John Steinbeck 1902–1968
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, nonfiction writer, journalist, and screenwriter. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 124.
Steinbeck's novels of the common people and the troubles that beset them have earned him the reputation as one of America's greatest writers. He has employed various forms, from short story to allegory to morality play, yet his approach is consistently realistic. Critics often feel that the realism is marred by his sentimentality, but Steinbeck's clear, forceful writing and his sensitive treatment of his characters are considered his strengths.
Steinbeck often used religious motifs to universalize his work. The Eden theme and the Cain and Abel story are predominant in East of Eden. The Grapes of Wrath relies on a combination of Old and New Testament symbols for its emotional impact. Steinbeck's work also reveals a preoccupation with biological relationships and patterns, an interest promoted by his friendship with the marine biologist Edward Ricketts. Steinbeck discerned parallels between animal and human life that he believed could produce a better understanding of human behavior. An accurate observation of the land and its inhabitants resulted from Steinbeck's interest in science.
Steinbeck was impressed with the Arthurian legends and contended that Tortilla Flat was written as a modern-day example of the Knights of the Round Table. However, some critics have difficulty finding the Arthurian theme in the book. Steinbeck later began translating Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur into more accessible, contemporary language. The incomplete work was published posthumously as The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. It was received with great enthusiasm; critics praised Steinbeck's use of language in this book as the best of his career.
The social outcast is a prevalent character in Steinbeck's work. In Cannery Row Steinbeck infuses a group of these characters with a dignity and nobility that makes it possible for the reader to like them in spite of their irresponsible ways. The working class is also represented in Steinbeck's novels, especially in In Dubious Battle. Here Steinbeck attempts to present an objective view of illegal strikes and shows genuine concern for the workers not only as employees, but also as people.
The Grapes of Wrath, an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the American Depression, is probably Steinbeck's best-known novel. Here again he attacks social injustice, but there are several other essential themes. Along with traditional religious beliefs, Steinbeck explores the implications of the transcendentalist belief that each person is a part of the over-soul and that individual actions cannot be interpreted as right or wrong. The family as a source of strength to its members and the community as a whole is another important theme of the book. The Joad family is a universal symbol for the need for group effort and support to accomplish the greater good for the greater number of people.
Steinbeck is remembered primarily as a writer who was unafraid to denounce the faults of individuals and society as he saw them. His sympathetic portrayal of the proletariat endears Steinbeck to readers of every generation, and the skill with which he wrote has earned him a place among America's most important writers. Steinbeck was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 9.)
The weeds and the willows and the tall waving grain of California's sweet valleys, rabbits and mice and a woman's soft hair,...
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the hot slanting sun and the hungry desire of a pair of floaters to own a handful of dirt are the materials out of which this lovely new novel by John Steinbeck is evoked. Purling water is purling water here, without overtones; a gracious sky is as beautiful as in any lyric poetry. The men are lads sent down to the ranch from Murray and Ready's in San Francisco: Lennie, like Nature itself, whose powerful fingers killed little animals before he knew it, and George, struggling to become human. "Of Mice and Men" is another of John Steinbeck's parables of earth, and no writer I know shapes the soil into truer patterns for us to understand.
In "Pastures of Heaven" this dream had its first fruition. A tapestry whose threads were woven from the design the lives of the men and women of a fertile valley created in the author's imagination, these stories are unforgettable. A prose that seemed made of wind and weather and growing acres came alive in them. "To a God Unknown" continued Steinbeck's inner examination of earth, when a tree and a mossy rock and the silent fury of a drought murdered the fragile human figures. And then, because Nature is anything but monotonous, this versatile novelist went down into Monterey, bought himself a "balloon" of claret, made the acquaintance of Danny and his paisano pals, and decided to recount the adventures and achievements of Pilon, Pablo, Big Joe and Company in "Tortilla Flat." Again when the fun of living with the childlike was done, the writer presented for our information, in "In Dubious Battle," what is unquestionably the most important study of strike technique to find its way on paper in this nation.
These works have been called dissimilar. Versatile, perhaps; in a day when success has the tendency to standardize, versatility in a novelist or any one else is thought of with some astonishment. The threads that run continuously through these stories by John Steinbeck are, under examination, more than perceptible…. Here … is an intelligence as explicit as any research scientist's, an intelligence directed toward the understanding of the relationship between men and earth. In each successive book this desire to explore the complex affinity is more apparent, until, with the publication of "Of Mice and Men," it achieves such cumulative impact as to be undeniable.
"Of Mice and Men" is made of a theme which some lesser novelist might have called too insignificant to expound—two indigent members of the strange tribe of casual workers destroyed by the simple mystery of loyalty. But before they are destroyed there burns brilliantly between the covers of this little book the image of the fire inside the flesh of two human beings, whom fate has crushed before birth, human beings whose lives mean no more to Nature than robins caught up by hawks.
The story seems simple when accomplished by a superb craftsman: the desire and struggle of those who till the soil for others to own a tiny plot of the earth for themselves; against this primitive hunger, like the rising tide of a destructive river, is played the forces which make a naive aspiration impossible of attainment….
[The] poet who immortalizes the fleeting tragedy of two such men as George and Lennie is his own social force. That Lennie was an idiot, no less, and victim of a pathological disease, is entirely beyond the point. John Steinbeck does not know what makes men idiots and victims of disease; such knowledge comes slowly and painfully, as does the cure for cancer. We sting the flesh of our economic body with patent medicines, wondering, let us say, if Lennie's tragedy might not be avoided if the government in Washington gave every crop floater and bindle stiff and lettuce picker and wheat sacker a little farm in Salinas Valley. Such nonsense invalidates the very spirit in which the author of such a work as "Of Mice and Men" is creating.
The verities we can live with are those thoughts born out of dreams which, in the end, distinguish us from the robins and the waving grain. Of such verities does John Steinbeck write, out of a warm and a rich knowledge. With the genuine artist's respect for his materials and love of his craft he puts away cheap prejudice, the distortion which comes from anger; his thought is to tell the little truths he had discovered with his eyes and calloused hands and intelligence and if these truths do not touch your social conscience nothing can. In "Of Mice and Men" the truth is made into a moving and profoundly beautiful book full of singing prose and enchantment. If, standing upon some pinnacle of dry logic, we suspect that his creations of these ignorant American laborers are idealizations, that without the magic of his poetry they must remain sweat-soaked beasts of the fields, we but doubly assure ourselves of his essential humanity and pay his artistry the highest compliment we know.
Louis Paul, "Prose Made of Wind and Soil and Weather," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; copyright renewed © 1965; reprinted by permission), February 28, 1937, p. 5.
"The Wayward Bus" may confidently be taken as a twentieth-century parable on the state of man. Although Steinbeck is not quite so insistent on his moral as Jonathan Swift, the underlying conception in what he has to say was succinctly summarized by the King of Brobdingnag in "Gulliver's Travels": "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." Steinbeck's moral is therefore hardly new, and it has been occasionally exploited in our own day by such artists as John O'Hara and such polemicists as Philip Wylie. But in recent years the subject has rarely received so searching a treatment as Steinbeck gives it. Both because of the richness of its texture and the solidity of its structure, this new novel, unlike many parables, makes good reading. And it might even be good for one's soul.
The wayward bus is an ancient, aluminum-colored conveyance which serves the public as connecting link between two great arterial highways in central California. But its chief importance is that it serves Steinbeck as a vehicle of thought and action. He assembles in it eight members of his cast, carefully graded as to age and sex, and sends them talking and fighting across the forty-nine miles of rain-sodden and flood-swept country which lies between Juan Chicoy's lunchroom-filling station at a crossroads named (perhaps significantly) Rebel Corners and a point within eye-shot of the lights of a town called (perhaps significantly) San Juan de la Cruz….
Steinbeck makes the bus ride an excuse for a long look at the internal substance of his characters. What he finds beneath the skin will not cause [readers] to jump out of theirs, but it may well cause them to squirm in their chairs at the partial but painful truth of Steinbeck's implied conclusions.
The passengers in the bus are none of the pleasantest, possibly because Steinbeck examines their respective constitutions with such meticulous care and clinical exhaustiveness that one gets to know them from the inside out…. The one reasonably self-possessed individual of the lot is the half-Irish, half-Mexican owner-driver of the bus, Juan Chicoy. To underline the introduction of Juan as a measuring stick or touchstone character, Steinbeck permits himself one of the rare asides in the book. Juan, he says, is a man. "There aren't very many of them in the world, as everyone finds out sooner or later." About Juan's lonely, selfish, puzzled, cynical, childish, sour-souled and Godless passengers one is not long in discovering the rough truth of the aside. They are all creatures of their bodily chemistry, torn and ravaged by subliminal sexual drives, misdirected loves and irrational hatreds. If the reader sniffs closely between the lines he may catch from time to time a gamy odor which will recall that of the Yahoos in the last book of "Gulliver's Travels."
What prevents Steinbeck from swinging completely over into a savage indignation like Swift's is, however, a saving sense of humor and a deep strain of pity….
Yet readers will do well to handle this parable with care. It is loaded—with the powder of longing and the lead of vice. (p. 1)
The long build-up to the bus ride begins before dawn at the lunchroom, and the darkness of evening settles over the bus as it nears its destination. Those harrowing tensions which develop in the course of the ride are established during the breakfast hour, heightened at midday by the dangers of the flood-racked bridge, and brought to climactic explosion in mid-afternoon when Juan skids the bus into a ditch and vanishes up the road. But in the end, with their passions spent and Juan as their conductor, the passengers arrive. The novel has as subtle and neat horizontal structure as Steinbeck has ever evolved.
Of equal interest, though less for formal than for philosophical reasons, is what may be called the vertical structure. The route of the bus is through a clean and rain-washed countryside, and Steinbeck often, though quietly, draws the reader's eyes outward to the rich, calm beauties of the springtime land. Across the scene chugs the vehicle with its mundane human freight, while above its dashboard, like an unheeded and enigmatic guardian angel, hangs Juan's "connection with eternity," a small metal Virgin of Guadalupe painted in brilliant colors of gold and blue. The vertical structure of God, man and nature is not the less powerfully effective for being underplayed.
Among the hints by which Steinbeck enlightens his audience, readers may observe the bumpers of the wayward bus, where its modern name, Sweetheart, is boldly painted. Still dimly visible beneath the newer lettering is an older and far more serious inscription: El Gran Poder de Jesus—the great power of Jesus. This modern version of a medieval palimpsest will provide, for the thoughtful, one more handle to Steinbeck's parable of Everyman. (p. 31)
Carlos Baker, "Mr. Steinbeck's Cross-Section," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1947 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 16, 1947, pp. 1, 31.
Probably the best of John Steinbeck's novels, "East of Eden," is long but not "big," and anyone who, deceived by its spread in space and time (c. 1860–1920), says that it is "epical in its sweep," is merely in the usual grip of cliché. Its dramatic center is a narrow story of social horror that rests quite disarmingly on the proposition that "there are monsters born in the world to human parents." But through the exercise of a really rather remarkable freedom of his rights as a novelist, Mr. Steinbeck weaves in, and more particularly around, this story of prostitution a fantasia of history and of myth that results in a strange and original work of art.
"East of Eden" is different from any of the earlier Steinbeck novels. It is, in a sense, more amorphous, less intent on singleness of theme and effect….
Mr. Steinbeck's tightly constructed short novels, in fact, and even such longer work as "The Grapes of Wrath," have given us no preparation for this amplitude of treatment that enables him now to develop, within this single work, not only a number of currents of story, but a number of different modes of tracing them….
[The] novelist reconstructs the history of his maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, who came to the Salinas Valley in about 1870 with his wife, and there produced a brood of children. From the history of Samuel Hamilton, which, although it is a story of economic failure is also a sunny and exhilarating account of a rich and various family life set against the rigorous background of a recalcitrant land, we move into the dark and violent story of Adam Trask.
In about 1900, Trask arrives in Salinas with a strange and very pretty wife. His own home was a Connecticut farm which he could not share with his brother, Charles, the Cain to Adam's Abel, and when he finds the girl, Cathy, beaten nearly to death on his doorstep, he nurses her back to health, marries her, and takes her to the West…. It is her story that seems most to concern the novelist.
These stories in themselves are less interesting than the whole that they compose, and more especially, than the various ways in which the novelist creates that whole. There is, to begin, the speculative voice of Mr. Steinbeck himself, a kind of democratic chorus that broods on implications of the action but is itself, in this role, entirely separate from the action…. Then there is the narrator when he sinks into the narrative, involved in his own ancestral history and even, fleetingly, in his boyhood. (p. 1)
Then there is that family history, particularly of Samuel Hamilton, through whom we are taken into the social history of Salinas County. Hamilton, an eloquent Irishman, and his friend, Lee, an eloquent Chinese servant, are the most moving characterizations in the novel, and both are ancillary to the story.
As we come into that story, we observe further varieties of method: the rapid, impersonal narration of which Mr. Steinbeck is a positive master, a method that has not found much room in the contemporary novel with its Jamesian emphasis on the dramatic unit; then the narrative method constantly erupting into the jagged intensities of the dramatic, or rather, the melodramatic method….
With Adam Trask, we move … into the core story, the incredible story of his wife, the "monster" Cathy Ames, most vicious female in literature, whose story, if we accept it at all, we accept at the level of folklore, the abstract fiction of the Social Threat, of a Witch beyond women.
This account may suggest a kind of eclectic irresolution of view which is, in fact, not at all the quality of the book. I have hoped to suggest, instead, a wide-ranging, imaginative freedom that might save the life of many an American novelist.
There are defects in Mr. Steinbeck's imagination, certainly. He has always been fascinated by depravities that he seems helpless to account for; hence the melodrama. Inversely, he has always accepted certain noble abstractions about human nature that his melodrama is hardly designed to demonstrate; hence the gap between speculative statement and novelistic presentation, or sentimentalism. These qualities cause familiar discontinuities in "East of Eden," yet the tone of this book, the bold ease with which the "I" takes over at the outset and appears and disappears and reappears throughout, both holds it together and gives it its originality, the relaxations of its freedom. (pp. 1, 22)
I am trying to praise the audaciousness with which this novelist asserts his temperament through his material, and the temperamental means by which he defines that material for us. (p. 22)
Mark Schorer, "A Dark and Violent Steinbeck Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1952, pp. 1, 22.
I propose an interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath in which [Jim] Casy represents a contemporary adaptation of the Christ image, and in which the meaning of the book is revealed through a sequence of Christian symbols.
Before and after The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck has used symbolism and allegory; throughout his work he has considered a wide range of Christian or neo-Christian ideas; in relation to the context of his fiction as a whole, Christian symbolism is common. His use of Biblical names, for instance, is an inviting topic yet to be investigated. The Pearl is an obvious allegory on the evil of worldly treasure. The Pirate in Tortilla Flat exemplifies a Steinbeck character type, pure in heart, simple in mind, rejected of men, clearly of the kingdom of heaven. More pertinent perhaps, the title of The Grapes of Wrath is itself a direct Christian allusion, suggesting the glory of the coming of the Lord, revealing that the story exists in Christian context, indicating that we should expect to find some Christian meaning….
Consider … the language of the novel. Major characters speak a language that has been associated with debased Piedmont culture. It is, I suggest, easy to find in vocabulary, rhythm, imagery, and tone pronounced similarities to the language of the King James Bible. These similarities, to be seen in qualities of simplicity, purity, strength, vigor, earnestness, are easy to illustrate. The novel contains passages of moving tenderness and prophetic power, not alone in dialogue, but even in descriptive and expository passages.
Like the Israelites, the Joads are a homeless and persecuted people. They too flee from oppression, wander through a wilderness of hardships, seeking their own Promised Land. Unlike the Israelites, however, the Joads never find it.
More specifically, let us examine the Christ-Casy relationship. Jesus began his mission after a period of withdrawal into the wilderness for meditation and consecration; Preacher Casy comes into the book after a similar retreat. (p. 87)
Jim Casy is by the same initials identified with Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Jim has rejected an old religion and is in process of replacing it with a new gospel. In the introductory scene with Tom Joad, Tom and Jim recall the old days when Casy preached the old religion, expounded the old concept of sin and guilt. Now, however, Casy explains his rejection of a religion through which he saw himself as wicked and depraved because of the satisfaction of natural human desires. The old Adam of the fall is about to be exorcised through the new dispensation.
It should not be necessary to point out that Jim Casy's religion is innocent of Paulism, of Catholicism, of Puritanism. He is identified simply and directly with Christ…. (pp. 87-8)
Yet Casy's doctrine, "all that lives is holy," comes close to the doctrine of one of the most distinguished Christian theologians of our time, Albert Schweitzer, whose famous and familiar phrasing of the same concept is known to us as "reverence for life."
