John Steinbeck Short Fiction Analysis
The qualities that most characterize the work of John Steinbeck are a supple narrative style, a versatility of subject matter, and an almost mystical sympathy for the common human being. His fiction is peopled with men and women somehow shoaled from society’s mainstream yet possessed of a vision that is itself a source of strength. His characteristic narrative method is to portray these people with an unerring mixture of realism and romance.
Though the Great Depression is the central social focus of his best work, his characters respond to those social forces not only in terms of realistic confrontation but also in the form of a romantic, intuitive escape. His characters become not so much victims of social or economic failure but celebrants of a life-force beyond society and economics. The best of Steinbeck’s work maintains this tension—developed by a narrative tone—between the world of harsh reality and the world of animal-like freedom. Even in a late novel such as East of Eden, his best books behind him, Steinbeck symbolically construed this duality in the reference to the two mountain ranges that defined the territory of his narrator’s childhood, the “sunny” flowered slopes of the Gabilans to the east and the dark, brooding peaks of the Santa Lucias to the west.
The Pastures of Heaven
Nowhere is this duality—the tension between realism and romance—more evident than in Steinbeck’s earliest short stories, those forming his first major work, The Pastures of Heaven. Structurally the book shows the influence of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a series of short stories, each independent but each connected by the locale and the theme of psychic isolation.
Using the frame narrative of Winesburg as a model, The Pastures of Heaven deals with the lives of a number of characters living in the peaceful, idyllic valley in the hills beyond Monterey. Secluded like some medieval bower or enchanted castle, the place evokes images of romance and peace. Yet for all the outward tranquillity, the valley cannot remain isolated from the real world of economic hardship and violence.
The Munroe farm, for example, is cursed, and the curse executes itself on all the characters who come into contact with the Munroes. The theme of this collection of short stories is the conflict inherent in the tension between the characters’ desire to live in the peaceful valley and their own human weaknesses, which prevent them from fulfilling their desires. Put in another way, the stories form a latter-day Garden of Eden myth. The land is beautiful, fruitful, prosperous; but the people of the land are thwarted by the serpent of human frailty.
Though some of the characters are spiritual kin to the “grotesques of Anderson’s famous collection,” they are markedly different in their attempts to reconcile their romantic intuition with the reality of social convention. Tularecito, for example, is all instinct. Though an idiot, he possesses great strength and an intuitive ability to draw. The title of the story, “The Legend of Tularecito,” suggests that, like a legend, Tularecito is a child of romance. In his contradictory nature, he is the archetype of all the characters in the collection. Foreshadowing the half-witted giant, Lenny, in Of Mice and Men, Tularecito brings destruction on himself when he attacks Bert Munroe and is sent to a state asylum outside the valley. His punishment is not physical death, as in Lenny’s case, but banishment from the valley, from Eden. Tularecito has come into contact with the reality of social convention and is defeated. Intuition is thwarted in the interest of social stability.
The conflict between an idyllic life, communing with nature, and the demands of middle-class respectability is the focus of another story, “Junius Maltby.” Like prelapsarian man, Junius lives innocently off the land. Reminiscent of the paisanos, such as Danny and Mac in later novels such as Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row , Junius is shiftless and, by...
(The entire section is 1,406 words.)