Steinbeck conveys his core belief that if we try to know people then it would be impossible for us to hate them
The Great Depression of 1930s is considered as a classic example of failure of the free-market economy. That model caused misery to millions of people and its failure led to the rise of the Keynesian way of handling the economy. Though millions of people suffered, especially the lower middle class and the middle class, the economic and financial literature is still tilted towards financial numbers like GDP, inflation, employment, investment, etc. The struggles of common men and women, their aspirations and dreams have been buried under the heap of financial numbers. However, John Steinbeck is one of the few authors whose writings enable us to look at reality from a different position, from a common and simple perspective. In his work he has combined imagination with the reality of common men and women in their commitment towards friendships and other relationships. Without being judgmental, Steinbeck’s characters are simple-minded, full of emotions, goodness and follies. Steinbeck himself called his writing approach as non-theological thinking.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Penguin Classic, Great Britain, 2000
In his short novel, Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck portrayed the lives of unemployed, destitute, lonely and dispossessed people caught between utopian dreams and the harsh reality of life. The story revolves around two friends, George and Lennie, whose friendship seems unusual because George is a little but smart man while Lennie is a big fat man but a clown. Lennie is fond of petting soft things like velvet cloth. He is sometimes carried away by his petting habit. Lennie’s obsession of petting soft things lands him in trouble when, at the workplace, he takes the frock of a female co-worker in his hands for petting. The co-worker gets frightened and screams. Lennie’s behaviour is interpreted as sexual misconduct and this makes Lennie, along with George, flee lest other workers lynch them.
Lennie’s behavior is, sometimes, unbearable for George. He holds Lennie responsible for all his troubles and thinks that his life would be much better without Lennie. Despite being a clown, Lennie himself realises that he is a burden on George and seems ready to leave if only George orders so. He also thinks that his own life would be better without George because he can then pet rats and rabbits freely and no one will scold him.
However, both Lennie and George see life without each other as futile and impossible. Their dreams, like of any other middle-class person, is that one day they would own a piece of land, milk their own cows, rear their own pigs and hens. Lennie also dreams of having his own rabbits so that he can pet them without fear. To fulfill their dream, they find work in a ranch and decide to save some money. In the ranch they meet other co-workers who also appear as simple-minded people with middle-class dreams. In Candy, a sweeper, they find an accomplice who is ready to share their utopian dream. Candy was everywhere accompanied by an old, blind, scabby and stinky dog in whom Candy had found a companion and solace in loneliness. However, a co-worker killed that dog, which leads Candy to find new companionship in George and Lennie.
Steinbeck has given voice to victims of racism and sexism in American society during the era of the Great Depression. Steinbeck highlighted how middle-class people, who were themselves victims, were victimising brown people and women. Crooks, a nigger, who also worked in the ranch was wanted by none except by his boss, who often thrashed him. But other workers felt no pity for Crooks because of his colour. Crooks was provided with a separate room where nobody visited him, except Slim who happened to be smartest guy in the ranch. Having acquaintance with none, Crooks invested his time in reading books.
Crooks had accepted his reality and was happy buried in his books until Lennie accidently entered his room in search of a puppy that Lennie wanted to pet. Though at first Crooks asked Lennie to get out and not disturb his peace, later he invited him inside his room. When Lennie came inside, Crooks tossed some hypothetical questions before him about how life would be without George, but deep down he was expressing his own feelings and loneliness that was killing him and which he wanted to sacrifice in return for friendship and companionship. Crooks knew that a clown like Lennie would not get the true meaning of his questions. During the whole conversation Lennie refused to accept that George would leave him alone there without understanding a bit what Crooks was actually trying to convey.
The only female character in the novel is the wife of Curley, the son of a mill owner. Curley is himself a little man and he hates big guys like Lennie. Curley is suspicious of his wife and is apprehensive in her absence about her loyalty. Curley’s wife is outspoken. She likes to talk with other men and, according to one worker, makes eyes at every man. She is often found near the bunk house where workers reside, and that earns her a bad name. But the reader’s opinion about her changes when before Lennie she reveals her true being, and invites readers to see her through her own eyes. At that point the reader’s hatred towards her turns into empathy for her. Through her Steinbeck conveys his core belief that if we try to know people then it would be impossible for us to hate them.
Learning about Lennie’s obsession of petting soft things, she lets him touch and pet her soft hair, but Lennie’s big hands make her uncomfortable and she tries to stop him from petting her hair. Her shouting makes Lennie panic and he thinks that George may hear it and then he won’t let him pet rabbits. So he closes her mouth so that she can’t shout, but Lennie becomes a victim of his own strength: she dies at his hands. In retaliation, other workers resolve to find and lynch Lennie. George shoots his friend in the back of his head to save him from the pain of being lynched.
Though the characters are simplistic and emotional, the story is a parable about commitment, loneliness, hope and loss, drawing its powers from the fact that these universal truths are grounded in realistic friendship and shared dreams. It also highlights the struggle between commitment towards friendship and being free.
The writer teaches at Department of Commerce, University of Kashmir. [email protected]