(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)
Writing about such well-known classic books and authors is challenging. So much has already been said; themes and analysis are readily available from sources more erudite and knowledgeable than I. What I am discovering however, is that even in these early stages, reviewing for the classic club challenge means I respond to each book very differently than if I had simply picked it up to read in isolation. By virtue of being on my list, each book is connected to those others on the list. I find I am reading and responding to each one in the light of the others. As well as snippets of insight and personal responses to the book in question, small flashes of connection ignite – and pathways beckon me down routes I hadn’t anticipated. I’m beginning to see my classic club list as a rudimentary map rather than a list of discrete pit stops. As I move along it there will be new avenues to explore – or not, as I choose. I’ll look back at stops made earlier and see them through different eyes. Unifying themes will emerge: what defines a classic book; what makes a book a personal classic for me; what are the elements that speak to me, and to others: do they concur or differ? Although I have a long list to work through and I intend to read them all, I can see two new lists evolving as I go: a canon of personal classics– I’m really looking forward to that; and a shortened version of the original list – containing only those which I believe really deserve the ’classic’ epithet. (Only my opinion of course!) It will be fun!
And so to Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men – a reread. It was not a part of my own school syllabus but it did feature in my son’s. It was one of the few books that he related to and we read it together. I suspect that he took more from it than me at that time.
Of Mice and Men is the only Steinbeck I’ve read, although I have quite a few of his books on my shelves. The fact that I already have them is partly why they found their way onto my list – that and the fact that I know I tend to favour female and/or British authors. So in reading a few Steinbecks I can tick off some classics, shift a few books from my enormous tbr (to be read) pile, and perhaps redress the balance in my reading experiences. I decided to include this slim novella, despite having read it before, as a re-introduction to Steinbeck and American literature in general. It’s a short read; I know the story: a gentle way in, I thought. Perhaps.
I talked about the difficulties in appreciating Oliver Twist because of knowing the story so well through the many abbreviated versions, films and musical adaptations available. And at least I hadn’t actually read the full Dickens version. Yet very soon afterwards I opted for this one: another book which has been adapted many times and which I have actually read already. I picked it up because I had it here and because it’s short: I wanted something to fill a day or two whilst I waited for another book to arrive. I didn’t expect to get much from it if I’m honest, beyond a book being crossed off the list. I was in for a surprise.
This time, knowing the story, and the outcome, was a real bonus. It heightened the pathos and the sense of despair and inevitability as I read. It also gave me space to appreciate the characters – and not only the main characters, George and Lennie, but the lesser, equally well-drawn characters. And it threw me a curve ball as I dived straight into the exquisite naturalistic opening through which Steinbeck sets the scene. I had either completely forgotten or failed to notice first time around, that Steinbeck is a superb naturalistic writer. What a wonderful sense of place he creates:
“There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
Evening of a hot day started the little wind to moving among the leaves. The shade climbed up the hills toward the top. On the sand banks the rabbits sat as quietly as little gray sculptured stones. And then from the direction of the state highway came the sound of footsteps on crisp sycamore leaves. The rabbits hurried noiselessly for cover. A stilted heron labored up into the air and pounded down river. For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool.”
Just reading these opening two paragraphs again, for the purpose of writing this, makes me want to read the whole novella again – right now. Steinbeck’s prose is sparse and simple. His style is direct and powerful. The linear structure, the pace, the clarity, put me in mind of a stage set, and of course the book has been made into several films and been produced as a play many times. There are many analyses available online that talk more about the parallels between the novel and a play script.
There can be few who don’t know the story or its outcome. The remainder of the opening chapter tells us all we need to know about the friendship between huge, lumbering, simple-minded Lennie – so kind and loving yet inadvertently so violent and destructive; and brusque, taciturn George – who cares for him with a mixture of frustrated anger and genuine affection. Lennie likes to touch soft things: the rabbits mentioned in these opening sentences are recurring motifs: part of the cherished dream they’ve built for themselves which stands as a shining beacon and a reason for plodding on through the series of mundane lowly jobs they take to keep alive their hope of raising the money to buy their plot of land – indeed, to keep alive at all. But Lennie does not know his own strength.
