A Dream Lost in 'Of Mice and Men'

Posted by M ws On Monday, August 6, 2012 0 comments
Earlier this evening, I finished reading John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" for the fourth time. I first read it when I was a chubby twelve year old schoolgirl and from then, I devoured as many of Steinbeck's books and for as many times as possible.

Without a doubt, Steinbeck remains my favorite American author together with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller and Paul Auster. I am just so amazed that each reading has elicited a different response each time. When I read it as a twelve year old in Form 1, I was angry at Lennie for the way in which George had to bail him out so many times. Then in my twenties, I was more enraged with the sub-plots of the story and felt quite frustrated with the corrupting power of women and the impossibility of the American Dream faced by desperately poor Californian wanderers. In my forties, I realize that Steinbeck wanted us to realize the predatory nature of human existence in this simple tale that also embodies idealized male friendship - very rare in modern society. And today, I wondered about the overt and covert motives why Steinbeck wrote this book.

I have read and possess almost all of Steinbeck's books with the exception of the more obscure ones such as "America and Americans", "In Dubious Battle", "The Log from the Sea of Cortez", "Forgotten Village" and "A Russian Journal". My favorites would be "The Grapes of Wrath", "Of Mice and Men", "East of Eden", "The Pearl" and "The Red Pony".

To appreciate the book, we must understand his background. John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, that became the setting for much of his fiction, including "Of Mice and Men". As a teenager, he spent his summers working as a hired hand on neighboring ranches, where his experiences of rural California and its people impressed him deeply. In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University, where he studied intermittently for the next six years before finally leaving without having earned a degree. For the next five years, he worked as a reporter and then as caretaker for a Lake Tahoe estate while he completed his first novel, an adventure story called Cup of Gold, published in 1929. He only achieved critical and commercial success six years later when Tortilla Flat was published in 1935.

Steinbeck sets "Of Mice and Men" against the backdrop of Depression-era America. The economic conditions of the time victimized workers like George and Lennie, whose quest for land was thwarted by cruel and powerful forces beyond their control, but whose tragedy was marked, ultimately, by steadfast compassion and love qualities which are so absent in our society today (pardon my cynicism). Just as George and Lennie dream of a better life on their own farm, the Great Plains farmers dreamed of finding a better life in California. The state's mild climate promised a longer growing season and, with soil favorable to a wider range of crops, it offered more opportunities to harvest. Despite these promises, though, very few found it to be the land of opportunity and plenty of which they dreamed. And isn't that the way dreams seem to go sometimes, when we have to wrestle against fate and other circumstances that are way beyond our control?

To be honest, critical opinions of Steinbeck's work have always been mixed. Steinbeck was strongly influenced by his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway stylistically and in his emphasis on manhood and male relationships, which figure heavily in "Of Mice and Men".

Even though Steinbeck was hailed as a great author in the 1930s and '40s, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962, many critics have faulted his works for being superficial, sentimental, and overly moralistic. But I love his writings!!! Though "Of Mice and Men" is regarded by some as his greatest achievement, many critics argue that it suffers from one-dimensional characters and an excessively deterministic plot, which renders the lesson of the novel more important than the people in it. To a certain extent, this is a valid argument but I often question what was his hidden agenda in writing this tale, given the fact that he puts in so much effort in his works and was such a devoted and disciplined writer.

Frankly, "Of Mice and Men" teaches us all a grim lesson about the nature of human existence. Nearly all of the characters, including George, Lennie, Candy, Crooks, and Curley's wife, admit, at one time or another, to having a profound sense of loneliness and isolation. Each desires the comfort of a friend, but will settle for the attentive ear of a stranger. Curley's wife admits to Candy, Crooks, and Lennie that she is unhappily married. Crooks tells Lennie that life is no good without a companion to turn to in times of confusion and need. Very skilfully, Steinbeck renders the characters helpless by their isolation, and yet, even at their weakest, they seek to destroy those who are even weaker than they!!! Perhaps the most powerful example of this cruel tendency is when Crooks criticizes Lennie's dream of the farm and his dependence on George. Having just admitted his own vulnerabilities—he is a black man with a crooked back who longs for companionship—Crooks zeroes in on Lennie's own weaknesses.

In scenes such as this one, Steinbeck records a profound human truth: oppression does not come only from the hands of the strong or the powerful. Crooks seems at his strongest when he has nearly reduced Lennie to tears for fear that something bad has happened to George, just as Curley's wife feels most powerful when she threatens to have Crooks lynched. The novel suggests that the most visible kind of strength, that used to oppress others, is itself born of weakness. How true - not only in the book but around us too!!

In "Of Mice and Men", Candy's dog represents the fate awaiting anyone who has outlived his or her purpose. Once a fine sheepdog, useful on the ranch, Candy's mutt is now debilitated by age. Candy's sentimental attachment to the animal—his plea that Carlson let the dog live for no other reason than that Candy raised it from a puppy—means nothing at all on the ranch. I was very upset at this point of the novel. Although Carlson promises to kill the dog painlessly, his insistence that the old animal must die supports a cruel natural law that the strong will dispose of the weak. Candy accepts his decision much as he loves his dog and more importantly, he internalizes this lesson, for he fears that he himself is nearing an age when he will no longer be useful at the ranch, and therefore no longer welcome. How true of many sectors in society who look down on the elderly!!! This should not be the case at all.

I think the part which I love most because it always moves me to tears is the tragic end of George and Lennie's friendship. This tragic end has such a profound impact that anyone can sense that the friends have, by the end of the novel, lost a dream larger than themselves!! And that is most tragic - to be propelled forward by a dream and then to lose it....*sighs*

The farm on which George and Lennie plan to live—a place that no one ever reaches—has a magnetic quality, as Crooks points out. After hearing a description of only a few sentences, Candy is completely drawn in by its magic. Crooks has witnessed countless men fall under the same silly spell, and still he cannot help but ask Lennie if he can have a patch of garden to hoe there. The men in "Of Mice and Men" desire to come together in a way that would allow them to be like brothers to one another. That is, they want to live with one another and have the best interests of others in mind, to protect each other, and to know that there is someone in the world dedicated to protecting them. Given the harsh, lonely conditions under which these men live, it should come as no surprise that they idealize friendships between men in such a way.

But wait a minute - isn't that too unrealistic?

Ultimately, however, the world is too harsh and predatory a place to sustain such relationships. Lennie and George, who come closest to achieving this ideal of brotherhood, are forced to separate tragically. With this, a rare friendship vanishes, but the rest of the world—represented by Curley and Carlson, who watch George stumble away with grief from his friend's dead body—fails to acknowledge or appreciate it. And isn't it so true in this cruel world in which we live? Some can be great friends to others who don't appreciate them and the giver of love walks away in deep sorrow while the one who rejects love continues to live with a hardened heart....

I wonder if Steinbeck wanted to wake us from our slumber and to make us see more of ourselves in the characters he created in "Of Mice and Men" so that we can live more, love more and judge less...condemn less. What do you think?

If you have not read it, please get your hands on the book or check out the e-book version which is available in cyberspace. In the mean time, I am going back to Orhan Pamuk's "SNOW" - another brilliant tale. Have a lovely evening, dear blog reader and God bless you!

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