillinglaw, notes that Steinbeck’s detached description of events in Of Mice and Men was part of a deliberate strategy; a nonjudgemental and compassionate approach that simply highlighted “Something That Happened”. Steinbeck called this strategy “is thinking”, and what I found particularly interesting was the extent to which this does not go hand in hand with a real lack of positioning on his part. The narrator does indeed refrain from commenting overtly on events, but Of Mice and Men is of course extremely politically charged. The way this “thing that happened” is framed by the overall narrative speaks volumes. I was somewhat reminded of Pearl S. Buck, who uses a similar approach in The Good Earth.

I also thought it was interesting to consider Culey’s wife from this perspective. Culey’s wife, who’s significantly never named in the story, is dealt with and discussed with horrible misogyny by the other characters. George, for example, uses the odious term “jail bait” in reference to her. But eventually she’s given a voice, and this considerably changes how her character is handled by the narrative as a whole. When we hear her story, we see her as one of the excluded, the powerless and the disenfranchised, even if the other characters don’t. This particular scene is just one more among the things that happen, yet it changes everything. There’s no need for any overt commentary from the narrator for this to happen.

Of course, you could point you that Steinbeck himself said he didn’t name Culey’s wife because “she’s not a person, she’s a symbol”, but I’ll carry on cheerfully refusing to be limited by authorial intent. There’s certainly room in the text for dehumanising interpretations (case in point: Important Critics have gleefully described her as “a harlot” or “a nymphomaniac” throughout the decades), but the fact that these conversations are at all possible is a huge part of why I read.

Shillinglaw also makes reference to a critical essay by Jean Emery that I got curious enough about to seek out: according to Emery, George and Lennie can be read as a couple occupying traditional gender roles, which gives the ending and the decision-making power one party exclusively holds some sinister implications. Emery’s reading made me consider other possible uncomfortable avenues of thought that go beyond gender; for example someone who “knows best” making momentous decisions on behalf of a disabled person, no matter how benevolently. However, there are a lot of valid counterpoints that could be made here concerning George and Lennie’s circumstances; their powerlessness in a wider context versus power or the lack thereof in their friendship; the Great Depression and the meaning of their dreamed future; the seeming inevitability of the ending; the fate that would befall them if not for George’s choice, etc. It’s exactly this ambiguity that gives the book much of its power.

I could go on for hours. One of the most fun things about Of Mice and Men is that despite its brevity, it’s a book you can really sink your teeth into. I have not yet read The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, but after this I certainly will.

This post was written for the always wonderful Classics Circuit, where the rest of the month will be dedicated to Steinbeck. I apologise for being so late – the reason is that I somehow managed to lose an almost completed draft earlier today. And of course I can’t help but think the earlier version of the post came together much better than this one. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

They read it too: Your Move, Dickens, Becky’s Book Reviews, Rebecca Reads, Caribou’s Mom, Bibliophile by the Sea, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

(You?)



On an unrelated note, James at The Book Base was kind enough to invite me to participate in his ongoing series of Q&As with book bloggers. Thanks again for having me, James!

41 comments:

  1. I love Steinbeck so very much. This is a fantastic book, but East of Eden is one of my all-time favorite books ever. And I hate picking favorites.

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  2. It is entirely possible I read this in high school but I had other things on my mind I guess. I did just finish East of Eden on audio today for a book club, and I was pretty much blown away. I was thrust into a bit of a malaise though...so much tragedy! I just wanted the madness to stop. I think I'll have to read Cliffs Notes to interpret...

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  3. Good post. It's been such a long time since I read Of Mice and Men that I don't recall my experience of reading it. Your post makes me want to re-read it soon.

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  4. SUCH a good book. My high school English teacher read this aloud to us, and he did the best Lennie voice. My younger brother can do a spot-on imitation of that teacher's Lennie voice, and every once in a while he'll lapse into it and say something about tending rabbits.

    It is tremendously sad book. I haven't been able to go back and reread it, even though it's so well-written. Great review, Ana. It's not always easy to do a great book justice in a blog post, but you did.

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  5. I have read EAST OF EDEN mulitple times and loved how much there was to sink my teeth into. I read this one and was disappointed that there wasn't enough in comparison. I really need to read it again as it's own book. Maybe i read it too fast because it was so short? I remember bawling at the end, and I certainly agree with your comment on tenderness. It was a powerful book to be sure. If you thought this had a lot to sink into, you'll love the depth of East of Eden, which is a true EPIC.

