Sunday, 8 February 2015

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck Review

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 - A Poem by Robert Burns

Set in Depression-era America, Of Mice and Men follows two bindle-stiffs, George and Lennie, on their way to their next job working as ranch hands on a California farm. They’re the best of friends but Lennie, a simple-minded giant with enormous strength, is constantly, and unintentionally, getting into trouble, and George is constantly helping them get away. But how long can George protect his friend? 

I haven’t read many novels that I could say hand on heart were perfect but Of Mice and Men is definitely one of them. John Steinbeck was an early 20th century novelist whose best work looked at the social and economic problems brought about by the Wall Street Crash in his home state of California as explored in the epics East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath and on smaller canvases like Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row. He’s also a writer who has aged remarkably well. Re-reading Of Mice and Men today, the prose is still fresh, the story fast-moving (The New York Times’ cover blurb accurately describes it as a “thriller” - you will fly through this book, it’s so damn gripping!), and the characters and time as clear and real today as they’ve ever been. 

But though it’s not the most complex book ever, the book’s strength lies in a deceptive simplicity. Basic writing techniques like foreshadowing and repetition are used, but used well and Steinbeck shows how these ordinary narrative techniques can be deployed to devastating effect when applied by a master. 

For example, we can see Lennie’s future problems in the mice he accidentally kills because he pets them too hard. Later on, it’s a puppy that he doesn’t mean to kill, and earlier George mentions a woman’s dress he clung to because he liked stroking the fabric and wouldn’t let go when she started screaming at him to stop. 

Once Curley’s wife is introduced at the farm, and George pointedly tells Lennie to keep away from her, you can tell what’s going to happen. You can also see Lennie’s fate mirrored in Candy, an elderly crippled swamper, and his old dog, and what George will have to do to Lennie. 

The repetition of closing the story with the same location and the same speech from George is also extremely powerful. It’s essentially the same scene but something terrible has happened in between, lending new weight to George’s words, even though he’s just repeating what he told Lennie before in happier times. 

For being a relatively short book at around 120 pages, the book manages to memorably touch on a number of themes like loneliness, thwarted dreams, and social issues. Crooks, the black stable hand, talks of being miserable because he’s excluded from the other men for being black, and he just wants a friend. Curley’s wife is also isolated. She’s the only woman on the farm and nobody will talk to her because she’s married and her husband is the boss’s son. She wants someone to talk to and she’s made all the more bitter for being shied away from. 

She also talks of wanting to make it in show business but having that dream taken away for rushing into marriage with a man she doesn’t love. George and Lennie also dream of owning their own farm and being their own bosses someday, but we know none of these dreams will ever be realised. 

The main reason why Of Mice and Men is rightly a classic of world literature is the beautiful friendship between George and Lennie. There’s real love between the two as George looks after Lennie like a father will a son, and even when he screws up - and, sadly, Lennie does this a lot because he’s got the mind of a child - George still stands by and never leaves him. It adds to the tragedy of that final scene when George knows what he has to do to Lennie and that it has to be him that does it. 

And what a final scene. I remember crying like a baby the first time I read it and I cried again re-reading it today. It’s beyond sad, especially once Lennie asks George to tell him of their dream, the farm they’ll own one day and live happily ever after on. Oh. I’ve read few scenes quite so moving and heartbreaking as that in all of literature. 

Steinbeck also captures the California of the day so eloquently in his prose. I’m sure it helped that he actually lived the life of a bindle-stiff, just like he lived among the migrant workers while he was researching The Grapes of Wrath, because that world and existence is so tangible in this book. 

It’s this heady mixture of evocative prose and raw storytelling that made me a fan of Steinbeck’s for life - I think I’ve read nearly everything the man wrote at this point (except for that odd King Arthur book right at the end of his life - what was that all about!?). 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - there’s nothing quite like it. Perfect.

Of Mice and Men

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