The third article of Casy's faith is a related one: "'Maybe,' I figgered, 'Maybe it's all men and women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinking it, an' all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true and I still know it." Casy's knowledge of the oversoul is derived from … within himself, or if you prefer, from God speaking within him. (p. 88)
I should like to go on from this formulation of a creed to the expression of doctrine through deeds, to the unfolding of the incidents of the plot in which Jim Casy reveals himself through significant, symbolic acts.
First, he feels a compulsion to minister, to serve, to offer himself…. When Tom is about to be arrested, Casy tells the police that he is the guilty one…. Jim Casy had taken upon himself the sins of others.
Casy's death symbolically occurs in the middle of a stream to represent the "crossing over Jordan" Christian motif. Particularly significant, however, are Casy's last words directed to the man who murders him, "Listen," he said, "You fellas don' know what you're doin'."… Jesus said, as they crucified Him, "Father forgive them; they know not what they do."
One of the major emotional climaxes of the novel is the scene in which Tom tells Ma goodbye and explains why he must leave. He has told Ma about Casy, who "Spouted out some Scripture once, an' it didn' soun' like no hellfire Scripture." He goes on to repeat what Casy told him about two being better than one…. At this point Tom becomes Casy's disciple. He has learned from his master, and now he takes up his master's work. Two of Jesus' disciples were named Thomas. Most of those chosen by Him to found the religion we profess were called from among people like the Joads. (pp. 88-9)
I find in the novel what seems to me to be adequate evidence to establish the author's intention of creating in Jim Casy a character who would be understood in terms of the Christ symbol.
Beyond this personal identification, I find further use of Christian symbols. The conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath has been said to be extreme, sensational, overwrought. The Joads have reached at last a condition of utter desolation. Rosasharn, her baby born dead, is rain-drenched, weak, her breasts heavy with milk. In the barn they come upon a boy and a starving old man, too weak to eat the bread his son had stolen for him. Ma knows what must be done, but the decision is Rosasharn's: "Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The girl's breath came short and gasping.
"She said, 'Yes.'"
In this, her Gethsemane, Rosasharn says, in effect: "Not my will, but Thine be done."
The meaning of this incident, Steinbeck's final paragraph, is clear in terms of Christian symbolism. And this is the supreme symbol of the Christian religion, commemorated by Protestants in the Communion, by Catholics in the Mass. Rosasharn gives what Christ gave, what we receive in memory of Him. The ultimate mystery of the Christian religion is realized as Rosasharn "Looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously." She smiles mysteriously because what has been mystery is now knowledge. This is my body, says Rosasharn, and becomes the Resurrection and the Life. Rose of Sharon, the life-giver, symbolizes the resurrective aspect of Christ, common in Christian tradition and literature, used by Mr. Eliot in his "multifoliate rose" image. In her, death and life are one, and through her, life triumphs over death.
Cited incidents occur at points of major importance in plot and action, accompany major emotional crises, and relate to the major and most familiar examples of Christian symbolism. Other less obvious examples might be brought in…. (p. 89)
It is not within the scope of this paper to explore these labyrinthine shadows. Suffice it to say that we recognize in Christianity elements of older religions. Further, it is easy to identify elements of Steinbeck's ideology with other religions. For example, the principle of reverence for life, or "all that lives is holy," has been believed and practiced for centuries by Buddhists.
Such, however, I regard as incidental. In The Grapes of Wrath the major intended meaning is neither Buddhist nor Freudian nor Marxist; it is, I believe, essentially and thoroughly Christian. In my interpretation, Jim Casy unmistakably and significantly is equated with Jesus Christ. (p. 90)
Martin Shockley, "Christian Symbolism in 'The Grapes of Wrath'," in College English (copyright © 1956 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 18, No. 2, November, 1956, pp. 87-90.
[This "fabrication," "The Short Reign of Pippin IV,"] is a froth of a book which must have been great fun to write. In addition, it is one of the purest expressions of true, simple, American affection for the French that has ever been written—compounded with our equally simple conviction that they are also, after all, a funny race.
Mr. Steinbeck's hero is Pippin Arnulf Héristal, a middle-aged amateur astronomer….
The unfolding of M. Héristal's story is directed not by anything he has done, but by something that he is: in his veins flows the blood of Charlemagne…. Thus, when sometime in the near future a French government expires into slightly more than normal anarchy, and every other party has talked itself hoarse, the patient monarchists are able to make themselves heard…. [An] ancient descendant of the Merovingian nobility is able to propose that the line of Charlemagne be revived, and that a certain M. Héristal, Numero 1, Avenue de Marigny, be crowned at Rheims. And, reluctantly he is.
Reluctantly, M. Héristal, now suddenly Pippin the Fourth, is quite as aware as Hamlet that the times are out of joint, but for fifty-four years he has had no inkling that he was born to set them right. Here the moral of Mr. Steinbeck's fabrication—and he is a highly moral writer—begins to show through the joke. For Pippin is both l'homme moyen sensuel, and the ordinary citizen, who is suddenly confronted with responsibility. What is he to do? Lend himself to the shabby face-saving that has set him up as a figure-head, or try to be what a king should be? (p. 6)
This, however, is not poor Pippin's only dilemma. Does he want to rule? Should he?… Pippin is thus confronted not only with the practical problem, on the material level, of whether he can be king. He is also involved in the moral problem of whether it is right for him to try to be king.
I'm afraid it's too much weight for the book to carry. Pippin's allies, with whom he discusses the alternatives he faces, come from the borders of the realm of farce. (pp. 6, 18)
[Sister Hyacinthe and Pippin's uncle, Charles Martel], at any rate, are amusing conceptions, but if we are to accept them at all, it can only be as figures of farce. When we whizz by them at ninety miles an hour, they are very funny indeed…. But when we sit down to discuss moral dilemmas with them, this soufflé of a book threatens to collapse into a sodden crust.
To insist on taking Mr. Steinbeck's fun too seriously is to be a spoilsport. Let us pass over in silence, as Cicero liked so inaccurately to say, that Puritan structure of morality which our author can never quite ignore, and enjoy the fabrication he has draped about it. (p. 18)
Elizabeth Janeway, "A Star-Gazing King," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1957, pp. 6, 18.
More than a mere allegory, "Flight" reveals characteristics of myth and tragedy. A myth is a story that tries to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon, and is especially associated with religious rites and beliefs. The natural phenomenon, for Steinbeck, is not the facts of nature, with which historical myths deal; rather, it is … the development of innocent childhood into disillusioned manhood. The myth that Steinbeck wrought also contains another quality of myth, the rite. The plot of "Flight" narrates symbolically the ritual: the escape from the Mother, the divestiture of the Father, and the death and burial of Childhood. To discern these mythic symbols, it is necessary to review the narrative facts.
At the beginning of the story, Pepé, though 19 years of age, has all the innocence of the "toy-baby" his mother calls him….
When his rather domineering mother—who constantly taunts him with his inability to be "a man"—asks him to go to Monterey, "a revolution took place in the relaxed figure of Pepé."… He is asked, surprisingly, to go alone; he is permitted to wear his father's hat and his father's hatband and to ride in his father's saddle. (p. 225)
When Pepé returns, he has killed a man with his father's knife, left behind him at the scene of the crime. The look of innocence is gone; he has been shocked by a fact of life, an extreme independent act. His mother quickly understands and helps him outfit himself for the flight into the mountains. She gives him especially his father's black coat and rifle. Weighted down by the accoutrements of his father, Pepé separates himself from his mother. She recognizes the change. She tells the little boy, "Pepé is a man now. He has a man's thing to do."… Logically, however, this is not necessarily so. A man might possibly have been expected to give himself up and pay for his crime. It seems to me, then, that Pepé's mother perceived that her son is entering manhood and must stand alone. This he must do.
The ordeal of transformation from innocence to experience, from purity to defilement begins. There is the physical pain of the ordeal, symbolized by a cut hand that soon becomes gangrenous. There is the psychological pain—the recognition of a strangeness in this life that is omnipresent, silent, watchful and dark—the sense of Evil, or Tragedy, or Retribution. This realization is symbolized by the narratively gratuitous, unrealistic presence of the black figures, the "dark watchers" who are seen for a moment on the tops of ridges and then disappear…. These are the silent inscrutable watchers from above, the universal Nemesis, the recognition of which signals a further step into manhood. (pp. 225-26)
Only [when] having been separated from his mother and having cleansed himself of all the accoutrements and artifacts of his father, can the youth stand alone. But to Steinbeck this is far from a joyous or victorious occasion. It is sad and painful and tragic. Pepé rises to his feet, "black against the morning sky,"… astride a ridge. He is a perfect target and the narrative ends with the man against the sky shot down. The body rolls down the hillside, creating a little avalanche, which follows him in his descent and covers up his head. Thus innocence is killed and buried in the moment that Man stands alone.
Thus the myth ends, as so many myths do, with violence and melodrama. What the myth described is the natural miracle of entering manhood. When serenity of childhood is lost, there is pain and misery. Yet there is nevertheless a sense of gain and heroism which are more interesting and dramatic. It is a story that has fascinated many from [William] Wordsworth to [Ernest] Hemingway, and what Steinbeck has written is a myth that describes in symbols what has happened to each of us. (p. 226)
Dan Vogel, "Steinbeck's 'Flight': The Myth of Manhood," in College English (copyright © 1961 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. 23, No. 3, December, 1961, pp. 225-26.
Shortly after Labor Day, 1960, Steinbeck left his Long Island home for a swing around the United States.
Three months and 10,000 miles later the 58-year-old novelist was back, physically and emotionally exhausted. But it was all decidedly worth the effort. The resulting book ["Travels with Charley"] is pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe….
He traveled accompanied only by his aged French poodle, Charley. The poodle is wonderful. Charley takes over a good deal of the book, the ambassadeur extraordinaire between mere human beings, always the companion and judge of the man who indulged himself in the whimsy that he was his master….
Once past Chicago, Steinbeck's prose takes on a new lift. This was his kind of country, and the Pacific, his Pacific, was nearing. By the time he reached Montana, he was engaged in an unabashed love affair with nature. The calm of the mountains and grasslands, he was sure, had seeped into the inhabitants. Out here even the casual conversation, in Steinbeck's glowing reportage, has an earthy sagacity….
On to Seattle and then down into northern California. Naturally the clash between old and new produced the sharpest twinges in the area of Steinbeck's boyhood and of his novels….
Texas undid Steinbeck. He was determined not to go along with the usually easy denunciations of the state, and in this chapter he leans backward so far that at times he tumbles into saccharinity and even near incomprehensibility. But no one can doubt his meaning as he reached New Orleans and "Cheerleaders" scream at a tiny Negro girl making her terrified way into a desegregated school. Here is the most powerful writing in the book, stinging with the cold lash of outraged decency.
The trip really ended in Louisiana. Tired and homesick, Steinbeck soon had his foot far down on the accelerator, and Charley, who was no dog to fight inevitabilities, settled into soulful snoring. All kinds of thoughts went through Steinbeck's head as he hurried home—yet, apparently, the most obvious one did not. He had traveled thousands of miles to learn what America was really like nowadays, but he had avoided its new heartland. The cities, he raced through; the suburbs, he ignored. This is a book about Steinbeck's America and, for all the fascination of the volume, that America is hardly coincident with the United States of the Sixties….
Increasingly in his travels Steinbeck caught himself when he wanted to lash out at the most fundamental result of that drive, the rampant industrialization. "It is the nature of man as he grows older to protest against change…. The sad ones are those who waste their energy in trying to hold it back, for they can only feel bitterness in loss and no joy in gain."
For such talk Charley had no comment at all. A wise dog does not try to top wisdom.
Eric F. Goldman, "Steinbeck's America, Twenty Years After," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1962, p. 5.
[Nothing] more clearly indicates the allegorical nature of [The Pearl] as it developed in Steinbeck's mind from the beginning [as the various titles attached to the work—The Pearl of the World and The Pearl of La Paz]. Although the city of La Paz may be named appropriately in the title since the setting for the action is in and around that place, the Spanish word provides a neat additional bit of symbolism, if in some aspects ironic. In its working title, the novel tells the story of The Pearl of Peace. When this title was changed to The Pearl of the World for magazine publication, although the irony was partially lost, the allegorical implications were still present. But Steinbeck had apparently no fears that the nature of the tale would be mistaken when he reduced the title to merely The Pearl…. (pp. 487-88)
Steinbeck knew that the modern fabulist could write neither a medieval Pearl nor a classical Aesopian Fox and Grapes story. It was essential to overlay his primary media of parable and folklore with a coat of realism, and this was one of his chief problems. Realism as a technique requires two basic elements: credible people and situations on the one hand and recognizable evocation of the world of nature and of things on the other. Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly in the second of these tasks but perhaps does not come off quite so well in the first. In supplying realistic detail, he is a master, trained by his long and productive journeyman days at work on the proletarian novels of the thirties and the war pieces of the early forties. His description of the natural world is so handled as to do double and treble duty in enrichment of both symbolism and allegory. Many critics have observed Steinbeck's use of animal imagery that pervades this novel with the realistic detail that is also one of its strengths…. (p. 489)
Kino is identified symbolically with low animal orders: he must rise early and he must root in the earth for sustenance; but the simple, pastoral life has the beauty of the stars, the dawn, and the singing, happy birds. Yet provided also is a realistic description of village life on the fringe of La Paz. Finally, we should observe that the allegory too has begun. The first sentence—"Kino awakened in the near dark"—is a statement of multiple allegorical significance. Kino is what modern sociologists are fond of calling a primitive. As such, he comes from a society that is in its infancy; or, to paraphrase Steinbeck, it is in the dark or the near-dark intellectually, politically, theologically, and sociologically. But the third sentence tells us that the roosters have been crowing for some time, and we are to understand that Kino has heard the cock of progress crow. He will begin to question the institutions that have kept him primitive: medicine, the church, the pearl industry, the government. The allegory operates then locally, dealing at first with one person, Kino, and then with his people, the Mexican peasants of Lower California. But the allegory works also universally, and Kino is Everyman. The darkness in which he awakes is one of the spirit. The cock crow is one of warning that the spirit must awake to its own dangers. The allegorical journey has often been called the way into the dark night of the soul, in which the darkness stands for despair or hopelessness. We cannot describe Kino or his people as in despair, for they have never known any life other than the one they lead; neither are they in hopelessness, for they are not aware that there is anything for which to hope. In a social parable, then, the darkness is injustice and helplessness in the face of it; in the allegory of the spirit, darkness concerns the opacity of the moral substance in man.
The social element is developed rapidly through the episode of Coyotito's scorpion bite and the doctor's refusal to treat a child whose father cannot pay a substantial fee. Kino's helplessness is conveyed by the fist he crushes into a split and bleeding mass against the doctor's gate. This theme of helplessness reaches its peak in the pearl-selling attempt. When Kino says to his incredulous brother, Juan Thomás, that perhaps all three buyers set a price amongst themselves before Kino's arrival, Juan Thomás answers, "If that is so, then all of us have been cheated all of our lives." And of course they have been.
Kino is, then, in the near dark; and, as his misfortunes develop, he descends deeper and deeper into the dark night of the soul. The journey that the soul makes as well as the journey that the living Kino makes—in terms of the good and evil that invest the one and the oppression and freedom that come to the other—provides the allegorical statement of the novel.
In the attempt to achieve believable situations, create three-dimensional characters, Steinbeck met greater difficulties that he did not entirely overcome. The germ-anecdote out of which he constructed his story gave him little more than the bare elements of myth…. (p. 490)
[In] Steinbeck's source [are] all the major elements of his expanded version: the Mexican peasant, the discovered pearl, the belief that the pearl will make the finder free, the corrupt brokers, the attacks, the flight, the return, and the disposal of the pearl. But there are also additions and alterations. The episodes of the doctor and the priest are added; the motives for retaining the pearl are changed. While the additions add perhaps some realism at the same time that they increase the impact of the allegory, the alterations tend to diminish the realistic aspects of the hero. (p. 491)
In these alterations, employed perhaps to add reality to a fable, Steinbeck has diminished realism. Narrative detail alone supplies this element. The opening of chapter three, like the beginning paragraph of the book, is descriptive…. Symbol, allegory, and realistic detail are again woven satisfactorily together. The large fish and the hawks symbolize the doctor, the priest, the brokers, and the man behind the brokers, in fact all enemies of the village people from time prehistoric. Allegorically these predatory animals are all the snares that beset the journeying soul and the hungering body. Realistically these scenes can be observed in any coastal town where water, foul, and animal ecology provide these specific denizens.
