But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
– To a Mouse, Robert Burns
Analysis of ‘Of Mice and Men’ by
Of Mice and Men draws its thematic inspiration from the simplistic yet touching lives of two migrant workers during and after the hard times that followed the Great Depression. It is told in a way that the characters appear palpably real without the slightest hint of being too contrived and exaggerated. The writing style in which the play-novelette is told bespeaks the honesty of the narrative that ring throughout the entire story. The kind of honesty that earned the novel its place in the literary canon as one of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century (American Library Association), and has gained infamy among some of the critics, schools and literary institutions for its apparent “vulgar” and “offensive” language.
In the updated report of the American Library Association, the play-novelette has racked up an impressive resumé of several citations from schools and of groups who have attempted to remove the book from their shelves for its profanity and foul language. Recent records show that in the years 2000-2003 alone, five highschools across the country have cited the work as challenged because the book contains “racial slurs, profanity, violence, and does not represent traditional values (American Library Association)”.
Indeed the work contains explicit material as can be gleaned from the dialogue and the various sexual and racial suggestions. Yet precisely because of the forthright and sometimes unapologetic treatment in its writing, the story comes to life at full force with its brute but genuine approach. The author is to be lauded, and perhaps the work be given full credit as well, for not compromising the integrity of the content for a cleaner and more acceptable version.
The story could not have been possibly told in any other way. For if it were to be filtered off of its necessary antecedents vis-à-vis its main thematic agenda, in the manner that they are scurrilous to the senses, then it would be better that the novella had not been written at all. It would certainly fall flat on its face had the material content were stricken off under censure. There is no better way to tell the story than to tell it as natural and realistic as possible. John Steinbeck achieved this rather cleverly and completely in his novella.
A quick survey of literary syllabi across the various educational institutions would show that the book is gaining a strong foothold in schools and other teaching venues. The work is being taught as an important part of American Literature along with other controversial works of the century: The Lord of the Flies, William Golding; The Color Purple, Alice Walker, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee to name a few. Incidentally, these are the same books listed as banned and challenged (Doyle) too.
Moreover, there are teaching and study guides available for the work that would allow a sharper and profound understanding of its context and characters. The Teacher’s Guide to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for example, is “designed to assist teachers in moving the students beyond the surface story of Steinbeck’s novella” (Reed, 2). Accordingly, the guide serves as a tool to forewarn the readers of the mature content of the story, but nevertheless gives a step-by-step process to see past the rough adornments of the work and prepare the class for a great and enjoyable discussion.
Truly, the work is more than just an outburst of stark images and candid language. The substance beneath the surface offers a plenitude of themes and motifs enabling a better appreciation of modern literature. In brief, the story not only gives a glimpse of the lives of two people making their way through one of the toughest periods in American history but it also offers a realistic purview of what it must have been like then. We completely enter into the exact consciousness of those who have absolutely nothing, not even a place to stay or ready food to eat. All that they have are dreams and plans for a better future. These include visions of finally having a ranch to own and take care of without worrying about where to get their next sustenance and means of livelihood.
At the very start, George Milton emphatically relays his wish to find a way to settle down amidst the turbulent and unstable times to Lennie Small, who like him, shares the same degree of faith and eagerness of hitting it big someday. George begins to rile Lennie for holding him back with his lack of ambition and somehow by being much an excess of bad luck: “Without you 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 andgo into town and get whatever I want” (Steinbeck, 4). He continues to explode in such manner of furious anger because Lennie just isn’t getting the same picture he has of great days ahead for both of them. He finally confides to Lennie, as a sign of true friendship in hard times perhaps, “O.K. Someday- we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and-” (7).
The conversation continues with Lennie prodding George to paint and repaint, so to speak, the future that lies ahead for both of them. There is talk of a vegetable patch, rabbit hutch and chickens, fire in the stove when it rains at winter and of other pleasant things (8). Each time that such fantasy and imagination is let loose, George and Lennie reveal their naturally poignant humor, more like the humility to hope for grand outcomes out of simple desires of their hearts that sort of motivate them every night for the day of work that will soon come in the morning.
Likewise, this routine of seeing themselves in ways they want to have had them convinced of the certainty that these dreams will eventually come true. So much so that George threatens to forfeit Lennie’s place in their imagined lives if he gets them into another trouble again (10), and Lennie, for all his innocence and goodness, seem to understand what is at stake and is just as taken as the strength of George’s promises. In fact later in the story, poor Lennie was so apprehended with fear at the thought of being plugged by Curley for no reason at all, he recalls the pact that night and with a face contorted with thought and sadness meekly says, “If I get in any trouble, you ain’t gonna let me tend the rabbits.” (14).
Early on and until the death of Lennie, his character is marked by rigidity and subservience, what with his inability to think for himself, much less act under his own terms, without having to search the (dis)approval in George’s face. His lack of imagination, the spineless attitude he has with regards to the way he allows other people to treat him, his unusual ignorance to much of society’s mores and his inappropriate behavior when it comes to dealing with people, among others, lend the notion that at a time of harsh conditions, a person like Lennie will not survive for long.
