Of Mice and Men

It’s been a little while since I added to my Classically Lacking series. I started this blog very broadly, it’s in the name of course – Some Words On ­– some words on what? Well whatever I bloody well choose is the answer, but in reality, parring things down to running, gaming, and reading is more manageable. Those are the three things I spend most of my time doing, so it feels natural to write about them even if the intersection in those audiences that they draw in may be relatively small. Are there a lot of other reading/gaming runners out there? I don’t know. But a lot of people run, a lot of people read, and a lot of people game. Maybe if I write nicely enough about all of those things, that intersection might grow. Just a little. If not, whatever, I’m having fun.

But it has been a minute since I’ve actually talked about a book, so today I want to rectify that.

By talking about an extremely short book.

But it also extremely famous, and most definitively a classic, so forgive me.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, first published in 1937, follows the stories of two drifters. One, George Milton, is a slender, sharp wit. The other is Lennie Small, a giant of a man in heart and body, but is mentally simpler and slower than most. They travel from place to place, never staying too long, Lennie getting them into trouble, George always getting them out of it. The novella begins with them on the road in California, heading to their next opportunity at the next ranch. They stop to rest at a wild pool before heading to the ranch proper, and George laments his position as Lennie’s keeper.

‘God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want.’

It’s quite clear that although George might genuinely find living easier alone, he is not about to leave Lennie. The two have a connection, a bond. They are both poor, migrant ranch workers. Without each other they would be alone and without Lennie, George would feel all the poorer. So he stays by his side and dreams with him, imagining a day when they can settle down at their own farm, raising just enough to make a living, working for themselves, and Lennie? What does he want? Rabbits. Rabbits to raise and pet, all to himself.

George says that when they get their own place, he can have all the rabbits he wants.

But the pair have lived a hard life and it has taken its toll on George. He knows his dream is just a dream. The reality is that he doesn’t even know how long this next job can support the weight of the pair, particularly Lennie. Kind as he is, the gentle giant doesn’t know his own strength or how frightening he can be. And so George tells Lennie that if they get into any trouble at the ranch, he is to run back to that pool and wait for him to find him.

You might be surprised to hear that trouble does await poor Lennie. Who could have known? Chances are you know what the deal is with Of Mice and Men, if you weren’t made to read it in school then there’s still a chance you’ve seen one it’s movie adaptations, most likely the John Malkovich starring variation from 1992, directed by Gary Sinise – who also takes on the role of George, alongside Malkovich’s Lennie.

It’s easy to see why this novella is studied in schools. It’s short, for a start, so teachers don’t have to demand too much attention from easily distracted secondary school students, but crucially it is meticulously crafted, and as such can be just as meticulously dissected and analysed. Since the novella is just over 100 pages long, it can be read in one sitting, or over a few lessons in a classroom. This should make it relatively easy for students across the entire range of literary interest and ability to identify the language and symbols that Steinbeck highlights to foreshadow the depressing fate that awaits sweet Lennie at his and the story’s end.  

From the very off we know that Lennie wants to touch things, and yet when he does his strength is such that what he touches often ends up broken, or dead. The way in which Lennie constantly asks George to repeat his dream, their dream, gives their yearnings an ominous, haunted, edge. Then the death of fellow farm hand Curly’s dog, the way in which the old man laments not shooting it himself…

It’s all right there is what I’m saying, making it perfect for classroom dissection and discussion.

But out of the classroom, does it hold up?

…yes.

I particularly appreciate how Steinbeck structures it, keeping things tight, condensed, and ultimately circular. It ends where it begins, and from the beginning it is foreshadowed that this is how it will be. Saying it is perfect for classroom dissection may sound like a back-handed compliment, but actually I believe it speaks of a writer with a tremendous amount of focus. From the very first word Steinbeck aims to take you down a singular path, and from that very start you can see the final destination. You know where this dusty ranch track goes, you know what happens, what has to happen. You might even be able to guess where it happens and why it happens. Steinbeck isn’t writing a murder mystery here, he’s putting together a slice of life in the Great Depression, gathering his experiences of the disenfranchised, the poor, the lonely, into one heart-wrenching tale. Every single time George repeats his dream to Lenny, it becomes all the more clear that it will never become a reality. And yet you read on, the thin book becoming thinner in your hands until surprise surprise exactly what you expected to happen, happens.

And despite knowing what is coming it’s still a smack in the jaw. I had never sat down and read this book myself until now (I believe our class did Lord of the Flies instead, another cheery tale), but I did know what was coming before I even flipped open the cover. Yet it still got me. It got me just how it was supposed to get me.

It hurt.

Steinbeck fills up a tub over 100 pages and on the final three pulls the plug and leaves you drained.

So you know, don’t read it if you need cheering up.

But, if you’ve not already given it a go and it’s a nice day and you’re feeling emotionally stable, it’s absolutely worth reading, and as I say about all these smaller classics:

Even if you don’t like it…at least it’s short.

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