Somewhere in every chapter Steinbeck adds a similar touch…. All these passages operate symbolically as well as realistically, and some of them work even allegorically. (p. 492)
Kino's flight may be seen as a double journey, with a third still to be made. The journey is one half spiritual—the route to salvation of the soul—and one half physical—the way to freedom from bodily want. The second half is obvious; it is the theme of most of the early Steinbeck works; it is delineated in the list of things Kino will buy with the pearl. The first half may not be obvious, since for a long time now critics have been calling Steinbeck's writing non-teleological, by which they mean it does not concern itself with end-products, with what might be, what should be, or what could be, but only with what is. Especially is he unconcerned with eschatology. This view has long seemed to me mistaken. An allegorist with no teleology, no eschatology is almost a contradiction in terms. How this view of Steinbeck came into being is easy to see. His early novels such as In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath are a-Christian. No set of characters ever swore by Christ's name or cried out their disbelief in the church more often than those in In Dubious Battle…. But these are early works. In Steinbeck's latest novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), the central character, Ethan Allen Hawley, is a regular member of the Episcopal Church; his problems are oriented about morality in a Christian framework, and much of the incidental symbolism is sacramental. Perhaps we have witnessed in Steinbeck himself an orthodox conversion, which, once witnessed, gives us cause to look for signs of it in previous writings. The Pearl is one of the first in which I detect a change; Juan Chicoy's bargains with the Virgin of Guadalupe in The Wayward Bus may be reluctant religion, but they represent at least a willingness to sit at the arbitration table with what used to be the enemy. East of Eden, in my view, among other things is an allegory of redemption through grace.
One of Kino's journeys then is the search for salvation. (pp. 493-94)
The Indian boy of the germ-story had quite falsely identified his hold on the pearl with a firm grasp on salvation, a salvation absolutely assured while he still went about enveloped in flesh and mortality: "he could in advance purchase masses sufficient to pop him out of Purgatory like a squeezed watermelon seed." Kino also holds the pearl in his hand and equates it with freedom from want and then, mystically, also with freedom from damnation: "If I give it up I shall lose my soul." But he too has mistaken the pearl. The chances are very much more likely that with freedom from want his soul will be all the more in danger from sin. The Indian boy becomes free only when he throws the pearl away, only when he is "again with his soul in danger and his food and shelter insecure." The full significance of Kino's throwing the pearl back into the sea now becomes clear: the act represents his willingness to accept the third journey, the journey still to be made, the journey that Dante had still to make even after rising out of Hell to Purgatory and Paradise, the journey that any fictional character has still to make after his dream-vision allegory is over. Kino, Dante, Everyman have been given nothing more than instruction. They must apply their new knowledge and win their way to eternal salvation, which can come only with their actual deaths. (p. 494)
Kino is not defeated. He has in a sense triumphed over his enemy, over the chief of the pearl buyers, who neither gets the pearl nor kills Kino to keep him from talking. Kino has rid himself of his pursuers; he has a clear road to the cities of the north, to the capital, where indeed he may be cheated again, but where he has infinitely more opportunity to escape his destiny as a hut-dwelling peasant on the edge of La Paz. He has proved that he cannot be cheated nor destroyed. But his real triumph, his real gain, the heights to which he has risen rather than the depths to which he has slipped back is the immense knowledge that he has gained about good and evil. This knowledge is the tool that he needs to help him on the final journey, the inescapable journey that everyman must take.
A final note should be added concerning some parallels between Steinbeck's novel and the anonymous fourteenth century Pearl. (pp. 494-95)
The importance of the medieval Pearl for a reading of Steinbeck's novel is centered in the role of the children in each. Coyotito can, in several ways, be identified with Kino's "pearl of great value." The pearl from the sea is only a means by which Coyotito will be given an education. For the doctor, who at first refused to treat Coyotito, the child becomes his means to the pearl, i.e. the child is the pearl to him. But more important than these tenuous relationships is the fact that with the death of Coyotito the pearl no longer has any significance. The moment the pursuer with the rifle fires, Kino kills him. Kino then kills the two trackers who led the assassin to him and who were unshakable. This act gives Kino and his family unhindered passage to the cities of the north, where either the pearl might be sold or a new life begun. But the chance shot has killed Coyotito, and though Kino and Juana are now free, they return to the village near La Paz and throw the pearl back into the sea. Thus the sole act that has altered Kino's determination to keep the pearl which has become his soul is the death of his child; and, as I read the allegory, Kino and Juana turn from the waterside with new spiritual strength, regenerated even as the father in the medieval Pearl. (p. 495)
However, I do not think that anything overmuch should be made of [the] similarities. Possibly the mere title of Steinbeck's allegory brought memories to his mind of the fourteenth century poem. He may have gone back to look at it again, but he may have satisfied himself with distant evocations only. For myself, whatever likenesses I find between the two works serve only to emphasize the continuing tradition of true allegory and the modern writer's strong links with the past. (p. 505)
Harry Morris, "'The Pearl': Realism and Allegory," in English Journal (copyright © 1963 by the National Council of Teachers of English: reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. LII, No. 7, October, 1963, pp. 487-95, 505.
In the fall of 1937, while returning from New York and Pennsylvania, where he had worked on the stage version of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck drove through Oklahoma, joined migrants who were going west, and worked with them in the fields after they reached California. The Grapes of Wrath is thus a product of his own experience and direct observation; its realism is genuine. (p. 68)
[The] story ends in medias res. Some readers have objected to the closing scene, in which the young mother who lost her child suckles a grown man. The episode not only has folkloristic and literary antecedents …, but for Steinbeck it is an oracular image, forecasting in a moment of defeat and despair the final triumph of the people—a contingent forecast, for only if the people nourish and sustain one another will they achieve their ends. More than that, the episode represents the novel's most comprehensive thesis, that all life is one and holy, and that every man, in Casy's words, "jus' got a little piece of a great big soul." The Joads' intense feelings of family loyalty have been transcended; they have expanded to embrace all men. Another image could have symbolized this universality, but, for Steinbeck, perhaps no other could have done it so effectively.
The novel has thirty chapters, fourteen of which carry the Joad story. The other sixteen chapters (called interchapters even though the first chapter is one of them) take little more than one sixth of the book and are either expository essays or sketches of typical situations in the great migration. They present the social, economic, and historical background, telling the story of all the migrants. With two exceptions the general experiences described in an interchapter are illustrated by the Joads' experiences in the following narrative chapter. Some of these interchapters are masterpieces in themselves. (p. 69)
Steinbeck uses a variety of prose styles in these interchapters. In these short sketches he could experiment, endeavoring in each to evoke both a vivid picture of something that happened and a feeling tone. He employs paratactic Biblical language, go-getter talk, conversational narrative in Okie speech, the sound track of documentary films. Some interchapters are literally poetic. (p. 70)
The Grapes of Wrath has little plot in the ordinary sense; there is no complex involvement of character with character, no mesh of events. The story of the Joads could be the true story of a real family. But there is character development, as Tom Joad, "jus' puttin' one foot in front a the other" at first, gradually reaches an understanding of Casy's message and takes up Casy's mission. And the Joads as a whole progress from an exclusive concern for family interests to a broader vision of cooperation with all oppressed people…. As the Joad family's fortunes decline, the family morale declines, too: the family loses members and is threatened with dissolution. But as the family grows weaker, the communal unit of united workers, which came to birth in the roadside camps on the westward trek, grows stronger, and this upward movement is accompanied by the growth of Casy and Tom Joad in understanding of the forces at work. We can put the process another way: the family unit, no longer viable, fades into the communal unit, which receives from it the family's strength and values.
Collective persons are important characters in this novel too, since the plot movement must be expressed in group terms. It can be read as a story of conflicts and interactions among several group organisms…. The Joad family is a democratic, cooperative organism; it is a cohesive group, and yet no member loses his individual character in the group. When the Joads act as a family, they act as a unit…. The Oklahoma land company is another sort of organism entirely. It is one of the monsters of Chapter Five which "don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat."… As Doc Burton said in In Dubious Battle, a group's ends may be entirely different from the ends of its individual members. The monster is the sort of organism that absorbs its members, drains them of their individualities, and makes them into organization men. (pp. 70-1)
The monster is in fact Leviathan…. [I allude] to the relation of the group organism to Thomas Hobbes's symbol for the state as collective person, "that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently,… that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence." Steinbeck's monster is as despotic as Hobbes's Leviathan, but hardly as beneficial to man. He is rather the original Leviathan of Isaiah 27 and Psalm 74, enemy of the Lord….
The Joad family fled the Oklahoma Leviathan, only to run into his brother, the California Leviathan—the Farmers' Association and its typical member, the Hooper ranch, a veritable prison with its barbed-wire fences and armed guards—much the same sort of creature, but even meaner. (p. 72)
The conflict of organisms is necessarily an ecological struggle, a disturbance of an ecological cycle…. The agricultural corporations and big growers need pickers in great numbers to harvest their manifold crops. In the thirties they advertised everywhere for pickers with the object of bringing in more jobseekers than they needed; with too many men on hand they could lower wages and increase profits. When one crop was picked, the workers had to hurry on to another crop, if they were to make a bare subsistence. They never stayed long enough in one county to qualify for relief, and so the growers were saved higher taxes. When the time for the next harvest approached, the growers advertised again for pickers, sending handbills everywhere to bring workers back in great numbers. But there were flies in this ointment too: labor leaders, radical agitators, socialists, made the pickers dissatisfied with wages and working conditions, organized them in unions, promoted strikes, and were cordially hated by the growers.
Critics, of course, have noticed the biological features of The Grapes of Wrath, but without realizing how literally the monster, the family unit, and the workers' commune are meant to be real organisms. In fact, the biological and organismic side of the novel has been slighted, if not ignored. The mythical side, however, has been much more fortunate, in marked contrast to the neglect of mythical themes and structure in earlier novels. (pp. 74-5)
On the road west the Joads met men who were going back to Oklahoma from California. These men reported that although California was a lovely and rich country the residents were hostile to the migrant workers, treated them badly, and paid them so poorly that many migrants starved to death in slack periods. In Numbers 13, scouts whom Moses sent ahead into Canaan came back with the report that "surely it floweth with milk and honey"; nevertheless they made "an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land … is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof"; and the natives were giants who looked upon the Hebrews as locusts. Yet the Joads, like Joshua and Caleb, were determined to enter the land. The meanness of California officers at the border, the efforts to turn back indigent migrants, the refusal of cities and towns to let migrant workers enter, except when their labor was needed—in all this we may see the efforts of the Edomites, Moabites, and Amorites to keep the Israelites from entering their countries.
In spite of the Canaanites' hostility the Israelites persisted and took over the promised land. The Book of Joshua ends with victory and conquest. But The Grapes of Wrath ends at a low point in the fortunes of the Joads…. The migrant Okies met defeat because they had not learned to give up selfish desires for money and possessions: still too many wanted to undercut the pay of fellow-workers and had no feeling of a common cause. But they would accomplish nothing if they did not stand together. The issue is left there, and a happy ending depends on an "if": if the migrants should realize their strength in union. Casy, Tom, and Pa Joad predict a change that is coming, a better time for the people, when they will take matters into their own hands and set them right. And the author foresees doom for the oppressors: "Every little means, every violence, every raid on a Hooverville, every deputy swaggering through a ragged camp put off the day a little and cemented the inevitability of the day." Only future events will tell us how the story ends: it had not ended in 1939.
Perhaps the most striking episodic parallel to Exodus occurs near the end of the novel. When Tom killed the vigilante who struck Casy down and left the region when it looked as if he would be found out, he acted as Moses had done. For "when Moses was grown" he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew laborer, and he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand…. In the Pentateuch this happened in Egypt before the Exodus; in The Grapes of Wrath it happened in California after the migration…. The "house of bondage" is in the new land; in the old land the people had lived in patriarchal contentment until they were forced to leave. It was more like Israel's earlier migration from Palestine to Egypt. Just after reaching California, Tom said to Casy, "… this ain't no lan' of milk an' honey like the preachers say. They's a mean thing here." So Moses' task of delivering his people from bondage is just beginning, not ending; it is now that he strikes the first blow. The migrants have gained nothing by merely exchanging one land for another; they must deal with the "mean thing."
Hence a stillborn child is set adrift upon a stream at the end of the story, rather than a living child at the beginning. It was a "blue shriveled little mummy." This time the first-born of the oppressed had died; yet it was a sign to the oppressors. John Joad said, "Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk." What message? It is given in Chapter Twenty-Five: oranges, corn, potatoes, pigs, are destroyed to keep prices up, though millions of people need them. "And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange."
Tom Joad becomes the new Moses who will lead the oppressed people, succeeding Jim Casy, who had found One Big Soul in the hills, as Moses had found the Lord on Mount Horeb. (pp. 76-8)
In colloquial language Casy and Tom express the book's doctrine: that not only is each social unit—family, corporation, union, state—a single organism, but so is mankind as a whole, embracing all the rest. (p. 80)
In no Steinbeck novel do the biological and mythical strands fit so neatly together as in The Grapes of Wrath. The Oklahoma land company is at once monster, Leviathan, and Pharaoh oppressing the tenant farmers, who are equally monster's prey and Israelites. The California land companies are Canaanites, Pharisees, Roman government, and the dominant organism of an ecological community. The family organisms are forced to join together into a larger collective organism; the Hebrews' migration and sufferings weld them into a united nation; the poor and oppressed receive a Messiah who teaches them unity in the Oversoul. The Joads are equally a family unit, the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve disciples. Casy and Tom are both Moses and Jesus as leaders of the people and guiding organs in the new collective organism. Each theme—organismic, ecological, mythical; and each phase of the mythical: Exodus, Messiah, Leviathan, ritual sequence—builds up to a single conclusion: the unity of all mankind.
To liken the Okies to the Israelites—this too may seem incongruous. Yet the parallel is really close. The oppressed laborers in Egypt were as much despised by their masters as the migrant workers in California. Moses was certainly a labor agitator, and Jesus appealed to the poor and lowly and called rude fishermen and tax-gatherers to his company. Again the mythical structure imparts a cosmic meaning to the tale. These contemporary events, says Steinbeck, are as portentous for the future as was the Hebrews' migration from Egypt, and for the same reasons. (pp. 82-3)
Steinbeck left the conclusion of his story to events. How did it turn out? On September 1, 1939, fewer than five months after The Grapes of Wrath was published, Hitler invaded Poland and began the war which interrupted the course of events that Steinbeck foresaw. In 1940 America began to prepare for war and was in it before the end of 1941. This meant an end of unemployment. The Okies and Arkies came to work in the shipyards of San Francisco and San Pedro bays; they replaced enlisted men in industries and businesses everywhere; and many, of course, were enlisted, too. They found houses to live in, settled down, and remained employed when the war was over. Mexicans and Orientals once more harvested California's crops, and "wetbacks" became a problem. So did The Grapes of Wrath never find a conclusion, cut off by the turn of events? Had the owners learned their lesson and improved conditions? Disquieting reports have been coming from the fields: more Americans are now employed in migratory farm labor than a few years ago, pay is low, and conditions are bad. Perhaps the story has not ended yet. (p. 83)
The central narrative throughout [East of Eden] is the fictional biography of Adam Trask from his birth in the second year of the Civil War until his death in the last year of World War I. Five short chapters (three of these are introductions to the Parts) present the historical and moral contexts of the Trask and Hamilton stories in fulfillment of the author's promise to write the story of his family and country. The design and magnitude of East of Eden, and Steinbeck's own remarks about it, indicate that it was meant to be a climactic work, his greatest achievement, for which every earlier book was practice. But few Steinbeck readers will place it higher than The Grapes of Wrath, the majority may see it as a second peak in his career, but not nearly so high as the first.
Although morality has now nearly eclipsed biology as a formative principle in Steinbeck's fiction, his biological knowledge still makes an occasional appearance and remains an important source of metaphor and simile. For example, the vicious Cathy Ames was a psychic monster, produced by "a twisted gene or a malformed egg." But the group organism, prominent in earlier novels, has almost disappeared from view. It is employed in only a few instances. The army is depicted as a group that tolerates no individual differences in its members, absorbing them completely into itself. Lee, the Trasks' sage Chinese servant, used as a spokesman by the author, says that a family is something hard to root out, once it has dug into the earth and scratched out a home. Towns like Salinas are described as having an occasional "mild eructation of morality," which results in raids on gambling joints. That is about all—statements that another novelist might have made, and which would require no notice here had not Steinbeck established the organismic theme in earlier novels. In fact, in one moralizing section, the concept of the group, because it is hostile to "the free, exploring mind of the individual," is rejected in favor of "the individual mind and spirit of a man," which is the only "creative instrument"; the group never creates anything. Leviathan is cast into outer darkness. East of Eden does not deal with groups, aside from families—and not even the Hamilton family looks like a single organism.
