Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Welcome Steinbeck Tour Visitors!
This post is part of the Classics Circuit's Celebration of Steinbeck, in which different bloggers review different books on different days. I (Christina) am reviewing Of Mice and Men, and I'm happy to have had the opportunity to make myself read another of Steinbeck's works; before this I had only read The Grapes of Wrath, and that was 10+ years ago when I was in high school and unappreciative.

Published: 1937

It's about: This tragic novel-play (Steinbeck's first experiment with the form) takes place in rural California during the Depression. It centers around a pair of migrant ranch hands: a mentally-handicapped strongman named Lennie and his watchful guardian, George.

The story opens the night before Lennie and George report to a new workplace. Through dialogue we learn that Lennie loves to pet small soft things, including a dead mouse he has hidden in his pocket, and that they were recently run out of town after a misunderstanding that involved Lennie petting a girl's skirt and then seizing her in a panic when she tried to run away.

Lennie and George share the dream of many migrant workers: that of owning and working their own land. Lennie's favorite part of the dream is the tantalizing hope of raising soft, furry, cuddly rabbits. The men hope to achieve the dream together by combining and saving their monthly wages, but Lennie's tendency toward catastrophe has made steady employment difficult.

I thought: Whew, this book is intense. It's very short and only takes a couple of hours to read, but it's thick with literary devices; volumes can be (and have been) written about it. I wanted to catch up to everyone who studied Of Mice and Men in high school and college, so when I got it from the library I also picked up the Bloom's Guide for it. I loved learning so much about this hugely famous and enduringly popular work, and now I feel like I'm something of an Of Mice and Men expert. But with so many other people's ideas and opinions floating around in my head, I've had a difficult time deciding what I think of the book.

One thing I do know: I LOVED the play-novellete format. Steinbeck wanted to write a novel that could be performed on the stage with little or no restructuring. The result is very quick and easy to read. It's mostly dialogue and physical description, but the narration is a little more artful than your typical play. For example, there are beautifully descriptive snippets that make it feel like a novel, like this one:
At about ten o'clock in the morning the sun threw a bright dust-laden bar through one of the side windows, and in and out of the beam flies shot like rushing stars.
You don't usually read that kind of thing in a play. But there isn't a lot of it, and so the overall effect is streamlined and minimal- no philosophical rambling or wordy imagery. Big hearts for Steinbeck in this department. I want to read more novel-plays. (Recommendations please!)

I can certainly understand why Of Mice and Men is one of the most commonly-assigned books in high school English courses. Steinbeck gives us some heavy-handed foreshadowing and symbolism and irony. Plus it's short and action-packed. I was pretty struck by the idea that Lennie's dream (that of owning rabbits) is fundamentally impossible; Lennie cannot control himself and would certainly kill the rabbits. How can we draw that idea out and apply it to the impossibility of the Depression-era "American Dream"? Can we apply the same pessimism to dreams in general? I mean, if Lennie represents the unchecked id, or raw human nature, hidden in all of us, do we all have the innate tendency to destroy our own dreams?

My favorite part of the Bloom's Guide was Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's essay comparing George and Lennie to Cain and Abel. The common Sunday School analysis of the biblical story labels Cain the evil brother and Abel the good one, obviously. But
... Steinbeck, along with a number of other modern writers, offers a revisionist perspective on Cain's story, attempting to understand this dark "hero" in terms of his willingness to accept the burden of consciousness, and ultimately the responsibility for murder in the effort to be his brother's keeper.
WOAH. This pretty much blows my mind. What if Abel's goodness, like Lennie's, were to stem from mental frailty? What if Cain's murder, like George's, was merciful? As Ms. McEntyre puts it, "When is 'evil' not really evil and 'good' not really good?" I don't know whether I'm explaining this idea well, but if you like Of Mice and Men you've GOT to check out the Bloom's guide just for the five pages written by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I'm going to need to check out East of Eden soon, since I know it deals more directly with the Cain and Abel story.

This review is getting long, and I could say so much more about this book and the ideas presented in it. I guess that's a good sign that I can go ahead and let myself love Of Mice and Men.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. It deserves to be there.

Lon Chaney Jr. and Burgess Meredith; Of Mice and Men, 1939
Reading Recommendations: If you're one of the few people who didn't have to read this in high school, check it out along with the aformentioned "Comprehensive Research and Study Guide" edited by Harold Bloom.
Though I never read Of Mice and Men in school, I did watch the 1939 film adaptation during our Steinbeck unit in 11th grade. I know there are several other movie and TV versions. Which one is the best? John Malkovich kinda bugs me, but I'm curious about him playing Lennie in the 1992 adaptation.

Warnings: Pathos. Quite a lot of language, including the "n" word. Also some mild sex-related dialogue.

Favorite excerpts:
"Slim looked through George and beyond him. 'Ain’t many guys travel around together,' he mused. 'I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.'"

What I'm reading next: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery