What elements of Modernism do you see in the opening chapters of the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men?
The modernist movement comprises many different elements. Some of these are stylistic, such as the manipulation of time or narrative techniques. Perhaps the most famous of these techniques is the stream-of-consciousness narrative style of James Joyce. Some modernist writers produce works that are almost unintelligibly absurd, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Not all modernist works employ unusual techniques, though. John Steinbeck is a straightforward narrator who usually tells his story in a simple, unadorned way. What makes him a modernist is his approach to his subject. Steinbeck often sees his characters as actors in a society that is going through some sort of decline or momentous change. His masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, describes an America that is disintegrating due to the depression and the effects of the Dust Bowl.
Of Mice and Men is a modernist work in a similar way. George and Lennie are migrant workers who don't really fit in anywhere in American society. They drift from ranch to ranch, never able to capture what we call the “American Dream.” The death of this dream is a common modernist theme for American writers.
In the first chapter, George and Lennie have arrived near the ranch at which they are about to start working. Look at the way Steinbeck describes the countryside in which they find themselves:
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.
The rural area is peaceful, beautiful, and inviting. The problem is that life, for George and Lennie, is not. This gives us the impression that the universe, while it might be beautiful, is not necessarily caring. Man is but one piece of nature, and nature does not help man along, as we will see in the rest of the story. When George and Lennie encounter this area again, it will result in one of the most heartbreakingly famous death scenes in all of literature.
In chapter two, the men arrive at the ranch, where trouble starts almost immediately. The boss is suspicious of them, and the boss's son Curley looks like trouble.
Lennie is immediately frightened and says,
I don't want no trouble . . . Don't let him sock me, George.
This scene foreshadows problems that will occur later. This is also part of the modernist theme of “disillusionment.” George and Lennie are trying to survive in a world that is indifferent to them. In a non-modernist, work George and Lennie would find the world a friendlier place, and circumstances would not always align against them.
In Of Mice and Men, George and Lennie will not realize their dream of owning their own farm; they won't even find a better place to work. Ultimately, the only solution to their problems will be death. Modernists don't tie up their stories in a nice little bundle for their readers. The reader must endure what the characters endure.