The mythical vehicle of Steinbeck's moral message is the story of Cain and Abel, as the title indicates. And in this novel Steinbeck is not content with a subtle suggestion of the myth, but must make sure that his readers will not miss it. (pp. 119-20)
Steinbeck, of course, puts more into the story than can be found in Genesis 4, which says nothing about either brother's attitude towards Adam. The irony of the fathers' partiality in East of Eden is that neither Adam nor Aron loved his father, whereas Charles loved Cyrus and Cal loved Adam, and each tried hard to please his father. Again, Steinbeck introduces rivalry over a woman into both generations of brothers, more obscurely in the first, since Charles disliked Cathy; but he did admit her to his bed and left her half of his fortune when he died. In the next generation Abra, Aron's boyhood sweetheart, transferred her love to Cal after Aron's enlistment. Steinbeck read a good deal about Genesis while writing East of Eden and probably came upon a later Jewish legend (current before 300 A.D.) which elaborates the brief and bare scriptural narrative: both Cain and Abel had a twin sister, each intended to become her twin's wife and so ensure the survival of mankind. Abel's twin sister was so beautiful that Cain wanted her; therefore he picked a quarrel with Abel, killed him, and married Abel's twin, that mysterious wife of Cain who bore his son Enoch in the land of Nod (Genesis 4:17).
Furthermore, Steinbeck had to fuse Adam and Jehovah in one person, Cyrus Trask in the first generation, Adam Trask in the second. Cathy is a fusion of Eve, the Eden serpent, and Cain's wife—the beating which the whoremaster gave her had left a scar on her forehead. Steinbeck emphasizes her serpent nature by giving her a heart-shaped face, an abnormally small mouth, a little pointed tongue that sometimes flicked around her lips, small sharp teeth with the canine teeth longer and more pointed than the others, tiny ears without lobes and pressed close to her head, unblinking eyes, narrow hips. She liked the dark and shunned light. When Sam Hamilton delivered her twins, she snarled at him with lips drawn up from her teeth and bit his hand severely. Since Steinbeck accepts the Christian identification of the Eden snake with Satan, he also represents Cathy as a devil: "There was a time when a girl like Cathy would have been called possessed by the devil." (p. 122)
The story of Cain and Abel, Lee said to Adam and Sam, "is the symbol story of the human soul," "the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story." The three men found the story perplexing when they first discussed it. Ten years later, when they had gathered for the last time, Lee had cleared up the difficulties with the help of four aged Chinese sages, who had studied Hebrew for just this purpose. They solved the problem of Genesis 4:7, as given in the King James version, "And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him," by translating the verb form timshol (not timshel as Steinbeck has it) "thou mayest rule" instead of "thou shalt rule"; and they took "sin" as antecedent of the masculine pronouns. This, Lee said in triumph, "was the gold from our mining": the translation "thou shalt rule" implies predestination; "do thou rule," as in the American Standard version, orders a man to master sin; but "thou mayest rule" gives a man a choice: he can master sin if he wants to. "Thou mayest," Lee said, "might be the most important word in the world," for "that makes a man great,… for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice." (p. 123)
The reader is never clear about the relation of good to evil in this novel, for it is presented in four inconsistent ways. (1) Good is opposed to evil…. Charles, Cathy, and Cal have bad traits opposed to the good traits of Adam and Aron. In the "thou mayest" doctrine, evil can be rejected and good chosen. (2) Good and evil are complementary. Lee thought that they might be so balanced that if a man went too far either way an automatic slide restored the balance. Good and evil are symbolized by the church and the whorehouse, which "arrived in the Far West simultaneously," and each "intended to accomplish the same thing: … [to take] a man out of his bleakness for a time." (3) Evil is the source of good and may even be necessary to good. The evil Cathy, quite without intending it, "set off the glory in Adam." The wealth which Cyrus Trask acquired dishonestly was inherited by Adam Trask, an honest man who used the money to rear and educate his sons. The wicked Cathy-Kate was mother of the good Aron and left her ill-gotten money to him…. (4) Good and evil are relative terms. Lee said to Adam …, "What your wife is doing is neither good nor bad," although she was operating the most perverted and depraved brothel in California. This seems to hark back to Casy's doctrine: Kate's activities were simply not nice.
Good is identified both with admirable individual qualities (philanthropy, kindness, generosity, self-respect, courage, creativity) and with conventional moral goodness (sexual purity, abstinence from carnal pleasures of any kind). Evil is identified with ignoble individual qualities (meanness, cruelty, violent temper, avarice, hatefulness, selfishness), with criminal acts (murder, arson, theft, embezzlement), and with carnal pleasures, particularly sex acts; and not only with prostitution and perversions, but with sexual satisfaction in general. That is, the author appears to accept Cal's label of "bad" for his adolescent desires and impulses, and of "good" for Aron's self-indulgent purity and abstinence, and to accept Abra's use of "good" and "bad" when she says that Aron is too good for her, that she herself is not good, and that she loves Cal because he isn't good. Of course, this is the way that young people talk. But Cal and Abra are never allowed to reach a more enlightened view of "good" and "bad"; Steinbeck is using them to illustrate his thesis: that there is good and bad in everyone, and that some bad is necessary (that is, it is good to be bad); and he is understanding good and bad in their terms.
We should notice that in contrast to Steinbeck's treatment of sex in earlier novels, there is no good or healthy or lusty sexual intercourse in East of Eden. It is always sordid, joyless, depraved, or mercenary. The good married couples produce children, but they have no love life so far as this novel is concerned. There is a hint of passion between Cal and Abra in Chapter 54, but the curtain comes down abruptly and discreetly on the scene. In one passage Steinbeck decries human sexuality: what freedom men could have without it—only, he adds, they would no longer be human. This is not at all like the old Steinbeck who celebrated sexuality. It turns out that Steinbeck's view of good and evil is that of his mythical source: it is the Mosaic view, which is to say a legal view; particular acts are good or bad, regardless of circumstances. The earlier Steinbeck saw acts in context and evaluated them accordingly, if he evaluated them at all, dismissing the religious conception of "sin" entirely. For a novel on good and evil, East of Eden strangely lacks ethical insight. It is true, as I have pointed out, that its author evaluates qualities as well as acts, but they remain abstract. Adam is honest and kind, we are told; but these are negative virtues in him. In truth, virtue seems to be a function of lack of energy: pernicious anemia may account for George Hamilton's sinless life, and Adam Trask was passive, inert, non-resistant. The positive behavior of the "good" characters is at best unpleasant. Aron is selfish, inconsiderate, unloving. Adam neglects his boys for twelve years, never loves anybody except Cathy, and loves her blindly. His rejection of Cal's gift was brutal, unfeeling, and this after he had begun a cordial relationship with his son. Did Steinbeck, perhaps, intend to show that these "good" persons were not what others thought them to be? Hardly. Lee, his spokesman, said about Adam, "I think in him kindness and conscience are so large that they are almost faults. They trip him up and hinder him." Like Aron, he is too good; a man needs a little "bad" in him; you can be good if you don't have to be perfect, said Lee. We come back to moral confusion, since "good," "bad," and "perfect" are given conventional definitions, never questioned. If Steinbeck had delved into a father's ambivalent feelings for his sons, his awareness of favoring one son over the other, his fairness or unfairness to either son, and the moral and spiritual problems arising from his relation to his sons, then East of Eden might have been a great novel. As it is, we do not understand Adam's actions; in this novel we cannot resort to saying that they just happened.
We are indeed told that Adam could not help doing what he did. Lee said to Cal, "That's his nature. It was the only way he knew. He didn't have any choice." Why doesn't "thou mayest" apply to Adam as to other men? On his deathbed he did exercise choice by forgiving Cal with the blessing Timshol. Lee also said to Cal, "But you have…. You have a choice." And Cal then chose to get revenge on Aron. The final meaning of timshol for Cal is that his wicked deeds will not prevent his choosing to do od in the future. (pp. 124-26)
A reader can enjoy East of Eden for its many fine passages of description and many pages of skillful narrative, but the myth invoked does not adequately interpret the narrated events. (pp. 126-27)
The pleasantest part of this study has been to share Steinbeck's joy in myth and legend. He has relied principally on the Arthur cycle and Biblical tales, especially the Holy Grail and Fisher King, Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the Joseph story, Exodus, Leviathan, the Passion and Resurrection, the revolt of the angels. They are by no means his only myths: cosmogonic myths, dying god, Faust, Troy and Helen, Virgin Whore, legends of city-founding—all these and more have had their poetic use in Steinbeck's fiction. It is myth that attaches his work most closely to the great tradition of the European and American novel.
At one time Steinbeck said that all his work was meant to help people understand one another. He has wanted to enlist our sympathy for men of all degrees, for the wise and feebleminded, for beggars and kings alike. His most persistent theme has been the superiority of simple human virtues and pleasures to the accumulation of riches and property, of kindness and justice to meanness and greed, of life-asserting action to life-denying. In several ways he has asserted that all life is holy, every creature valuable. Herein lies his sentimentality, but also his strength. His great novels, like The Grapes of Wrath, will endure for their narrative power and strength of vision. (p. 141)
Joseph Fontenrose, in his John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation (© copyright, 1963 by Barnes & Noble, Inc.; by permission of Barnes & Noble Books, a Division of Littlefield, Adams & Co., Inc.), Barnes & Noble, 1963, 150 p.
Two very basic questions about ["The Leader of the People"] upon which its critics have been unable to agree are the identity of the main character and the nature of the change or development, if any, which he undergoes. (p. 423)
There is, of course, much to be said for Grandfather's importance in the story. His arrival at the ranch precipitates at least indirectly all of the important subsequent action. Also, the nature of each of the other characters is in large part determined by his response to Grandfather, since the old man is the common object of interest for Jody, his parents, and Billy. Nor can there be any question but that Grandfather's remarks to Jody after overhearing Carl's outburst—the old man's longest and most formal statement in the entire story—constitute a climax to what precedes them. Grandfather's revelation of what the frontier meant to him and of his loneliness in the frontierless present represents an emotionally compelling end to a chain of action that began with his arrival at the ranch. Clearly the story, as Steinbeck has fashioned it, does not permit the reader to ignore Grandfather.
However, to regard his presence or what he experiences as the central concern of the story is to raise some serious problems. Certainly his moving confession suggests a change of mood in the old man, yet when his speech is set against his earlier behavior, the basis of his despair seems something less than the total realization which some readers would attribute to him. What he tells Jody is that the era of leadership he once knew is gone and that what he has been doing is merely telling stories about that era…. As his confession indicates, he has been interested in the telling, in the affective value of the stories, not in the tales themselves as reality. And because Grandfather is established prior to the climax of the story as anything but a speedy reasoner, that he should grasp so quickly the rather sophisticated insight contained in his confession hardly seems probable. All that has happened since he was in what Steinbeck terms his "narrative groove" … is that he has overheard Carl's disparaging remarks about the stories and concluded that no one wants to hear them. While he certainly regrets the passing of an era in which he was the leader of the people, he has conceived of his role in the present as that of a skilled storyteller, and at this point he regrets most of all his failure in that role. His sorrow for an irrecoverable past began long before the opening of the story. Here he bemoans primarily his inability even to create moving tales from his adventures.
This view of Grandfather's discovery, while closer to his actual experience in the story than the more profound realization sometimes claimed for him, hardly distinguishes him as a main character. His learning that he has lost his audience, or that he never had one, seems insignificant in light of the more epic issues raised in his dramatic outburst to Jody, since the questions of the frontier, of leadership, of communication, and of aging clearly appear in "The Leader of the People." Beside such questions his discovery pales.
Nor can his presence really explain or justify certain sections of the story, especially the relatively lengthy opening section before he arrives at the ranch or the final paragraphs, after his confession, when Jody goes inside to make lemonade. The beginning and the ending of the story—frequently of crucial importance in determining what a work of short fiction is principally about—are, of course, more readily related to the experience of Jody himself. And, like the beginning and the end, the middle of the story, when Grandfather is present, is narrated from the boy's point of view, with occasional accounts of sometimes appreciable length regarding Jody's thoughts away from his grandfather. In terms of the content of the story, then, Jody might appear a more plausible main character.
But to say that Jody seems more important or that certain parts of the story appear unrelated to Grandfather is not, of course, to demonstrate the boy's predominance in the story. To do that, it is necessary to establish precisely what Grandfather means to Jody, what exactly happens to Jody and what part Grandfather, obviously an important element in "The Leader of the People," plays in moving the story to its conclusion. If it is difficult to see Grandfather undergoing the type of change demanded by the story's ideology, it is nevertheless necessary to show that Jody himself develops in a way worthy of the substantial concerns of the story.
One possibility is that Jody undergoes a basic change of character, moving away from an initial state of immaturity toward perceivably greater moral awareness. (pp. 424-26)
A careful look at Steinbeck's narrative focusing … undercuts the idea of basic moral change in Jody…. Jody's compassionate behavior at the beginning of the story marks his character as good. For example, in the first exchange between Jody and his grandfather, the narrator notes Jody's primary concern with gratifying the old man…. This same desire to appease the old man by whatever means necessary, which continues throughout the story, goes unrecognized by Jody's parents, as when Mrs. Tiflin miscalculates Jody's motives for including his grandfather in the promised mouse hunt by accusing him simply of desiring an accomplice in misbehavior. Perhaps the most striking indication of Jody's sympathetic nature comes in the showdown scene between Carl and Grandfather, when, while Carl is apologizing, the narrator describes Jody's sharp surveillance of the situation and his empathetic awareness of Carl's agony…. This keen feeling for the overly proud Carl precedes the climactic outburst of Grandfather to Jody and largely rules out the supposition that Jody lacks sympathy prior to the climax. Instead of pointing to a change of character in the boy, the lemonade incident at the end only further confirms the strong capacity for feeling that he exhibits earlier toward his antagonist. And, rather than signalling such a change, his mother's surprise at his wanting lemonade not for himself but for Grandfather only points up her belated recognition of the qualities in her son already abundantly evident to the reader.
If it is difficult to see Jody changing morally, it is equally difficult to ascribe certain other kinds of learning to him. Perhaps the simplest solution to the persisting problem of Grandfather's dramatic outburst and the response it produces in the boy is to say that at this point Jody learns from his mentor the disillusioning truth about the frontier. We have seen that the old man does not, or cannot, realize this himself in the short course covered by the story, but perhaps the boy—mentally sharper, less experienced and more curious—does. This hypothesis appears weak, however, in view of what Jody knows long before the climax. Early in the story, when the Tiflin family discuss Grandfather's impending visit, Carl observes the old man's obsession with a single topic of conversation, to which Jody answers excitedly, "Indians … Indians and crossing the plains."… But that the boy cannot confuse the frontier with present reality, that he knows that Grandfather's stories are only stories about a dead past, is suggested by his overhearing, immediately after this scene, his mother tell Carl to tolerate her father's monomania because the object of his life is past…. (pp. 426-28)
But if he knows that the great age is gone, why, then, does he evidently share the old man's enthusiasm for "Indians and crossing the plains"? The explanation for his excitement lies, of course, in his situation, as Steinbeck describes it in the first section of the story. Initially Jody appears scuffling his shoes "in a way he had been told was destructive to good shoe-leather" … and idly throwing stones: making gestures of uselessness and boredom. He views the prospect of hunting mice with relish: "They had grown smug in their security, over-bearing and fat. Now the time of disaster had come; they would not survive another day."… As the narrator's paraphrase of the boy's state of mind suggests, he regards the mouse-hunt as an epic mission, a means to excitement and chance to assert leadership. His thinking about mice points up not the ridiculousness of Jody's vision, but the constraint of the situation forcing him into such a vision. All he can do is hunt mice and curse; ranch life surrounds him with an unvarying and undemanding routine.
With this in mind—and Steinbeck's ordering of materials in this early part of his story suggests his intention for the reader to have this in mind—the significance of Grandfather to the boy becomes clear. To Jody the frontier stories represent a welcome source of temporary escape from a dull existence. He values Grandfather as a producer of diversion through his entertaining stories. And the boy can be entertained by them because, unlike his parents, he has very little else to entertain him.
