“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.”
Thus begins one of the finest books John Steinbeck ever wrote, titled “Of Mice and Men“, bringing us the story of the unlikely friendship between George, a smart but unlucky man, and his companion on the road, Lennie, who lacks in wit what he has in physical build. It has always astounded me how much emotion and truth and heartbreak can fit inside a book so slim and small, and the audiobook was a great chance to revisit that powerful and crushing story. Although I was never much into audiobooks, the narrator in this case provides a vivid storytelling, adapting to the nuances of the setting and characters quite nicely, thus providing a multidimensional experience. I do hope to hear more books with this narrator in the future.
A Few Words About the Book
Published in 1937, it was meant by Steinbeck to be a book that could also become a play, something that happened numerous times, the book having been made into plays, films, and even radio plays. It has been challenged by censors numerous times, having been banned for “offensive, vulgar language“, and for being “anti-business“, characterizations and arguments which I’d rather not start examining, but rising over time to the status of a literary classic. And a literary classic it is. But why?
What is it that distinguishes this little book between so many others, and what is it that makes it join the family of great works of literature?
Well, the answer is rather simple; in its pages, one finds the truth of living, and the truth of the world, and in its pages, toil and pain and loneliness, crushed dreams and the human spirit, are reflected straight into the reader’s soul.
So, what basically happens is this: George and Lennie are migration workers during The Great Depression, wandering near the Salinas Valley -a common setting for many of Steinbeck’s books-, doing odd jobs and trying to save up enough money so they can one day buy themselves a bit of land, settle down on their farm, and live their dream, George having a home he calls his own, and Lennie having a bunch of soft rabbits to pet, both of them “livin’ off the fatta the land”. George has become Lennie’s self-designated caretaker, seeing how Lennie’s limited mental abilities can not only fail to protect him out in the real world, but get him into trouble as well. Lennie follows and trusts George like a child, seeing the world around him with childlike innocence, purity and naivety. Soon enough, their friendship and worldview clash with the harshness of reality and the people around them.
The structure and pacing of the plot is, as far as I am concerned, absolutely flawless, not just because it’s Steinbeck who wrote it, but because it just works; we have foreshadowing in all the right places, and the key events are very strategically placed within the book; from the duo’s arrival to the ranch, to the confrontations, to the tragic plot twist at the end. The story isn’t rushed, nor is it slow. It takes its time to sink in and leave its mark in your gut, like a lazy summer day, and there is a relentless intensity always present, even in the peaceful parts where the natural setting is described, ever so masterfully.
The main characters are George and Lennie, the ranch owner’s son (and aspiring future owner), Curley, Curley’s wife, Candy and Slim, two workers who befriend Lennie and George, and Crooks, the black stable-hand, who is limited to the stables, experiencing racial discrimination and isolation. It is important to pay attention to the character dynamics and the motives behind their words and actions in order to truly be touched by the book, since it a painfully human story.
Every single one of these characters is lonely, disillusioned, and has unfulfilled dreams that have made them bitter, hardened and sad. All apart from Lennie and George, that is. Their friendship is of the most peculiar kind; they are a mismatched pair who manage to compliment each other, Lennie’s innocence keeping George from losing faith in his dreams and becoming bitter like the rest of the characters, and George serving as Lennie’s shield and protector from the cruelty of people.
Meanwhile, the rest of the characters are tapped within their isolation (one of the themes that we shall examine further on), and ultimately within themselves, leaving George and Lennie as the only glimmers of hope in a world so hopelessly burdened by its own unfulfilled ambition, perhaps serving as a reflection of society and America during the Great Depression. We also see how this disillusionment and bitterness fester and lead to the characters abusing each other and inflicting violence, physical, verbal and emotional, not only to themselves, but to each other.
Throughout the book, one can discern certain themes, mainly that of ambitions, life goals and dreams, that of loneliness and isolation, disillusionment, and oppression. One can interpret the theme of dreams as a general idea of the American dream, or (more correctly in my opinion), as the constant and lifelong human struggle to personal happiness. George wants to be his own master and boss, to own his land and his home, and take orders from nobody; he craves the independence and dignity that his own farm could bring him. Lennie desires nice, soft things and George’s company; Curley wants to escape the shadow of his father and to prove that he is a man, whereas his wife wanted a happy life of fame, wealth, and adoration by all. Candy wants a place to belong to in his final days, and, even though he never admits it openly, Crooks wants the same.
Truth be told, they all want the same core thing; a place to belong to; acceptance. An end to their loneliness. They strive and hope, which brings us to the next theme, that of crushed dreams, that of being harshly grounded to reality. The farm proves to be unattainable to the workers; Curley never gets the respect he seeks to gain through violence, and his wife ends up flirting with the workers, disappointed by her unsupportive husband and the way her life has turned out.
As has been pointed out, the disappointment causes the characters to turn on each other. Curley abuses and oppresses his wife and workers; his wife in turn demeans and belittles the workers. It is not only a matter of oppression in a marriage, but also oppression by the one who holds power over the other, which also outlines social injustice that is caused by either race, sex, or financial situation.
Why the Book Is a Classic
By definition, a literary classic becomes one by being timeless and relevant throughout the ages. One could say that it is not so much a matter of technical mastery, but more a matter of heart. The only truly timeless stories are the human ones, the ones that delve deep into our souls and stay there, rooted, simply because they have latched onto something so powerful and so omnipresent, that it can be nothing else than the essence of being human. It is not always beautiful, nor is there always grace in it; as the story demonstrates, human beings can be cruel, reckless, and flawed. But the marvel in this whole concept -as the book shows us simultaneously in the ending- is that, at the same time as cruelty and injustice, one can find love, selflessness, and sacrifice. And that duality, that timeless balance between the heights of grace and the depths of our most base instincts, the struggle to maintain that balance, is the journey of life, that John Steinbeck has managed to capture and whisper into our hearts. This is how we gain insight and understanding. This is how the violence and disappointment ends.
Or, in his own words: “In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”