Some time last week, just a few days after I had my copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I came up with this list in Flavorwire. I just finished reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms — one novel I felt like ironically hating after it affected me so much, not only with the ending that surprisingly surprised me, but with the way Hemingway rendered this kind of ending and seemingly going away mindlessly with it, as if rid of the responsibility that he shall have with regards to his works, lest we adopt a misconception of the famous Barthesian death of the author, — and even before I totally recover from the sense of loss that is mysteriously not only vicarious, which I obtained after reading Mr. Henry’s tale in A Farewell to Arms, I read Steinbeck and thanked myself I am not suicidal.
I do not want to rehash my retrospectively self-interpreted easy simplification of the Modernist temper and all its supposed intertwinement to the anomie-plagued, Darwin-shocked and war-torn period. Although these are very significant details that need to be put in clearer context, especially since I do not advocate the fainting view of the isolation of the artist and her works. What is notable in Of Mice and Men is its selection of the ‘working class’ as its main characters, even going further in making one of them a “huge man” with “shapeless face” and the mind of a child. This short novel is about the buddies George and Lennie and how they built their dreams in a ranch only to see their gut-wrenching collapse. George takes care of the ‘dumb but not crazy’ Lennie who despite being such, George cannot leave not so because of selfish reasons. We see right at the onset that George is often piqued by Lennie’s child-likeness yet in a world with attenuating companionship; the bond shared by the two well offsets their glaring differences. George said that unlike most ranch workers, the both of them “got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.” Lennie, arguably delighted by this reassurance they appear to do regularly, stated the principle by himself: “because I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you.”
They transferred to a new ranch to work in after a hapless stint in Weed and George and Lennie made friends with their fellow workers. Here, George continually made guard of Lennie in order for him not to imperil their stay in the ranch and consequently, their fulfillment of their dream to have their own land which they will fill with animals and wherein they will plant vegetables. Lennie, above anything else, was most excited about feeding the rabbits. Underlining this dream is George’s growing rancor about their condition, a rightful sentiment of workers: “if I was even a little bit smart, I’d have my own little place, an’ I’d be bringin’ in my own crops, ‘stead of doin’ all the work and not getting what comes up outta the ground.” Steinbeck brings into this short novel, via the consciousness of George, the familiar, albeit haunting reminder of a bleak condition that for the most part has begotten a call for drastic change: the ‘alienation’ of the workers from the fruits of their labor, by virtue of their inability to possess them. This condition of course has its provenance in the dominant economic system that is attracted more to the excessive production for the sake of profit than one that is concerned with the sustenance of all.
The relegation of this arguably more important matter to the background in favor of the eventually heartrending end of the relationship between George and Lennie is not at all deplorable. Steinbeck justified this tacit choice with a masterful rendition that can surely leave a mark on its readers, just like it did to me.
George had to kill Lennie after he unintentionally killed the wife of their son’s boss. This George did not without hesitations. Even a few moments before George shot Lennie, they reiterated their rather mushy “we-got-each-other” statement. But in the end, George killed Lennie, George killed Lennie and I want to believe he did it with a pang in his hands and a genuine twinge in his arms and a real blow in his conscience and a huge sense of regret and loss afterwards. Sometimes, I do not want to blame George with what he has done, thinking he was only impelled by his external conditions; but no, most of the time, I want to blame him and curse him for his cowardice, for his not standing with Lennie up to the end. This is what is bad, man. You read this piece of short novel and you want to be in there, in that world it creates, in a world you know is not entirely fictional, be there and change the flow of events and make them a bit more beautiful, a bit more bearable. In that case, Steinbeck mastered me, in that case, Of Mice and Men proved to be a noble piece of work. I try to say it does not swallow me after I finish reading it but it would be just false; it would be just blunt, self-denial. Flavorwire was incorrect though, Of Mice and Men did not make me cry. But Lennie and George is now holding hands with Holden and Gregor within me and my sympathy for the lost, modern individual.