However, this is not to say that Jody's behavior toward Grandfather is motivated solely by a self-interested desire to avoid painful reality. Having learned from his mother the need for encouraging the old man, Jody first approaches his grandfather with dignity, in contrast with his "unseemly running" immediately before. In their dialogue about the mouse-hunt, he speaks of it as "just play" and readily admits the greater significance of hunting Indians. This deference turns to a careful defense of the old man's feelings once they arrive at the house. When Jody sees Grandfather repeating himself to Billy Buck, to confirm Carl's earlier accusation, the boy conceives of himself partly as a mediator between conflicting positions, but mostly as a protector of Grandfather. At the supper table Jody studies the responses of Grandfather and his parents very anxiously: Carl's moth-killing attempt to quiet the old man, his mother's anger at this, threatened lapses in the story-telling and Carl's remarking that he had heard the story before. At this point Jody "[rises] to heroism" … by asking Grandfather to tell about the Indians, a request dictated by his increasing identification with the old man as victim of his father's tyranny. Noting the others' inattention to the tale which follows, and himself anticipating the words of the story, Jody nevertheless works to preserve what he considers to be the old man's unawareness of the reality to which Carl would tactlessly expose him. Jody thus comes to regard the story-telling not so much as a way of solving his own problems but as a means of sheltering Grandfather, whom he loves and pities, from similar problems. His movement from self-concern to a concern with keeping up the old man's supposed illusions stems from the proneness to sympathy which he has exhibited initially, and represents not a basic change of character but only a shift of emphasis between two concerns which he has had from the beginning of the story. (pp. 428-30)
Jody's entire plan of protection has been based on the assumption that Grandfather lives in the past, that, unlike himself, Grandfather regards his stories as something more than tales of a dead frontier. He feels that by encouraging Grandfather to tell the stories, he can delude the old man into viewing the frontier as alive and real. What Jody thus learns from Grandfather's climactic outburst is that Grandfather already has realized that the past is dead and that his usefulness as a leader is gone. Jody now recognizes that he has not been promoting illusion in Grandfather, who has been fully aware of the facts. Like Jody, he has not confused fact with fiction. Jody learns that Grandfather too is trapped in present reality and that his plan to shelter Grandfather from painful truth was inherently futile. To the extent that Jody has patronized Grandfather initially, he might be said to suffer the moral discovery of his and Grandfather's "equality" as victims of reality. However, Steinbeck's characterization of the boy suggests nothing besides the desire to make happy someone whom he loves. In arguing with Grandfather that he (Jody) might lead the people in the future or that the frontier does not depend upon the mainland, Jody is attempting, futilely, to revive the old man's dream. The finality of Grandfather's reply—"It is finished"—causes Jody to recognize fully that Grandfather has lost this dream long ago, and that indeed Grandfather has discovered in his painful exchange with Jody's father not that the frontier is dead—this he's known for some time—but that no one cares to hear about it. In a sense, too, Jody suffers disappointment because he, a small boy, cannot please Grandfather in the way that adult attention might. Having turned from the "heroism" of the mouse-hunt to the greater challenge of instilling hope in his grandfather, Jody realizes more than before the constraint that his youth and status place upon him. Since he cannot shelter Grandfather from painful reality, all he can do is dull the pain slightly by offering lemonade. And, significantly, Steinbeck indicates the sort of "levelling" that life has imposed on Grandfather and Jody—the inescapable pressure of reality on all men—by reversing the relationship that the well-meaning Jody has envisioned earlier, for Grandfather ironically accepts the lemonade not to ease his own suffering but only to please the boy.
This reëxamination of "The Leader of the People" suggests, then, that what holds thé story together is Jody Tiflin and his saddening discovery of how much his grandfather's plight parallels his own. Such a view certainly does not deny the significance of Grandfather; for though Jody appears the more important character, the education that he undergoes is wholly contingent upon the old man's equally painful discovery during the story. Steinbeck carefully develops Grandfather's responses as a subplot, and a highly necessary one, to the final reactions of Jody. Nor does this reading question the centrality of what many critics have seen as the major "themes" of the story—the frontier, aging, communication, and leadership—for Jody in the moment when he seizes upon the totality of his grandfather's misery is confronted at once with the tremendous pain attending the assumption of leadership, the losing of power, and the passing of time, all of which make it impossible for Grandfather to sustain the illusions Jody mistakenly attributes to him. And though, as I have suggested, it is difficult to see Jody undergoing any drastic moral change—rather than becoming better ethically, he becomes more aware of the dilemma of adulthood—there is no question but that his earlier good intentions reflected somewhat naïve theorizing and that what he learns of Grandfather here will permit him in the future to apply his moral principles with more success. We have, then, Jody becoming better equipped, in terms of practical awareness, to serve as a "leader of the people" in his own age.
In the foregoing discussion I have attempted to answer two basic questions about the materials and order within the story. Lest a concern with identifying the main character and his experience seem pedestrian in light of what many perhaps would see as more important concerns, certain advantages of such an approach should be noted. For one thing, because the "themes" listed above apply to both Grandfather and Jody, a precise determination of which character's experience unifies the story permits one to speak more closely and accurately about economy and subtlety in Steinbeck's narrative. For example, when one sees that Jody is the main character, Jody's initial behavior takes on a dimension of importance beyond mere "preparation" for Grandfather. Second, because such "themes" relate to all of the Red Pony stories, this type of reading suggests more precisely the distinctive qualities of "The Leader of the People." And, conversely, it helps demonstrate the tightness of design in The Red Pony, for in all four stories we see Jody suffering often painful, but always valuable lessons in his quest for manhood. This is not to say that the approach employed here is the best or only approach, or that a more thematic approach does not yield equally meaningful insights, but simply that the question that I have considered here must be asked and must be answered for a total awareness of the artistry of "The Leader of the People." (pp. 430-32)
Bruce K. Martin, "'The Leader of the People' Reëxamined," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1971 by Newberry College). Vol. VIII, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 423-32.
Of Mice and Men is a short novel in six scenes presented in description-dialogue-action form that approximates stage drama in its effect…. The time scheme runs from Thursday evening through Sunday evening—exactly three days in sequence, a matter of some importance, as we shall see presently. The setting is the Salinas Valley in California, and most of the characters are unskilled migratory workers who drift about the villages and ranches of that area picking up odd jobs or doing short-term field work and then moving on to the next place of employment. Steinbeck focuses on two such laborers who dream of one day saving up enough money to buy a small farm of their own. (p. 124)
The title of the story has a two-fold application and significance. First it refers to naturalistic details within the texture of the novella: Lennie likes to catch mice and stroke their fur with his fingers. This is a particularly important point for two reasons: it establishes Lennie's fatal weakness for stroking soft things and, since he invariably kills the mice he is petting, it foreshadows his deadly encounter with Curley's wife. Secondly, the title is of course a fragment from the poem by Robert Burns ["The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley."], which gives emphasis to the idea of the futility of human endeavor or the vanity of human wishes…. This notion is obviously of major importance in the novella, and it may be said to be Steinbeck's main theme on the surface level of action and development of character. (p. 125)
Viewed in the light of its mythic and allegorical implications, Of Mice and Men is a story about the nature of man's fate in a fallen world, with particular emphasis upon the question: is man destined to live alone, a solitary wanderer on the face of the earth, or is it the fate of man to care for man, to go his way in companionship with another? This is the same theme that occurs in the Old Testament, as early as Chapter Four of Genesis, immediately following the Creation and Expulsion. In effect, the question Steinbeck poses is the same question Cain poses to the Lord: "Am I my brother's keeper?" From its position in the Scriptural version of human history we may assume with the compilers of the early books of the Bible that it is the primary question concerning man as he is, after he has lost the innocence and non-being of Eden. It is the same question that Steinbeck chose as the theme of his later book East of Eden (1952), in which novel the Cain and Abel story is re-enacted in a contemporary setting and where, for emphasis, Steinbeck has his main characters read the Biblical story aloud and comment upon it, climaxing the discussion with the statement made by Lee: "I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody's story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul." Of Mice and Men is an early Steinbeck variation on this symbol story of the human soul. The implications of the Cain-and-Abel drama are everywhere apparent in the fable of George and Lennie and provide its mythic vehicle. (pp. 126-27)
For his crime of homicide the Lord banished Cain from His company and from the company of his parents and set upon him a particular curse, the essence of which was that Cain was to become homeless, a wanderer, and an agricultural worker who would never possess or enjoy the fruits of his labor. Cain was afraid that other men would hear of his crime and try to kill him, but the Lord marked him in a certain way so as to preserve him from the wrath of others. Thus Cain left home and went to the land of Nod, which the story tells us lies east of Eden.
The drama of Cain finds its most relevant application in Of Mice and Men in the relationship between Lennie and George, and in the other characters' reactions to their associations. In the first of his six scenes Steinbeck establishes the two ideas that will be developed throughout. The first of these is the affectionate symbiosis of the two protagonists, their brotherly mutual concern and faithful companionship. Steinbeck stresses the beauty, joy, security, and comfort these two derive from the relationship…. (p. 127)
The second idea, which is given equal emphasis, is the fact that this sort of camaraderie is rare, different, almost unique in the world George and Lennie inhabit; other men, in contrast to these two, are solitary souls without friends or companions…. The alternative to the George-Lennie companionship is Aloneness, made more dreadful by the addition of an economic futility that Steinbeck augments and reinforces in later sections. The migratory ranch worker, in other words, is the fulfillment of the Lord's curse on Cain: "When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth." Steinbeck's treatment of the theme is entirely free from a sense of contrivance; all the details in Of Mice and Men seem natural in the context and organically related to the whole; but note that in addition to presenting Lennie and George as men who till the ground and derive no benefits from their labor, he also manages to have them "on the run" when they are introduced in the first scene—this no doubt to have his main characters correspond as closely as possible to the Biblical passage: "a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be…."
To the calamity of homelessness and economic futility Steinbeck later adds the psychological soul-corruption that is the consequence of solitary existence. (pp. 127-28)
If in Scene One Lennie and George affirm their fraternity openly and without embarrassment, in Scene Two George is more hesitant. "He's my … cousin," he tells the ranch boss. "I told his old lady I'd take care of him." This is no betrayal on George's part, but a cover-up required by the circumstances. For the boss is highly suspicious of the Lennie-George fellowship. "You takin' his pay away from him?" he asks George. "I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy." A short time later Curley also sounds the note of suspicion, extending it by a particularly nasty innuendo: when George says "We travel together," Curley replies, "Oh, so it's that way." Steinbeck is implying here the general response of most men towards seeing two individuals who buddy around together in a friendless world where isolation is the order of the day: there must be exploitation involved, either financial or sexual! At the same time Steinbeck is developing the allegorical level of his story by suggesting that the attitude of Cain ("I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?") has become universal. Even the sympathetic and understanding Slim expresses some wonder at the Lennie-George fraternity. "Ain't many guys travel around together," Slim says in Scene Two. "I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damned world is scared of each other." This too, as Steinbeck interprets the Biblical story, is a part of Cain's curse: distrust. Later on, in order to give the theme of Aloneness another dimension, Steinbeck stresses the solitude of Crooks and Curley's wife, both of whom express a craving for company and "someone to talk to." (p. 129)
Actually Steinbeck's novella advances and develops, ebbs and flows, around the basic image of the Lennie-George relationship. Almost all the characters react to it in one way or another as the successive scenes unfold. In Scenes One, Two, and Three, despite the discouraging opinions of outsiders, the companionship remains intact and unthreatened. Midway into Scene Three the partnership undergoes augmentation when Candy is admitted into the scheme to buy the little farm. Late in Scene Four Crooks offers himself as another candidate for the fellowship of soul-brothers and dreamers. This is the high point of optimism as regards the main theme of the story; this is the moment when a possible reversal of the curse of Cain seems most likely, as Steinbeck suggests that the answer to the Lord's question might be: Yes, I am my brother's keeper: If we arrive at this point with any comprehension of the author's purposes, we find ourselves brought up short by the idea: what if this George-Lennie-Candy-Crooks fraternity were to become universal!
But later in the same scene, the entrance of Curley's wife signals the turning point as the prospects for the idea of brotherhood-as-a-reality begin to fade and darken. As throughout the story she represents a force that destroys men and at the same time invites men to destroy her, as she will finally in Scene Five offer herself as a temptation which Lennie cannot resist, so in Scene Four Curley's wife sows the seeds that eventually disrupt the fellowship. Entering into the discussion in Crooks' room in the stable, she insults Crooks, Candy, and Lennie, laughs at their dream farm, and threatens to invent the kind of accusation that will get Crooks lynched. Crooks, reminded of his position of impotence in a white man's society, immediately withdraws his offer to participate in the George-Lennie-Candy farming enterprise. But Crooks' withdrawal, while extremely effective as social criticism, is much more. It represents an answer to the question Steinbeck is considering all along: is man meant to make his way alone or accompanied? Obviously this is one occasion, among many others in the story, when Steinbeck suggests the answer. Crooks' hope for fraternal living is short-lived. At the conclusion of the scene he sinks back into his Aloneness.
From this point on, even though the dream of fellowship on the farm remains active, the real prospects for its fulfillment decline drastically…. Actually the plan was doomed to failure from the beginning; for fraternal living cannot long survive in a world dominated by the Aloneness, homelessness, and economic futility which Steinbeck presents as the modern counterpart of Cain's curse. Immediately following his discovery of Curley's wife's body, George delivers a speech that dwells on the worst possible aftermath of Lennie's misdeed; and this is not the wrath of Curley or the immolation of Lennie or the loss of the farm, but the prospect of George's becoming a Man Alone, homeless, like all the others and a victim as well of economic futility:
I'll work my month an' I'll take my fifty bucks and I'll stay all night in some lousy cat house. Or I'll set in some poolroom til ever'body goes home. An' then I'll come back an' work another month an' I'll have fifty bucks more.
This speech represents the true climax of the novella, for it answers the question which is Steinbeck's main interest throughout. Now we know the outcome of the Lennie-George experiment in fellowship, as we know the Aloneness of man's essential nature. In subtle ways, of course, Steinbeck has been hinting at this conclusion all along…. (pp. 130-31)
But there are still other suggested meanings inherent in the dream-farm and the failure of the dream. The plan is doomed not only because human fellowship cannot survive in the post-Cain world, but also because the image of the farm, as conceived by George and Lennie and Candy, is overly idealized, the probability being that life, even if they obtained the farm, would not consist of the comfort, plenty, and interpersonal harmony they envision…. George and Lennie, who were to some extent inspired by questions growing out of the story of Cain in Chapter Four of Genesis, want to retreat to Chapter Two and live in Eden! Of all ambitions in a fallen world, this is possibly the most unattainable; for paradise is lost, as the name of Steinbeck's hero, George Milton, suggests. And though there will always be men like Candy, who represents sweet hope, the view of Crooks, who represents black despair, is probably a more accurate appraisal of the human condition: "Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It's just in their head. They're all the time talkin' about it, but it's jus' in their head." Obviously in this context Crooks' comment about nobody ever getting land refers not to literal ownership, but to the dream of contentment entertained by the simple workmen who come and go on the ranch.
To pursue the [John] Milton parallel a step further, we perceive immediately that Steinbeck has no intention of justifying the ways of God to man [as Milton did in writing Paradise Lost]. On the contrary, if anything Of Mice and Men implies a critique of Hebrew-Christian morality, particularly in the area of the concept of punishment for sin. This opens up still another dimension of meaning in our interpretation of Steinbeck's novella. If George and Lennie fail to attain their dream farm (for reasons already explored), and the dream farm is a metaphor or image for heaven (as suggested by Crooks' speech in Scene Four) then the failure to achieve the dream farm is most likely associated with the question of man's failure to attain heaven. Steinbeck's consideration of this last-named theme is not far to seek. Along this particular line of thought, Lennie represents one essential aspect of man—the animal appetites, the craving to touch and feel, the impulse toward immediate gratification of sensual desires. George is the element of Reason which tries to control the appetites or, better still, to elevate them to a higher and more sublime level…. Steinbeck suggests throughout that the appetites and Reason coexist to compose the nature of man. ("Me an' him travels together.") He goes on to suggest that the effort to refine man into something rare, saintly, and inhuman is another unattainable ambition. Even when Reason (George) manages to communicate to the appetites (Lennie) its urgent message ("You crazy son-of-a-bitch. You keep me in hot water all the time … I never get no peace.") the appetites are incapable of satisfying Reason's demands…. The animal appetites, even though well attended and well intentioned, cannot be completely suppressed or controlled. Thus, the best man can hope for is a kind of insecure balance of power between these two elements—which is in fact what most of the ranch hands accomplish, indulging their craving for sensual pleasure in a legal and commonplace manner each payday. Failing this, man must suppress absolutely the appetites which refuse to be controlled, as George does in the symbolic killing of Lennie at the conclusion of the novella. Possibly this is a veiled reference to the drastic mutilation of man's nature required by the Hebrew-Christian ethic. At the same time the theological implications of Of Mice and Men project the very highest regard for the noble experiment in fraternal living practiced by George and Lennie; and possibly the time-scheme of their stay on the ranch—from Friday to Sunday—is a veiled reference to the sacrifice of Christ. He too tried to reverse the irreversible tide of Cain's curse by serving as the ultimate example of human brotherhood. (pp. 131-34)
William Goldhurst, "'Of Mice and Men': John Steinbeck's Parable of the Curse of Cain," in Western American Literature (copyright, 1971, by the Western Literature Association), Vol. VI, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 123-35.