Put more clearly, Lennie’s character as a simpleton produces the feeling of both sympathy and that of exasperation for it. Despite his physical strength, which has given him a certain advantage over the others, his dull mind just offset it. The naiveté of which he constantly shows, put him out of touch of reality and in a position whereby everything and everyone above will roll down to crush him. Lennie Small symbolizes the meek of the world that are to be destroyed by those who have the power to do so. Also, curiously enough, his name even suggests his status in the society he belongs. Very few understand him as a person in the story. Only George, who has been there for him as a friend and companion since childhood, appreciates and can vouch for his worth in the world (15).
However, the dim-witted Lennie gives the story a gripping climax at the end. His role may be bland and minimal, with no dynamics of change and development whatsoever at different points of the narration, but the treatment of his character is justified with how the story reaches denouement at the height of tragic drama brought about by the inequities and prejudices in an intolerant community. It is the very reason why the story can be considered a modern day tragedy in the Aristotelian sense.
This is not so much because Lennie had to die in the hands of his only friend, but because the author makes us understand that the people Lennie symbolizes are eventually brought to the gallows, in a manner of speaking, simply because, by their very nature, they are totally helpless against the perpetual biases of society. In other words, the tragic character of Lennie is doomed for extinction mainly for the serious flaw of being incompatible and misconstrued within his social sphere. Sooner or later, society is bound to weed out the outcast regardless of how much he stays and avoids it (50).
On the other hand, George has successfully protected Lennie up until circumstances have turned against their grand plans for the future, where the certainty of rescission and conclusion has become inescapable. It is the least and last of fortunes towards their friendship that Lennie should not suffer the lynching of the mob, but through the person who understands and cared for him most. The last act of kindness between them, no matter how bitter, was for George to save Lennie from the angry mob by ending Lennie’s life and ensuring his permanent escape from everyone; hiding Lennie where no one can get to him.
George is the exact opposite of Lennie’s character. He is an idealist, a man of action and definitely a person who understands how the world works. George has the ability to imagine a better future and has the resolve to realize his plans. The effect of his dominant character over the mild-mannered Lennie is such that he turned him (Lennie) as his blind follower and a constant companion. Regardless of Lennie’s incompetence and oftentimes string of misadventures that get them into trouble, George is committed to look after the welfare of his friend with little or no heed for reprisals and risk.
Although George and Lennie went around places and did things together, George’s character is more developed. He is able to interact with other people and in fact, did so in order to break in Lennie to society, and was always at his defense whenever the predatory nature of society brings it dangerously close to their closed and exclusive sanctuary. It would seem that George’s plans are motivated by his desire to protect Lennie from everyone. In order to achieve this, he has to have the resources to cut themselves away far afield the cruel province of men and be likewise free from prejudice and possible hurt.
However, despite their contrasts, both nevertheless share the same dream of safety and economic and social security, where they won’t have to worry about anything. He strongly believes in the stories that he constantly tells and retells Lennie. It takes both the form and use of as a pacifier for Lennie and a mission statement for George.
In other words, their friendship is founded on the single aspiration to do well. The novel subtly establishes the dependency of both characters to each other that upon the disappearance of one, the other too is most likely to disappear. The moment George shot Lennie, not only did Lennie die but along with him died the hopes, dreams and visions they both had ever since. Perhaps the end is only a fitting conclusion to the truism that all the well laid plans of mice and men are brought to naught, and leaves one in grief and pain for promised joy.
In hindsight, Lennie and George sort of bring to fruition the travails and reception of John Steinbeck’s magnum opus of modern tragedy in his work Of Mice and Men. The characters and their fates reflect that of the book’s own experiences about the kind of welcome the critics, scholars and institutions have given it. Inasmuch as the work was largely dismissed as too bombastic and distasteful to the sensitivities of the modern audience, this echoes, as if by a final literary irony, Lennie’s fate of rejection and prejudice.
Fortunately, the work did finally in fact catch the attention of the initiated audience and has already been given the proper merit it truly deserves. In its defense are the george’s, so to speak, of the literary circle who recognize the powerful ramifications of the play-novelette to modern literature. It further opened the doors to a more realistic, genuine and provocative narration of stories that are closely intertwined with historical context. What better way to depict a period of social and political evolution through fiction than a sincere and truthful exposition of reality then and of reality that is to come?
The only trustworthy sources of fiction and literature see long to capture a certain consciousness at a particular time are those that incisively cut to the thick of things to tell a story so close to truth and reality, and nothing else—without restraint or compromise whatsoever.
Doyle, Robert. 2004 Banned Books Resource Guide. New York: American Library
Reed, Arthea. A Teacher’s Guide to the Penguin Edition of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and
Men. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
The American Library Association. 11 Nov. 2007. The American Library Association. 10
Dec. 2007 <http://www.ala.org/ContentID=136590>.