So chalk this one up as one of those famous books that I somehow hadn’t got around to reading, and thought that I probably ought to, hence why I picked it up upon seeing a copy in a charity shop sometime back. I read this short novella in one sitting, completely gripped all the way through, and then left in emotional turmoil after THAT brutal, unforgiving ending. I already had a rough idea of what happens, but that didn’t mean the ending lost any of its power. Steinbeck was able to write it in such a way that the impact of what you most likely saw coming is still very much felt.
Telling the story of George and his mentally disabled, but well-meaning friend Lennie, Of Mice and Men tells of their life on the road as drifters during the Great Depression , searching for work across California. They are able to keep going because of their hopes of one day owning a farm of their own and having lots of rabbits (the latter part particularly appealing to Lennie), and live the fabled ‘American Dream’. If there is a message running through the book, it is that such hopes are foolish to have in the harsh reality of the world, and the implication that the American Dream is nothing more than an unachievable myth. Of course, George and Lennie’s wishes sadly do not come to fruition – there is an overhanging sense of dread throughout the story, especially as we’ve been told that there were previous ‘incidents’ in places where they previously worked, caused by Lennie, where they were forced to run away and move on. It is asked at several points why George continues to stay with his challenging companion, why he doesn’t just leave him behind and never look back – but George feels unable to because he knows that Lennie would not be able to take care of himself – he is a burden that he must carry or otherwise feel an unbearable guilt if he does not. Despite George’s best efforts, Lennie does get himself into trouble again, leading to tragedy, and there is a constant feeling of him being able to see it coming, perhaps why he is so resigned to his friend’s fate by the end of the story. We as a reader feel it as well, as well as the pain of their desire to have land to call their own. It still resonates very strongly reading it in the present day as well – the obligation to always be working for someone else, to never have full control of our own livelihood, is an all-too-relatable feeling for many.
Loneliness is also a key theme that weighs heavily on a lot of the characters; one of the reasons George most likely stays with Lennie is simply because he has no one else, the reverse also being true. Old Man Candy is forced to hand over the life of his aging dog, leaving him numb and desperately wanting to be a part of George and Lennie’s little scheme, which tragically does not come to pass. The wife of the abusive and blockheaded Curley (her name is not even revealed, emphasising how stuck she is in this submissive role), is clearly unhappy in her marriage, and tries to flirt with everyone else at the farm, who all make a point of staying away from her so to not invoke Curley’s jealous wrath, leaving her even more isolated. And of course, her attempts to befriend Lennie lead to tragedy. Crooks, the lone negro worker, of course feels strongly isolated from everyone else as well. He is also extremely bitter and cynical, pointing out he has seen hundreds of men come through just like George and Lennie with dreams of their own land, “An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it”. – but at the same time he does ask if he’d be able to come and lend a hand if needed, as he gradually softens and his desire for companionship exposed through speaking with the innocent, hopeful Lennie. In a line that has become one of the most famous in the book, Crooks muses that “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick”.
Steinbeck was able to effortlessly write each of these characters who all have a hidden depth – and hopelessly loneliness to them, which is why there is such an emotional resonance to what seems like a deceptively simple plot and course of events. Learning that a lot of it was based on his actual experience travelling as a ‘bindlestiff’ – and that Lennie was in fact based on a real person – makes it all the more raw and personal, and with an impressive amount of layers for such a short novella.
A true classic, and one I would not hesitate to give 5/5.
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