In one of the little essays Steinbeck did for the Saturday Review in 1955, "Some thoughts on Juvenile Delinquency," he writes as follows concerning the relationship of the individual to the society in which he lives: "… I believe that man is a double thing—a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first." The nice organic relationship which Steinbeck here postulates near the end of his writing career is seldom to be met in his fiction. Much more frequently we are presented with characters who choose one of two extremes—either to reject society's demands and escape into individualism, or to reject individualism and commit themselves to goals and values which can be realized only in terms of society.
In Steinbeck's very first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), in the figure of Merlin, is found not only an extreme example of escapism, but one of its most eloquent philosophers. As a young man, a greatly talented bard, he had taken up a hermit's life in a stone tower on a lonely mountain top. There he has grown old with his harp and his books of history and mythology, a legendary figure in his own lifetime. It is suggested that the cause of this self-imposed isolation may have been his losing a bardic contest through political influence. The consequent disillusionment is reflected in his remarks to the young Henry Morgan, who has come to consult him before going off into the world to make his fortune: "'I think I understand,' he said softly. 'You are a little boy. You want the moon to drink from as a golden cup; and so, it is very likely that you will become a great man—if only you remain a little child. All the world's great have been little boys who wanted the moon; running and climbing, they sometimes caught a firefly. But if one grows to a man's mind, that mind must see that it cannot have the moon and would not want it if it could—and so it catches no fireflies.'" Merlin goes a step further, and adds as a compensation for this loss of worldly ambition the attainment of community with mankind ("He has the whole world with him … a bridge of contact with his own people…."), whereas the worldly successful and therefore immature man "is doubly alone; he only can realize his true failure, can realize his meanness and fears and evasions."
The fascination which this general intellectual posture had for the early Steinbeck is evident from another character in the same novel. James Flower is from an aristocratic, well-educated English family who in despair at his harebrained impracticality buy him a plantation in the Barbadoes, where he cannot embarrass them. "And so he had grown wistfully old, on the island. His library was the finest in the Indies, and, as far as information went, he was the most learned man anywhere about. But his learning formed no design of the whole…."… In Steinbeck's first novel, then, we have two variations on the theme of escape; and although neither is the main character, Henry Morgan's life ultimately suggests that they were both wiser.
In Steinbeck's next book, The Pastures of Heaven, three years later, we find James Flower's same impracticality and indiscriminate bookishness in the character of Junius Maltby, who is treated at greater length and with more obvious sympathy. Again he is a man of "cultured family and good education." Also, his way into an escape from a worldly existence is an enforced one, a threat to his health, but is clearly congenial to him. Through his abstraction and impracticality the little farm which comes to him by marriage becomes unproductive; his wife's two children by former marriage die of influenza because they are undernourished while Maltby helplessly reads aloud Treasure Island and Travels With a Donkey. Finally his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him a son whom he names Robert Louis. Maltby makes an attempt at practicality by hiring an old German to work the farm, but within a week the two men become boon companions and spend their days sitting around together "discussing things which interested and puzzled them…." The three of them manage to survive, barefoot, ragged, ill-fed, but happy in their discussions of the battle of Trafalgar, the frieze on the Parthenon, the Spartan virtues, Carthaginian warfare, and other erudite topics. (pp. 75-7)
Surprisingly, the boy Robbie thrives in this environment and becomes a natural leader at school, fascinating fellow pupils and teachers alike with his poise and exotic knowledge. The school board, however, is more interested in Robbie's ragged clothes…. [The] story ends with Maltby and his son on their way to San Francisco and a return to a clerkship in order to provide the material benefits of society…. (p. 77)
Clearly, then, in his first two books of fiction Steinbeck demonstrates a serious interest and sympathy for what in today's slang might be called the "drop-out." A case might be made for discussing here his next novel. To a God Unknown, published just a year after The Pastures of Heaven, for in that novel too we have a character who in a secluded valley pursues a way of life unsanctioned by his society, in this case a dedication to mysticism and fertility rituals. In that novel, too, we find a hermit who, again in modern parlance, "does his own thing" with no Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals nearby. But these similarities are peripheral, and not central to the theme of escape versus commitment. A more direct relationship can be established with the novel that followed in two years—Tortilla Flat.
This novel introduces two important changes in Steinbeck's treatment of the "drop-out" (which is a better term than "escapee"). First, whereas the earlier characters of this type had deliberately rejected the clear advantages available to them, in the form of family and education, these Mexican-American paisanos find themselves initially in a poor position to compete in modern society. Second, and more important, the "dropout" is no longer a shy, retiring, solitary, but an active, gregarious member of a whole community of "drop-outs." They have in common with their prototypes in earlier novels, however, a disinclination toward industrious labor and a disrespect for material property, for through the loss of possessions comes sorrow—"It is much better never to have had them." They also share a love of the contemplative life. True, sometimes pure contemplation arrives at the practical result of procuring a jug of wine or a chicken in a highly imaginative manner, but the process is enjoyed as much as the result, and sometimes consoles them for material lack or loss. (p. 78)
In his fiction up to 1935, then, stretching over six years of the Great Depression, beginning with minor characters and culminating in Tortilla Flat with a whole community of "dropouts," Steinbeck demonstrates a serious and sympathetic interest in the theme of escape from society. And only in one short story published in 1934 does he recognize even the existence of contemporary social issues. Instead, he set his fiction in the seventeenth, late nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, thus in a sense performing as author the same escape as his characters.
All of this changes in 1936 with the publication of In Dubious Battle, which remains the best strike novel in the English language. Here Steinbeck demonstrates not only his detailed, quite professional knowledge of communist labor organization tactics in the field, but also presents us with central characters who are totally committed to bringing about substantial changes in American society. Prior to the strike novel, only "The Raid" had suggested this involvement by Steinbeck and had projected such commitment in the characters. In light of the importance which Judeo-Christian symbols and reference have in The Grapes of Wrath, it is interesting that this first treatment of proletarian subject matter should also find such references necessary. There is the master-apostle relationship of the two organizers, the portrait of their anonymous precursor who inspires them by his example, their own sense of sacrifice for mankind, and certain allusions in the dialogue. (pp. 80-1)
This commitment and self-sacrifice is even more extreme in Jim Nolan of In Dubious Battle, and in them he finds his personal fulfillment…. This commitment is accompanied by an even wider Christian reference. Whereas the neophyte in the short story had been merely willing to be used as "an example of injustice," Jim Nolan of the strike novel is so anxious as to have a martyr complex. Over and over he tells Mac, his mentor, "I want to get into it" and "I want you to use me." Only after he has gotten into it and has been wounded is he happy and sure of how strongly he is committed…. When he is killed, Jim does not have a chance to say "You don't know what you're doing"; he and Mac are ambushed and his face is blown off by a shotgun at close range, so that Mac finds him in a still kneeling posture and exclaims simply, "Oh, Christ!" Beginning with the book's title, epigraph, and numerous details taken from Paradise Lost, to the crowing of cocks and several allusions to the Holy Family (two of them pointed out by the characters themselves), clearly the committed hero is presented as an imitation of Christ.
Steinbeck's next published novel, Of Mice and Men (1937) offers a serious temptation and several pitfalls to anyone dealing with these two themes of escape and commitment. It could be used to illustrate the escape theme by pointing out the persistent dream of George and Lennie to get a place of their own; and even the mercy killing of Lennie by George could be seen as providing Lennie with permanent escape from a world with which he cannot cope, into the dream of the little house and a couple of acres, and rabbits. Or, by concentrating on George, and reading Lennie as a symbol of proletarian man, great in strength but helpless without leadership, the theme of commitment could be seen in George's sacrifices and devotion to Lennie. Or, by bringing out both of these patterns, the novelette could be made to illustrate the nice balancing of these two themes. But the escape theme in Of Mice and Men is essentially different from the "drop-out" kind of rebellion against society which concerns us here, and is clearly an illusion besides. The commitment is also questionable in its nature and intention. On one level, Lennie is necessary to George as an excuse for his own failure. Admitting Of Mice and Men to the present discussion would open the door for numerous other pieces, such as almost all the chapters of The Pastures of Heaven and some stories of The Long Valley, such as "Flight," most obviously.
But in 1939, with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck clearly returns to his theme of social commitment, utilizing, even more extensively than before, pertinent Judeo-Christian analogues and references. It is more than personal friendship that causes Jim Casy to give himself up to the deputies in place of Tom Joad and Floyd. It is an action consequent upon his turning from an individualistic, sin and hell-fire, Bible-belt evangelism to a revelation of the Holy Spirit, which he comes to identify with "all men and all women," the "human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." And it occurs to him then that his commitment is not to Jesus but to the people…. (pp. 81-3)
The movement from escape to commitment is even clearer in Tom Joad. He enters the novel determined to avoid all involvement: "I'm laying my dogs down one at a time" and "I climb fences when I got fences to climb." But through the experiences of the migration and through Casy's words and deeds he becomes converted and committed to a vision of social justice beyond hope of his personal experience. Even more than Jim of In Dubious Battle, he knows that although he may be killed, "I'll be ever'where—wherever you look."… Beyond this mystic identification, no commitment can go. It is a commitment which gains strength and approval not only by means of its sacrificial Christ figures, but by a wealth of Judeo-Christian references extending from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Canticles and Prophets through John the Baptist, Gospels, and Revelation. The Grapes of Wrath is the high point in Steinbeck's theme of commitment. Two years later, in The Forgotten Village, a documentary film about Mexican village life, he still stresses commitment by having the young boy, Juan Diego, disobey his parents in bringing his little sister for an inoculation. At the end of the film he leaves home altogether, not to escape, but to go to the city and be trained to better serve and enlighten his people. (pp. 83-4)
In December of 1944, shortly after returning from a tour of duty as European war correspondent, Steinbeck published Cannery Row. With this novel Steinbeck turns once more to the theme of escape as treated in the last novel before his brief proletarian excursion—escape on the level of an entire community of "drop-outs." However, whereas the author of Tortilla Flat had accepted its inhabitants with an amused, slightly tongue-in-cheek air, the author of Cannery Row several times steps stage-front to proselytize his readers…. (p. 84)
The transfer of Christian reference from the committed characters of his proletarian fiction to these "drop-outs" is significant. In another passage, he calls Mack and the boys "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men." The ground for these judgments had been indicated three years earlier in Sea of Cortez [cowritten with Edward F. Ricketts]: "… of the good we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariably concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstone of success." It was probably disagreement with this premise that caused one well-known reviewer to say that Cannery Row is "a sentimental glorification of weakness of mind and degeneration of character." And so in a sense it is, if one accepts a Kiwanis, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce definition of noble character. Perhaps Steinbeck's original suspicions of such a definition were intensified by his experiences in the last years of the Depression and the war which was necessary to end it.
Whatever the reasons, this mood was strong enough to carry over into a variation on the theme in The Pearl, originally published in the same year. Strictly speaking, perhaps, this novelette, like Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down, enters only peripherally in this discussion. The pearl diver Kino does seek to physically escape an economically and socially repressive society, but only so that he may return to that same society at a higher level. He can be seen, in his struggle to escape, as what the author of Cannery Row called a "tiger with ulcers." And he arrives within reach of his goal with much worse than "a blown prostate and bifocals." He arrives with his house burned down, his wife physically beaten, his only son killed, and the lives of three men on his soul. And then Kino and his wife make their true "escape." They return to their village, throw the Pearl of Great Price back into the sea, and return to the edge of unconsciousness, an unthinking existence governed by the rhythms of sun and tide.
In its interesting variation on the theme of escape, The Pearl looks forward to Steinbeck's next novel, published two years later (1947). With this novel Steinbeck finally comes to a resolution of his two themes. Society as pictured in Steinbeck's previous novels is essentially an institutional entity from whose evils a character might decide to escape, or to whose improvement he might dedicate himself. In either case, the monolithic magnitude of the antagonist, society, lent dignity and possible tragedy to his course of action. In The Wayward Bus, however, we get very little notion of society as institution; we see it instead as an aggregation of human characters, from the hypocritical businessman, Elliot Pritchard, to Camille Oaks, the honest stripper. Juan Chicoy's decision to escape, therefore, is made in terms of disentanglement from certain people—his neurotic wife and his querulous bus passengers. This, of course, leaves him with no simple distinct notion of direction such as motivated the "drop-outs" and committed characters of Steinbeck's previous fiction. Thus, immediately after abandoning his allegorical bus and its passengers, Juan Chicoy (whose initials are J. C.) becomes merely confused by his escape. "It didn't seem as good or as pleasant or as free" as he had imagined it would…. So he returns to the bus, as Kino in The Pearl returns to his village; but not with a sense of escape or commitment, rather with a sense of involvement without either acceptance or resignation.
Although Steinbeck published five novels after The Wayward Bus, the two themes which concern us here play little part in them. Sweet Thursday would seem, superficially, a return to the spirit of Cannery Row and its glorification of escape, but that escape is so compromised with bourgeois values and genteel spice and color as to become quite respectable. The wonderful whorehouse of Cannery Row becomes a school for brides. Doc gets married and accepts a fat research grant at Cal Tech. More interesting is The Short Reign of Pippin IV. Pippin is a middle-class Frenchman whose escape is to study the stars rather than society. Then he is discovered to be heir to the throne of a re-established monarchy. In one short speech he presents a seven-point plan of such obvious good sense and modest reasonableness as to antagonize everybody and get himself threatened with the guillotine. He escapes and returns to his simple home and his telescope (somewhat as Kino returns to his pearl-diving) a contented citizen in a society of corrupt characters. Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, also touches only peripherally on our topic. The main character, Ethan Hawley, blaming his lack of success in society on his own virtue (as Steinbeck had discussed this relationship in the quotation from Sea of Cortez), embarks with deliberate irony upon a course of deviousness which quickly brings him fortune and esteem. In a state of moral shock at his own ability, and that of his children, to adjust so easily to a corrupt society, he attempts a kind of escape through suicide, but allows a contrived excuse to dissuade him. The other two novels of this period, Burning Bright and East of Eden, do not seem to enter into our topic in any significant way.
What we have, then, in Steinbeck's last novels is neither the individual or communal escapes of his early work and the immediate post-war novels, nor the inspired, Christ-like, sacrificial commitment of his proletarian fiction. Instead, we have a further development of the adjustment made by Juan Chicoy in The Wayward Bus. Society continues to be corrupt, although the blame is not so easy to fix; but there is no need for escape or commitment to reform. Steinbeck finally seems to completely accept the observation he had made on marine ecology, in Sea of Cortez: "There would seem to be only one commandment for living things: Survive!" This is qualified in East of Eden only by a faith in every man's ability to choose between good and evil. This is an old man's wisdom. We continue to read Steinbeck for the folly of his youth. (pp. 85-8)
Peter Lisca, "Escape and Commitment: Two Poles of the Steinbeck Hero" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Steinbeck: The Man and His Work, edited by Richard Astro and Tetsumaro Hayashi, Oregon State University Press, 1971, pp. 75-88.
Of the great religions, Manicheism generates the most suspense. In it, the contending principles of good and evil, God and Satan, light and darkness, soul and body are so evenly matched that for long periods darkness is actually triumphant over light. In Christianity, the rebellious angels rise up but are easily defeated in battle and contemptuously cast down into hell. One never gets the impression that Satan is a serious threat to God or that he has any real chance of prevailing. In Manicheism, he is not only a serious threat but for a time he actually does prevail. When God sends his agent, Primal Man, to put down darkness, Primal Man is defeated in battle and taken prisoner. Particles of light are captured by the nether forces and the realm of light itself driven back. (p. 11)
For self-evident reasons, Manicheism was branded as a heresy by other religions. But for a thousand years, from the third through the thirteenth centuries, it spread westward from Persia and exercised a pervasive and profound influence on Europe. Augustine himself was a Manichean for nine years before turning Christian. The emphasis of Manicheism on the power of fertility of darkness seemed closer to the facts of human experience than the more cheerful, perhaps even complacent mythology of other creeds. This may be one reason why it did not finally survive: its cosmology was too tragic and dangerous, its sexual demands too severe. But while not ultimately satisfactory, or satisfying, as religion, Manicheism is marvelously suited to drama. Nothing is more dramatic than a contest between two combatants of perfectly balanced strength, especially if the cosmos itself is divided between them. And it is on the dramatic side that Manicheism has made its appeal to modern literature. (p. 12)
The Manichean element … is visible in Steinbeck's work from the start, but it is not until Of Mice and Men, written when Steinbeck was at the height of his powers, that it becomes paramount. This celebrated little novel, wedged between In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, wonderfully reveals Steinbeck in his Manichean aspect.