The stage is set for an inevitable tragedy. It is a testament to Steinbeck that the story, slow-paced and episodic as it is, is filled with a sense of trepidation and suspense whilst at the same time he widens the themes to include the experiences of others similarly alienated if for differing reasons. Crooks, the Afro-American stable hand with his damaged back; Candy the elderly swamper who lost his hand in a ranch accident; and Curly’s wife, the only female character, who is essential to the story and yet is not given a name – each add their perspective to what it’s like to be lonely and dispossessed and in the minority. I read compulsively, with mounting fear and sadness balanced by admiration for Steinbeck’s skill in crafting something so simple and so complex in equal measure.
Steinbeck writes of the American dream. He writes of outsiders and loners, of men trapped by the economic times in which they lived, with hopes and aspirations like everyone else yet very little opportunity to realise them. He speaks to universal experience: the need to have a dream, to have a purpose in life; the need for and the nature of friendship; how it feels to be the outsider; the innate desire we have to belong; the lengths to which a man will go in the interests of another; the strength of the human spirit and the courage that is sometimes required when one has made a commitment to another.
Steinbeck’s choice of title exemplifies his strength of conveying much in a very few words. Robert Burns’ famous poem: To a Mouse, captures so much of the novel’s message.
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy!
(The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go wrong
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
Instead of promised joy!)
But it also points to another of the themes: are you a mouse or are you a man? We are given tragic examples of both.
I shall mention one other issue here, which I think will be elaborated as I come to read more of Steinbeck’s works: that of Curly’s nameless wife. For me, it feels right that she has no name. Indeed, she has no place in this harsh world of men; her namelessness makes a strong statement in itself. For me, she is more than a necessary device, essential to moving the story towards its conclusion; she represents another downtrodden minority. Curly’s wife has her own shattered dream, her own hopes and expectations; she too is trying to make her way through an unforgiving quagmire of dead ends and stalemates. That said, it also true that other minority representatives – Crooks, Candy – are portrayed with nobility and are sympathetically drawn. Steinbeck has not accorded Curly’s wife the same dignities. Perhaps this is what leads to the argument that Steinbeck is a misogynist. Based on this one book, I don’t subscribe to that view – yet. We shall see.
I am not generally a great one for re-reading books. In this instance I am very pleased that our paths have crossed again. Of Mice and Men is a short book that took very little time to read but which stays with me now – some weeks after I finished it. A second reading has given me the opportunity to appreciate so much more of what this novella has to offer and what Steinbeck as a writer has to offer. I can see myself reading this short book over and over. I have two other Steinbecks on my list – chosen because I already own them. But I now know that Of Mice and Men forms part of Steinbeck’s “Dustbowl” trilogy (In Dubious Battle, 1936 and The Grapes of Wrath, 1939 – neither of which I currently own) – and I intend to read them before going back to my original choices.
Where does Of Mice and Men fit in my classics list experience? Of course it is an international classic by one of the stalwarts of great American literature: how can I not agree with that? And despite the darkness of the novel, despite the themes that I would prefer to turn away from, I have no hesitation in including it in my own personal classics list. If it proves representative of the quality of Steinbeck’s writing, I am in for some challenging delights.
When John Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature, his acceptance speech avowed that “… the writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat — for courage, compassion, and love.”
Lennie and George – as characters in Of Mice and Men – embody these traits, which, according to Steinbeck, are the “bright rallying flags of hope and of emulation.”
My task as reader then? To take up that “bright, rallying flag”; to not turn away from the despair and the violence but instead to celebrate the courage, compassion and love.
Pathways leading from this book:
Steinbeck: In Dubious Battle (1936); The Grapes of Wrath (1939) (Together with Of Mice and Men begin the California series and form part of the dustbowl trilogy)
Steinbeck: The Long Valley (1938) (An early short story collection evoking a strong sense of place and illustrating relationships between men and women)
Kent Haruf: Plainsong (1999); Eventide (2004); Benediction (2013) (Sparse, crafted style similar to Steinbeck, with a strong sense of place)
Nadine Gordimer: Where to start! (Mirrors Steinbeck as a fellow Nobel prize-winner seen as the conscience of her country)