What is the significance of violence in this play?
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Steinbeck seems to be exploring two kinds of violence in the world: natural violence from our dynamic physical world, as shown in Lennie’s accidental strength and the fragility of the body, versus the violence of the ego, the use of violence to get one’s way (in this case, the vigilante nature of the men.) So Steinbeck, as he does in some of his other works (Grapes of Wrath is about the violence of Nature, to some degree), is separating violence by its motive, by its root causes. Lennie’s character, besides being a finely wrought psychological profile, is also the personification of the superiority of strength over fragility – not because of a malevolent or destructive will, but due to the way the world works. (Lennie’s end is another facet of the theme, more dramatically complex.) To have strength does not mean you’re allowed to use it as a tool to enforce your will. To contrast Lennie’s “motive” of love and caring and tenderness with the motives of the men is to get at the essential dramatic core of the play.
The world in which the characters inhabit is filled with unnecessary and needless violence. Its importance is first revealed by the fact that both Candy and Crooks, key characters in the book, are crippled. We learn, as a result of his name, that Crooks has a deformed back and this stresses the harsh reality of ranch life. In addition, Steinbeck conveys that pain is a constant reality for him, when he describes his appearance as “lined with pain”.
Central to the theme’s importance is the characterisation of Curley, who possesses an irrational anger. He seems to think that he can gain authority and establish his manliness only by physically terrorising others, such as Lennie. The tension in their relationship is exhibited by Curley’s hostile threat, “well nex’ time you answer when you’re spoken to”. The irrationality in his persona is reinforced by the vicious way in which he attacks Lennie, “slugging” him despite Lennie’s lack of defence: “too frightened to defend himself”.
Carlson is another character who seems to thrive on violence. He shows a distinct lack of compassion when he argues for the killing of Candy’s dog and seems eager to get rid of the animal, when he is trying to persuade the old man, “Let’s get it over with”. His lack of emotion is expressed by the blunt tone in the damning statement, “he ain’t no good to himself”. Furthermore his heartless personality is presented when he makes no effort to conceal the cleaning of the gun from the despairing Candy, who “looked at the gun for a moment”, when Carlson returned.
When Lennie and Crooks are alone, Crooks seems unable to resist a rare opportunity to inflict pain on another person and his suggestion, “S’pose he gets killed”, is vindictive and heartless. Furthermore, his malicious personality is reinforced by the following description, “his face lighted up with pleasure in his torture”. Of course, this is highly out of character for Crooks, however it displays the detrimental effect that a lifetime of oppressive violence and hate, as a result of racial prejudice, has had on his mind. Nevertheless, all of Crooks’ strength is taken away by Curley’s Wife’s aggression. She re-establishes the brutal power if white over black when she threatens him with death, “I could get you strung up on a tree”. This episode prepares the reader for the immediate rough justice of the lynch mob that pursues Lennie at the end of the novella.
The theme of violence is central to Steinbeck's characterisation of Lennie. He portrays Lennie as having a fatal tendency to inflict damage through trying to show love. This is showcase when he “broke” the pup when trying to “pet” it. Furthermore, this characteristic is reinforced when he kills Curley’s Wife. In this case, it is due to an all-consuming panic that he resorts to the force of physical force and he “breaks her neck”. In comparison to Curley, he only resorts to violence through a misunderstanding of the circumstance. George confirms this when he correctly proclaims, “He was such a nice fella”; he wholeheartedly believes that Lennie was never motivated by malice and that his victims were just casualties of his innocence.
Carlson’s significant connection with the theme of violence is reinforced at the conclusion of the novel when he is excited by the prospect of a manhunt for Lennie. His sick enthusiasm is showcase in the keen assertion “I’ll get my Luger”.
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