The antagonists appear at once, and embody the warring Manichean principles of mind and body. They are of course George and Lennie, locked together in the same life process but ultimately irreconcilable, with one compelled to slay the other…. They are ranch hands, working the earth. They are also itinerants, involved not with a particular plot of ground but with everywhere. Even their dream of owning their own place has this omnipresent quality: it starts out as something in the sky, the pure product of their eager imaginations, then comes down to a specific section of ground with a previous owner and a price tag. The dream is both ideal and real—it extends over all the available ground. This element of universality, at once abstract and concrete, is one of the story's special qualities.
While George and Lennie are thus deeply joined, they are also profoundly separated…. George has a small body and a big brain, Lennie has a huge physique and a tiny brain. These deliberate polarities strain our belief in them as individual figures, but are absolutely necessary to establish them as reigning forces in the Manichean struggle for the world. The paradox of their existence is that they are at once partners and enemies. They strive for the same goal while destined by their natures to split apart. It is a paradox that lies both at the heart of the novel and Steinbeck's vision of the cosmos.
Sex, embodied in Curley's wife, is associated with what she calls "the big guy," i.e. Lennie. George seems apart from it, and even when he speaks of going to a brothel, he has as little interest in it as getting drunk. George is sober, chaste, almost monastic in his habits. Lennie, in contrast, is uncontrollably sensuous. His whole being seems concentrated in his hands. He doesn't see anything very clearly, being a creature of darkness; touch is the focus of his energies…. But his touch is deadly, and in the end he kills everything he touches. He doesn't mean to; his actions derive not from any centre of moral or psychological individuality but from his existence as a mindless, overwhelming force. As a force, he draws no distinction between life and death. He extracts as much pleasure in stroking a dead mouse as a live one.
Despite their radical dissimilarity, George feels obligated to "save" Lennie. In this he has a sense of almost religious mission. He grumbles about it throughout the novel. He is forever ragging Lennie about what a nuisance he is and how much happier he, George, would be if he could somehow be rid of him. But all this is on the surface. George feels deeply compelled to control Lennie…. And George has his hands full throughout. Lennie is his charge but also an immense counterweight pulling him constantly toward destruction…. Life with Lennie is complicated and dangerous; it can all blow up at any moment, and it is not just their jobs and their livelihood that are at stake, but their lives. The novel, in its immediate as well as larger implications, is literally a matter of life and death.
The cosmological element is further highlighted by the fact that both George and Lennie are killers. They assume the right to impose death as though they were gods, and this raises them beyond the mortal. George is conscious and calculating, so he shoots Lennie consciously and calculatingly. Lennie is spontaneous and irrational, so he kills mice, puppies, rabbits, and Curley's wife unintentionally and irrationally. These awesome acts are the same for each; they flow naturally and quite unimpededly from the center of their beings. Steinbeck's approach to them, persistent throughout his work, is to establish their surface authenticity, pass over and indeed deliberately ignore their psychological insides, and settle finally upon their role as forces in nature. Readers who demand attention to the psychological contours of the individual self, who regard the characterization developed so magnificently in the nineteenth-century novel as the norm of fiction, will inevitably find Of Mice and Men sentimental and pretentious: sentimental because it arouses emotions and emotional responses too large for the simply drawn characters to sustain; pretentious because it imposes upon a pair of ragged, marginal itinerant laborers, one of whom is a virtual idiot, the tragic struggle of nothing less than the universe itself.
If, however, Steinbeck's source is not the modern novel but the ancient parable—or the early epic, which is a kind of large-framed, fleshed-out parable—Of Mice and Men can be read as a peculiarly contemporary example of the genre. It is Steinbeck's Manichean parable, as The Grapes of Wrath, following it immediately in order of composition, is his Christian one. But the parable, while it eschews psychological embroidery and complexity of characterization, depends very much on surface credibility, on the authentic rendering of appearance, gesture, and word. And here even his harshest critics must concede Steinbeck's mastery. His ranch hands, whether communing in the bunkhouse or sweating in the field, look, sound, feel, even smell like what they are supposed to be. Their dialogue, credible enough in terms of grammatical construction, elision, monosyllabic diction, and colloquial nuance, is entirely free of any trace of abstraction, of that tendency to abandon the physical for the metaphysical that has tainted so much "uneducated" speech and dialect from Wordsworth to [William] Saroyan.
Even the refrain—the most formal device in evidence here—suggests the epic. At Lennie's urging, George recites the tale of their Promised Land: the little farm they will own some day…. Like an ancient scop or medieval troubadour, George relates this beautiful dream as though it were a chant or an orision…. He has a rapt audience of one, Lennie, sometimes two, Lennie and Candy. Like a congregation caught up in ritual prayer, Lennie breaks in at set intervals with his own aria…. The effect of all this—the chant, the dream, the repetitious rhythm, the enraptured teller and his spellbound audience lifted ecstatically out of themselves—is to blur the individual moment and universalize the event. The impression conveyed is that this sort of thing has been going on, in no very different terms, since the beginning of time. Even Of Mice and Men's original title, "Something That Happened," strengthens this impression by its deliberately toneless and impersonal anonymity.
The movement from the particular to the general is accelerated by Steinbeck's well-advertised intention of constructing his story like a play. Description is condensed. The cast of characters is stripped to its minimal impulses. Elaboration of any kind is foregone. The six separate chapters are treated as though they were acts on stage: related to one another, to be sure, in terms of advancing movement, but deliberately fashioned as autonomous, self-contained units with an existence of their own as distinct from their existence in the novel as a whole. They are divided neatly into three locales: chapters one and six take place by the river, two and three in the bunkhouse, four and five in the barn. This 1 2-2 3-3 1 arrangement is designed for concentration—each locale appears twice—and for climax: the return at the end to the scene of the beginning. In its simplicity, leanness, and brevity, it seeks to reduce everything to essentials, even to quintessentials. There is no room for commentary or nuance, none for the intricate machinery of the modern novel. Steinbeck's instinct has always been for a return to early forms of literature: the drama, the epic, and the parable. Of Mice and Men is his supreme combination of all these.
The lighting scheme of the novel supports its dramatic intentions. The prevailing atmosphere is a half-light shading toward darkness, precisely suited to the Manichean setting where the agents of God are always descending to do battle with the dark forces. (pp. 14-18)
Chapter five takes place during the afternoon in the main section of the barn. "The afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the barn walls and lay in bright lines on the hay." Lennie has left George, left Crooks, and is now alone with the animals in the subhuman world of the stable. Here, with the light and darkness splintered into alternating strips, the murder of Curley's wife triggers the sombre tragedy of the final chapter. Her unpremeditated death leads to the premeditated death of Lennie, back in the outer air by the river. The refrain motif of the story reaches its chromatic climax with the falling afternoon light on the last scene, on its way to completing the circle that began at the same point with the falling light on the opening pages. It is the interpenetration of light and dark, with each given an exactly similar weight and place with the other, that powerfully reinforces the Manichean idea that these contending cosmic forces are, until all but the very end of their struggle, of equal strength. (pp. 18-19)
[The] supporting characters in Of Mice and Men are a grab bag of the ordinary human world, the world which is in Mani's terms the final scene of the cosmological conflict. The elements in each are deliberately mixed. Curley's wife is the Manichean Eve, the purely sexual temptress who brings nothing but trouble to the surrounding males. But she is humanized by her unhappiness…. Curley himself seems wholly a creature of darkness, a vicious stunted figure seeking to compensate for his lack of sexual potency by training himself as a boxer and beating up helpless men bigger than himself. Yet he, too, is emotionally vulnerable, humanized in turn by his abnormal capacity to feel pain, by his feverishly hypersensitive reaction to those around him.
Each of the others bears within himself some splinter of light…. There is one figure who approaches an ideal standard: Slim, the expert muleskinner, the supremely skilful workingman, invested with superhuman qualities. Yet if he is a god, he is a curiously ineffectual one, commenting on events but unable to control or channel them. He is a sympathetic judge of George's dilemma. "You hadda, George. I swear you hadda," he comforts him at the end, but he is quite unable to prevent anyone from doing what his nature compels him to.
The moral equations are similarly mixed. In the novel, virtue nearly always leads to disaster. Lennie loves puppies and mice, but succeeds only in killing them. Candy's faithful attachment to his old dog leaves him in a state of shock and grief at its death. George's feelings for Lennie, an intricate amalgam of brother, father, and keeper, force him to slay his friend. There is an impersonality, an inevitability about these poignant events that reflects the character of the larger world in which they occur. That larger world joins light and darkness at their points of maximum interfusion. On the human level, the novel joins the redeeming emotion and the tragic action at exactly the same point, the moment when they meld into one another with maximum force.
Perhaps the most suggestive dualism of the novel is its contrast between men who travel together and those who travel alone. There are many more of the second than the first. Those who travel together are indeed so rare that they arouse comment. (pp. 19-21)
All the loners are drawn to the pair that are together…. This theme of human beings who are linked and those who are atomized, like the other themes of the novel, subtly underlines its Manichean character. The dark, psychologically disturbed figures—Curley, Curley's wife, Crooks—are drawn into Lennie's orbit. The one man drawn to George is Slim, endowed throughout with godlike attributes…. (p. 21)
Underlying the novel, and controlling it, is Steinbeck's vision of the universe as the scene of a decisive and unpredictable encounter of immense forces. It is this vision that gives Of Mice and Men its quality as a parable, makes it seem larger than the life it describes, and frees the characters from the sentimentality into which they would obviously sink if taken on their own literal, limitedly human terms. And the vision is essentially Manichean. Lennie and George are fated by their very natures to be joined in extraordinary intimacy and irreconcilable hostility. Moreover, the darkness represented by Lennie is just as "creative" and potent as George's light. George may be the executor of the dream, but it is Lennie who conceives it. It is George's incantatory voice that gives it verbal shape, but it is Lennie whom it lifts to ecstatic heights. And the dependence of one upon the other is total in both human and cosmic terms. Lennie and George are indispensable to one another as Manichean darkness and light are, and in exactly the same way.
It is true of Steinbeck … that Manichean psychology and drama are separated from its ethics and theology. The good-bad sides of God and Satan, the ultimate triumph of one over the other, an apocalyptic event accompanied by the dissolution of human history, are of little interest to [him. He concentrates] instead on what is visible and verifiable: The contending forces govern and shape our destinies. Both are equally potent and powerful sources of life. They are indispensable to one another while remaining irreconcilable, and the outcome of their perpetual combat is beyond prediction.
Of these ideas and visions, Of Mice and Men—lean, small-boned, delicately framed—is a supple and effective embodiment. (pp. 21-2)
Leo Gurko, "'Of Mice and Men': Steinbeck as Manichean," in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 11-23.
A minor classic of proletarian conflict, Of Mice and Men was written in 1937, first as a novel, then as a play….
The sycamore grove by the Salinas River, so lovingly described in the opening lines, is more than scene-setting: it is an attempt to evoke the sense of freedom in nature which, for a moment only, the protagonists will enjoy. By a path worn hard by boys and hobos two migrant laborers appear. The first man is mouse-like…. He is the planner from the poem by Robert Burns: as with other mice and men, his best arrangements will often go astray. (p. 170)
The nearest town is Soledad, which means "lonely place" in Spanish; the town where they last worked, digging a cesspool, was Weed. Their friendship is thus quickly placed as a creative defense against rank loneliness; it will be reinforced, thematically, by the hostility and guardedness of bunkhouse life, and by the apparent advance of their dream toward realization. But the secluded grove, the site of natural freedom, provides the only substantiation their dream will ever receive; and when our mouse-like planner tells his friend to return there in case of trouble, we sense that the dream will end where it essentially begins, in this substantiating site.
The second man to appear is "opposite" to the first…. This bear-like man becomes equine when they reach the grove: flinging himself down, he drinks from the pool there, "snorting into the water like a horse." (pp. 170-71)
These animal actions and his childish speech place him for us quickly as an idiot. What the first man plans for, the second already has. Like other Steinbeck idiots—Tularecito in The Pastures of Heaven (1932), Johnny Bear in The Long Valley (1938)—he participates in natural life freely, has access to its powers, and his attraction for Steinbeck is his freedom to use those powers without blame or censure. (p. 171)
In his pocket the idiot carries an actual mouse, dead from too much handling. Later he kills a puppy with playful buffeting. A child fondling "lesser" creatures, he is Steinbeck's example of senseless killing in nature. He is also part of an ascending hierarchy of power. His name is Lennie Small, by which Steinbeck means subhuman, animal, childlike, without power to judge or master social fate. His friend's name. George Milton, puts him by literary allusion near the godhead, above subhuman creatures, able to judge whether they should live or die…. [In] a later set-up scene … old Candy, the lowly bunkhouse sweeper, says that he should have shot his own decrepit dog—should not have let a stranger do it for him. George too will decide that he must shoot Lennie, like a mad rather than a decrepit dog, for the unplanned murder of another man's wife; that he cannot allow strangers to destroy him.
Both shootings have been sanctioned by the jerkline skinner, Slim, "prince of the ranch," who moves "with a majesty achieved only by royalty" and looks with "calm, God-like eyes" upon his bunkhouse world. Since his word is "law" for the migrant farm-hands, and since Milton, a rational farmhand, can recognize and accept such godlike laws, he must choose to shoot his friend. By East of Eden Steinbeck would conclude that it is choice which separates men from animals, a belief which supports one critic's view of George's decision as "mature." But it is not his "ordinariness" which George will accept, in destroying Lennie and the comforting dream they share, as this critic holds: it is his humanness, his responsibility for actions which the animal Lennie, for all his vital strength, cannot comprehend.
And yet George will be diminished—made "ordinary"—by his choice. As many critics insist, he uses Lennie selfishly, draws from him a sense of power, of superiority, which he sorely needs. If he is sensitive to Lennie's feelings—cares for and about him in demonstrable ways—he also "lords" it over him almost vengefully…. [Lennie] will always feed this satisfaction, will always do, in effect, what George desires—which means that George himself invites the troubles ahead, makes things go astray, uses Lennie to provoke and settle his own quarrel with a hostile world. (pp. 171-72)
This is to move from social into psychological conflict: but Steinbeck, in taking a boss's son and his wife as sources of privileged pressure on migrant farmhands, has moved there before us. He has chosen aggressive sexuality as the force, in migrant life, which undermines the friendship dream. This variation on the Garden of Eden theme is, to say the least, peculiar. (p. 172)
In Of Mice and Men Lennie first pets Curley's wife, then breaks her neck, without any awareness that she provokes both reactions. His conscious desires are simple: to stroke something furry, and to stop the furry thing from yelling so George won't be mad at him. But George has predicted this episode, has called Curley's wife a rat-trap, a bitch, a piece of jail-bait; and he has roundly expressed disgust at Curley's glove full of vaseline, which softens the hand that strokes his wife's genitals. Lennie has obligingly crushed that hand for George, and now he obligingly breaks the rat-trap for him, that snare for mice and men which catches both in its furry toils. (p. 173)
[A] frightening capacity for violence is what Lennie brings into the unsuspecting bunkhouse world: he carries within him, intact from childhood, that low threshold between rage and pleasure which we all carry within us into adulthood. But by adulthood we have all learned to take precautions which an idiot never learns to take. The force and readiness of our feelings continues: but through diversions and disguises, through civilized controls, we raise the threshold of reaction. This is the only real difference, emotionally, between Lennie and ourselves.
A great deal of Steinbeck's power as a writer comes, then, from his ability to bring into ordinary scenes of social conflict the psychological forcefulness of infantile reactions: his creation of Lennie in Of Mice and Men is a brilliant instance of that ability—so brilliant, in fact, that the social conflict in this compact tale tends to dissolve into the dramatic urgencies of Lennie's "fate." In his next novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck would find a situation commensurate with his own low threshold for idiot rage…. With Lennie's pathetic fate in mind, the meaning of Rose of Sharon's mysterious smile as she breastfeeds a starving middleaged man is not hard to fathom: she has found in the adult world what Lennie has never been able to find—an adequate way to satisfy inchoate longings, a way to nurture helpless creatures, perform useful tasks, indulge innocent pleasures, without arousing self-destructive anger. Steinbeck has called Of Mice and Men "a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world" and has said that Lennie especially represents "the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men," their "earth longings" for land of their own, for innocent-pleasure farms. In a profoundly psychological way he was right about the pleasures, though strangely neglectful of the rages which, in his world at least, accompany them. Tom Joad's confident smile, his flaunting of homicide to a truckdriver as The Grapes of Wrath begins, and Rose of Sharon's mysterious satisfaction as it closes, suggest that fuller accommodation of universal urges which gives his greatest novel much of its extraordinary power.