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  6. I have this one on my Fill In The Gaps list. I look forward to reading it. Fabulous review. I wish I could read it right now.

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  7. It's been so long since I've read this that only the basic story has stayed with me. It sounds like it's worth a re-read.

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  8. I read this book ages ago and enjoyed it. It's the only Steinbeck I have ever read, though, which is terrible!

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  9. I have read Of Mice and Men a handful of times, and each time has left me with a powerful impression. I have yet to have a bad experience with Steinbeck.

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  10. Grapes of Wrath is one of my very favorite books, so I'm glad you've decided to read more. But I absolutely hated Of Mice and Men! Someone ruined the ending for me and it was just spoiled forever. But I was in high school, and a fickle creature, so maybe if I went back and read it now it wouldn't be so bad. I also need to read East of Eden ASAP.

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  11. I read The Grapes of Wrath at university, and it was and is the only Steinbeck book I've ever read so far. I liked it, but it dragged a little and was a little simplistic. The writing was gorgeous though, and I know OMaM is short. So I bet actually the things that bothered me about GoW wouldn't be in evidence here.

    Ana! You are so good for me, you make everything sound wonderful and I am forced to go back and revisit old reading prejudices.

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  12. This sounds really good I have meant to read it.

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  13. I read this book for my English O level and it still sticks with me after all this time. Lennie stills come to mind.

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  14. This, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath are my favourites of his (followed closely by Cannery Row) I can see how he can be accused of sentimentalising people - it's an accusation easily levelled at writers whose work conveys even a small belief in humanity's ability to be kind - but I think his writing is too honest for that accusation to be overwhelmingly true.

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  15. Let me just repeat what Kathy said: It's been way too many years since I read this one. I remember the basic story but not the details anymore.

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  16. Considering you have convinced me to try a book I have long avoid makes me think this post came together just fine. :) Comparing it to The Good Earth was a good move. I adored that book. I'll have to *finally* try this one.

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  17. I read this book for an English class when I was 13 and remember being thunderstruck by it. Even the rigorous search for meaning etc which we had to do in class didn't detract from the impact of the story. I've been meaning to read more by Steinbeck but all his other books seem so difficult (and thick!) However, I've heard encouraging things about Grapes of Wrath so would like to try it some day.

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  18. I was completely bowled over by this book when I first read it. I completely agree that, despite its short length, you could really sink your teeth into Of Mice and Men. I like how you discussed Steinbeck's portrayal of Culey's wife. That aspect of Of Mice and Men never occurred to me before. :)

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  19. I always mentally file Of Mice and Men with Animal Farm: both sort, but both full of food for thought.

    The Grapes of Wrath was one of the best books I've ever read, but I don't want to go back to it again. I had to go on a heavy diet of chick-lit after finishing it, so that the world could balance itself out again...

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  20. I started this book a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still at the very beginning. It does sound like it's going to give me a lot to think about.

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  21. Reading your post made me wonder whether it's inherently oppressive to write a character who's a symbol rather than a person. Certainly writing a sexualized female character as a symbol rather than a person is problematic if only because it's been done to death and seems more the norm than the exception in our culture. But it strikes me that theoretically, that should be a valid artistic choice...something like A Tale of Two Cities leaps to mind, or books in the allegorical tradition, like Flannery O'Connor or Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Steinbeck is a weird mix of realism and allegory, but it's not like he never treated male characters as allegories - East of Eden is an extended retelling of the Cain & Abel, inherent good & evil story, for example.

    Anyway, thanks for the food for thought! I was fairly devastated when I read this back in high school; I should revisit.

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  22. You know, the only Steinbeck I've ever read was GRAPES OF WRATH and I think I may have been just too young to appreciate it. I should really change that. As usual, you make this sound ridiculously appealing and thoughtful.

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  23. Like so many others I studied this at school and thoroughly adored it. I read Cannery Row earlier this year and it's a hoot. I really need to read more Steinbeck.

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  24. Steinbeck is indeed a master, and I have longed to get a chance to explore his books more fully since reading East of Eden, which blew me away. He has such a gift with the written word, and his characters are so deeply developed. This is a book that I have been meaning to read for such a long time, and I wish it had been one of the ones chosen for my high school curriculum. That's ok though, because I will be reading it soon anyway. Fantastic review, Ana!

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  25. No jokes, this is the book that my dad and I use as the litmus test for people's humanity! If you can read this book and not cry, it means you are a robot. Fact. ;)

    My brother was never a reader, but my dad gave him a copy of this and told him to sit down and read it. Given that it is so short, he shouldn't have a problem finishing it. A while later my brother emerged from his room and said he had finished it and the book was good. We asked him a few questions and it was clear that he hadn't read it (as if the lack of emotion he displayed wasn't enough of a giveaway!). My dad sent him back to his room and sure enough, when he next emerged, he was BAWLING.

    This is such a masterpiece that I know I should revisit it, but I just don't know if my heart can handle it. Just the thought of it makes me tear up!

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  26. I had to read this in high school as well. To tell the truth, I remember nothing about it other than the ending was like WTF?! and that I had "Tequila Sunrise" stuck in my head the entire time I was reading it.

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  27. I've never read Steinback's but I really want, I enjoy authors that use political themes in their novels

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  28. I read this at school it is a set book at many schools or was .... or so years ago when I was at school I love the interplay of the two main characters ,it isn't my favoiurite Steinbeck but well worth reading ,all the best stu

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  29. What a wonderful post! Steinbeck is favorite and Of Mice and Men (a book I loved in high school) was even more amazing when I read it a few years ago. It touched off a streak of Steinbeck rereads - The Red Pony, East of Eden, Tortilla Flat. Next up... The Winter of Our Discontent and Grapes of Wrath.

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  30. This book just broke my heart. In September I'm going to see a play version of it and I'm definitely taking kleenex.

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  31. Scott and I were at the used bookstore a few weeks ago and he picked this book off the shelf and asked if we could get it. Um...!!! :) I can't remember the last book he actually read--probaby nothing since the 6th book of Harry Potter came out, but he devoured this one and then wanted to go back to the store to pick up Grapes of Wrath. I really should pick it up since it's so short--sounds like it packs a lot of punch for being such a short little book.

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  32. Thank goodness this one is short enough for a reread, because I feel the need to do so now. I did not read this one in school, but I think it would have been great for its discussion value.

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  33. The first time I read this one, I didn't care for it. But, when I had to reread it in preparation for teaching it, I pulled way more from it. I had a blast going through this with my tenth graders, and we had great discussions about Curley's wife and Candy-two characters who are far deeper than you think in a first read.

    excellent review!

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  34. I remember this book fondly from school, it was probably one of the only books on our syllabus that was really worth discussing!!

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  35. I have never read Steinbeck. I have a feeling we are often in the same boat when it comes to books that seemingly EVERYONE has read, in high school etc, but I haven't because our high school English class meant reading 3 books in 6 years or so.

    I had to smile at your concealment of the ending, I should come back to this post and read it again.

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  36. Love Steinbeck! I read Of Mice and Men in high school and was a sobbing wreck at the end of it. Then my English class went and saw the play and the end of it was pretty much a watery blur because I was blinking so hard and fast to try and keep from crying in front of my classmates!

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  37. I love Steinbeck! I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I do love that although the circumstances of his books are dark, there is so much tenderness there. I haven't read Of Mice and Men for at least 10 years, but I think I should revisit it. I enjoyed it when I read it, but I can't help but think that my adult self would appreciate it more.

    Definitely read East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath. Both excellent, but East of Eden is in my top five favorites books. Amazing!

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  38. In one of the rare times that I read a book for pleasure during a college academic year, I read "Of Mice and Men." I remember being surprised by how much I liked it, since at the time, I think I'd been disappointed by some classics. Before that, the only Steinbeck I had read was "The Red Pony" which was assigned for reading two years in a row in junior high and so I kind of resented it, even thought it's a legitimately good story.

    "East of Eden" is continually hovering as one of the classics that I want to read in the near future.

    Also @ Steph's comment above - that is a fantastic story!

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  39. Loved your review of one of my all-time favorite novels.

    >I found it moving, haunting, masterfully written, complex, and open to several readings.

    As do I, and I hope to reread it soon. Classics Circuit has definitely got me back on a Steinbeck kick.

    As you point out, ambiguity can be a very good thing in fiction--books that are unsettling are often some of the best ones around.

    Great review.

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  40. I had the distinct honor to take a semester long course on Steinbeck and Susan Shillinglaw was my professor! The class stands as one of my favorites of my college career and was actually taken after I already had my degree and was taking college courses at night for "fun". Of Mice and Men is a book that I always want to rewrite the ending too. No matter how many times I read it, it kills me everytime!

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  41. I have one of Steinbeck's books and that is East of Eden. I liked how you described this one: ...moving, haunting, masterfully written, complex, and open to several readings. It's definitely something I hope to lay my hands on.

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