Of Mice and Men helped him to release that power by making murder seem as natural and innocent as love…. There are natural killings too in The Red Pony, where the little boy, Jody, cuts up the bird he has stoned and hides the pieces out of deference to adults: "He didn't care about the bird, or its life, but he knew what older people would say if they had seen him kill it; he was ashamed because of their potential opinion." Jody is too small to push these primitive sentiments very far; but Lennie, a more sizeable child, is better able to amplify their meaning. After killing Curley's wife he flees to the grove near the Salinas River, as George has told him to. Back in his own element, he moves "as silently as a creeping bear," drinks like a wary animal, and thinks of living in caves if George doesn't want him any more. Then out of his head come two figures: his aunt Clara and (seven years before Mary Chase's Harvey) a giant rabbit. These figments of adult opinion bring all of George's petty righteousness to bear against him, shame him unmercifully, and threaten him with the only thing that matters: the loss of his beloved bunnies. Then out of the brush, like a third figment of Miltonic pettiness, comes George himself, as if to punish him once more for "being bad." But for Lennie as for Jody, badness is a matter of opinions and taboos, not of consequences and responsibilities. He doesn't care about Curley's wife, who exists for him now only as another lifeless animal. Nor does Steinbeck care about her except as she arrives at natural innocence; but he does care about that, and through Lennie, who possesses it in abundance, he is able to affirm his belief in the causeless, blameless animality of murder. Of course, he also believes in the responsibility of those who grasp the consequences of animal passion, and it is one of several paradoxes on which this novel ends that George comes humbly now to accept responsibility for such passions, comes not to punish Lennie, then, but to put him mercifully away, to let him die in full enjoyment of their common dream. (pp. 176-77)
What makes this ending scary and painful and perplexing is the weight given to all that Lennie represents: if contradictory values are affirmed—blameless animality, responsible humanity; innocent longing, grim awareness—it is Lennie's peculiar mixture of human dreams and animal passions which matters most. George's newfound maturity is paradoxically an empty triumph: without Lennie he seems more like a horseless rider than a responsible adult. "The two together were one glorious individual," says Steinbeck of the boy Jody and his imagined pony, Black Demon, the best roping team at the Rodeo. Without such demonic vitality, by which any kind of meaningful life proceeds, George is indeed friendless and alone. With it, needless to say, he is prone to destructive rages. On the horns of that adolescent dilemma—that inability to take us beyond the perplexities of sexual rage—Steinbeck hangs his readers. Impales them, rather, since the rich tensions of this poignant perplex, however unresolved, are honestly and powerfully presented. (p. 178)
In Tortilla Flat, an otherwise comic novel, [Steinbeck shows] … how Danny tires of the chivalric life and reverts to the "sweet violence" of outlawry. "Sweet violence" means something more here than the joys of boyish rebellion: it means delight in pulling the house down on one's own and other people's heads, which is what Danny does when the friendship dream proves insubstantial, and he pays with his life—and later, with his friends' help, with his house—for the pleasure of destroying it. Lennie too pays with his life for the pleasure of destructive rages; but he serves in this respect as an extension of his friend's desires: he is George Milton's idiot Samson, his blind avenger for the distastefulness of aggressive sexuality. Which may be why their friendship seems impossible from the first, why the pathos of their dream, and of its inevitable defeat, seems less important than the turbulence it rouses. Once more "sweet violence" is the force which moves these characters, and which moves us to contemplate their puzzling fate.
By East of Eden Steinbeck would learn that rages generally follow from rejected love, that parental coldness or aloofness breeds violence in youthful hearts; and he would come also to accept sexuality as a vulnerable condition, a blind helplessness by which men and women may be "tricked and trapped and enslaved and tortured," but without which they would not be human…. But by accepting sex now as a human need, he would redeem his Lennie's and Danny's from outlawry and animality, and he would finally repair the ravages of sweet violence. Of Mice and Men remains his most compelling tribute to the force behind those ravages, "the most disturbing impulse humans have," as it moves a selfish master and his dancing bear to idiot rages. And once more it must be said to move us too. For however contradictory it seems, our sympathy for these characters, indeed their love for each other, is founded more deeply in the humanness of that impulse than in its humanitarian disguises. (pp. 178-79)
Mark Spilka, "Of George and Lennie and Curley's Wife: Sweet Violence in Steinbeck's Eden," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1974 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 169-79.
When John Steinbeck was at work on his "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" in the middle and late 1950's, he hoped it would be "the best work of my life and the most satisfying." Even in its original form, the project was enormous—translation of the complete "Morte d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Malory; and the project soon became still more difficult, not translation but a complete retelling—rethinking—of the myth. Steinbeck finished only some 293 uncorrected, unedited pages, perhaps one-tenth of the original. Even so, the book Steinbeck's friend and editor Chase Horton has put together is large and important. It is in fact two books, Steinbeck's mythic fiction on King Arthur's court, and a fat, rich collection of letters exchanged between Steinbeck, Horton and Elizabeth Otis, Steinbeck's agent. The first is an incomplete but impressive work of art; the second, the complete story of a literary tragedy—how Steinbeck found his way, step by step, from the idea of doing a "translation" for boys to the idea of writing fabulist fiction, in the mid-1950's, when realism was still king. (p. 31)
Steinbeck's Arthurian fiction is indeed, "strange and different," as he put it. The fact that he lacked the heart to finish the book, or even put what he did complete into one style and tone, is exactly the kind of petty modern tragedy he hated. The idea was magnificent—so is much of the writing—though we see both the idea and the writing changing as they go. In the early pages he follows Malory fairly closely, merely simplifying and here and there adding explanation for the modern young reader.
As he warms to his work, Steinbeck uses Malory more freely, cutting deeply, expanding generously. In the passage on Merlin's defeat by Nyneve he writes like a man retelling a story from his childhood, interpreting as he pleases and echoing hardly a line….
[There] are still Malorian elements—sentences beginning with "Then" and "And," formulaic repetitions, archaic diction—but all the rest is modern. For instance, it is novelistic, not mythic, to speak of Merlin's "panting," "pleading and whim-pering," or of "the inborn craft of maidens" and "the inborn helplessness of men."… By the time Steinbeck reached "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake," he had his method in full control. He makes authorial comments of a sort only a novelist would risk, cuts pages by the fistful, and at the same time embellishes Malory's spare legend with a richness of detail that transforms the vision, makes it no one but Steinbeck's. [There is a passage on Lancelot] with no real source in the original…. (p. 34)
What we have here is myth newly imagined, revitalized, charged with contemporary meaning, the kind of thing we expect of the best so-called post-modernists, writers like John Barth. Steinbeck creates a lifelike Lancelot, a veteran soldier who knows his business (how to grab sleep when you can and so on); shows, in quick realistic strokes, how the soldier wakes up, wrings his muscles against cold and cramp; and how magic starts to happen to this cool, middle-aged realist. The falsity of the magic is emphatic—"as frankly invented as [the designs] in an illuminated book."…
Steinbeck's whole purpose at this stage—a purpose close to Malory's yet utterly transformed—[is] to show in the manner of a fabulator how plain reality is transformed by magic, by the lure of visions that ennoble though they ultimately betray. It's a theme we've encountered before in Steinbeck, but a theme that has here the simplicity and power of myth.
"The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" is unfortunately not Steinbeck's greatest book, but as Steinbeck knew, until doubt overcame him, it was getting there. (p. 36)
John Gardner, "'The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1976, pp. 31-2, 34, 36.
Steinbeck critics have either ignored "The Murder," refusing it even the attention of condemnation, or treated it very gingerly because on the surface it is an enormously disturbing story with a theme and action seemingly allied to the John Wayne mystique that only a dominated woman and a dominant man will be happy together.
Quite short, the story can be summarized still more briefly. After the death of his parents, Jim Moore marries and brings to his California valley ranch Jelka Sepic, repudiating her immigrant father's advice to beat her regularly in order to make her a proper wife…. One evening as he is going to town he meets a neighbor coming to inform him about the butchering of one of his calves. Jim investigates and returns home unobserved to find Jelka in bed with her male cousin. After a curious pair of meditations at the water trough, Jim shoots the cousin and departs without speaking to Jelka. He returns at dawn with the deputy sheriff and the coroner, who remove the body, exonerate Jim, and caution him not to be too severe with his wife. Jim beats her severely with "a nine-foot, loaded bullwhip," and she then fixes his breakfast. The implication, strongly reinforced by the closing paragraph which shows her smiling and him stroking her head and by an introductory view of the happy couple in the indeterminate future, is that both have learned their lessons and have reached a new understanding of each other.
Told thus baldly, the story seems to warrant the charges of racism and sexism which so far have been the only responses to it. Examined more thoroughly, with attention to overtones of statement and image and to Steinbeck's other work, it remains a disturbing story, but disturbing to conventional pieties and expectations in the same way as Steinbeck's best work of the 1930's. Seen in this way, the story focuses upon psychological rather than physical action and deals, not with Jelka's being pounded into a satisfactory wife but with Jim's becoming a satisfactory husband and a complete human being.
From the beginning of the story, Steinbeck takes care to show that Jim Moore lives in a limited world, in part inherited, in part elected. For instance, the first paragraph deals not with Moore but with the description of the Cañon del Castillo…. Just below the castle is a deserted ranch house, where Jim Moore grew up and to which he brought Jelka, with which he was intimately familiar and which now he cannot destroy because he has come to see that it represents "a great and important piece of his life." Still further away from the dead end of the canyon and closer to the outside world in which the union of Jim and Jelka can reach the social level is the house which Jim builds for Jelka after the murder. If the castle represents among other things false ideals of chivalry, perhaps by contrasting the medieval reality with sentimental modern reconstructions, the ranch house represents Jim's false ideal of his childhood, including his parents, and the new house symbolizes the achieved marriage of Jim and Jelka on the basis not of received ideas and cultural patterns but of a realistic understanding of both partners' needs.
Before Jim can reach that stage, however, he must rid himself of false notions of maturity. He emerges into physical and social manhood in the familiar surroundings of the old house, but the limitations of his maturity are shown by his actions after the deaths of his parents: [he grows a beard, sells the pigs and buys a Guernsey bull]…. His dealings with the livestock are at first glance puzzling if not incomprehensible. However, Guernseys are a dairy breed, and the difference between a bull and pigs is that the one is used only for breeding—and milk producers rather than meat animals—while the only end of pigs is the slaughterhouse. By rejecting the one and choosing the other, Jim exhibits a delicacy which would divorce generation from death and thus deny and try to avoid part of the natural cycle.
Thus it is not surprising that he indignantly repudiates the counsel of Jelka's father that [he beat her regularly]…. Though Jim rejects the advice and the prediction, "Sometime you see," he soon learns that Jelka is foreign, in fact almost animal-like. Only her dextrous hands seem human, and they are almost separate from her, "wise hands" that "she seemed to regard with wonder and pride…." And though Jim desires to communicate with her on the level of language, he fails and thinks the barrier impassable. Sexually and physically they can communicate…. Fixed on the level of language and puzzled by his wife, Jim turns to the Three Star for "the company of women, the chattery exchange of small talk, the shrill pleasant insults, the shame-sharpened vulgarity." To the stock question "Where's your wife?" he gives the stock answer "Home in the barn." If Jelka has a traditional old-world idea of marriage, Jim seems to have no integrated, wholistic view at all.
This is the situation at the beginning of the central incident which occupies more than half the story. Although it begins in trivial domestic details of clearing the table and saddling a horse, Steinbeck soon indicates that the ensuing action will be far from ordinary. For one thing, setting sun and rising full moon, balanced on opposite horizons, give "a mysterious new perspective to the hills" and cast "A huge, long-legged shadow of a horse and half a man…." If Jelka is not entirely animal because of her clever hands, this phrase shows that Jim is both partly animal and not fully human. However, he is oblivious to these implications as he rides past the castle, unknightly in a sordid quest…. (pp. 63-5)
Returning home, Jim discovers a strange horse in his barn. At this point the action slows and Steinbeck presents the first of five scenes with Jim at the water trough. In the first, Jim looks into it, sees nothing, and for the last time until he returns in daylight relies on language … as he plans his strategy for discovering the identity of his rival. Having done so, he returns to sit on the side of the trough. This time Steinbeck makes it clear that the trough is the image of Jim's mind and that in looking all the way to the moonlit bottom he is drawing up material from his unconscious. At first, he represses the memory of what he has just seen and displaces it…. Then repressed material from the past surfaces as "His thought turned to the way his mother used to hold a bucket to catch the throat blood when his father killed a pig. She stood as far away as possible and held the bucket at arms' length to keep her clothes from getting spattered." This memory, breaking through the block symbolized by Jim's sale of the pigs, shows him that his mother is, however, reluctantly, involved in violence and that she is, in fact, fully human, not just the companion and conversationalist he expected a wife to be. Released by this memory from his false ideals of purity and chivalry, "Jim dipped his hand into the trough and stirred the moon to broken, swirling streams of light. He wetted his forehead with his hands" and, self-baptised into a new state, goes expressionlessly to kill his rival. Having done so, he returns to the trough, dips "his head into the water" to seal the change, and vomits. Then, leaving Jelka whimpering "like a puppy," he mounts his horse and rides towards town. This time "The squat black shadow traveled under him," for he has finally integrated in himself man and animal.
The next morning, returning with deputy sheriff and coroner, he immediately "saunter[s] away towards the water-trough," now apparently for him a place of security. After the men leave, he approaches the barn and "the high, puppy whimpering" of his wife with the bull whip. Reemerging, he carries her to the trough and tends her wounds. After she fixes his breakfast, including "thick slices of bacon," he announces that the two of them will go into town to order lumber for a new house. She agrees that "That will be good" and asks "Will you whip me any more—for this?" His reply—"No, not any more, for this"—pleases her and their new compact is sealed when she sits beside him and he strokes her hair and neck.
Fittingly, the story ends structurally in the daylight, just as it ends chronologically, in paragraph three, in the town. Even from the passages quoted earlier it is obvious that the sun-moon imagery provides a significant undertheme. From the point at which the two bodies appear on opposite horizons, both their positions and the changing quality of the light is emphasized well beyond the requirements of mere description. For instance, Jelka's infidelity is revealed by the moonlight, and after Jim beats her and is tending her wounds by the water trough, Steinbeck adds "The sun shone hotly on the ground. A few blowflies buzzed about, looking for the blood." The night is clearly associated with the sensual and imaginative life: Jim can relate to Jelka only in the (obviously nocturnal) sexual act, and the moonlit trough reveals to him the underlying truth about his heritage and himself. The significance of the sun is less easy to determine, but it may signify the daylight world of conventional social reality. In the daytime, Jim plays and is forced by the coroner into the role of wronged husband. On the previous night, no such ideas—or any formulable propositions—enter his mind. However, the events of the night do lead to the emergence of Jim and Jelka into the daylight world of the town.
One might justly ask if this reading of the story takes us beyond Joseph Fontenrose's comment that "in 'The Murder' Jim Moore found an old-world Slavic order satisfactory for dealing with errant wives and their paramours." The answer is, I obviously think, yes on at least two counts. First, my reading shifts the focus from the result of the actions and from any racist or sexist ideas on which the process might be based and which disturb critics like Warren French and Robert Benton to the means by which Jim Moore responds on the deepest levels of his being to the particular situation. His alteration, not Jelka's subjection, is the focus of the story. Second, as French finally admits, the story's point "appears to be that people should be treated according to their own traditions even if we find them incomprehensible." One could go farther and invoke the system of "is" as opposed to "should" thinking most clearly articulated in Sea of Cortez but implicit in most of Steinbeck's work of the 1930's. By responding with a chivalric code, "should" thinking at its most rigid, Jim brings about a far greater evil than the advice of Jelka's father would produce and is forced to act in accordance with what the coroner thinks are ideas of honor and the bloody ways of maintaining it. (pp. 65-7)
Jim Moore is successful in preserving his home life by finally "getting in touch" with Jelka on the physical level and communicating with her on a level even more basic than the sexual. He achieves admiration on the social level because he has dared to exercise the "unwritten law" to preserve his home, but that is far less important than his accepting the past, integrating himself, and achieving self-respect. From the sentimental moralist's point of view, it is not a desirable end, still less desirable a means. But sentimental moralism, as represented by Jim's earlier attitude, is irrelevant to the reality, where slaughter—or sacrifice—as well as breeding, blood as well as milk, blows as well as touch are inevitable. Given his environment and his situation, both of which he is able to alter only after he has clearly understood and accepted them, Jim Moore is a successful man and even, in the local terms on which Steinbeck would insist, a good man. (pp. 67-8)
Robert Murray Davis, "Steinbeck's 'The Murder'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1977 by Newberry College), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 63-8.
Like William Faulkner and Willa Cather, John Steinbeck wrote his best fiction about the region in which he grew up and the people he knew from boyhood….
Far more extensive than Faulkner's county or Cather's homeland, the Steinbeck territory covers thousands of square miles in central California, particularly in the Long Valley, which extends south of Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown, for over one hundred miles and lies between the Gabilan Mountains on the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains along the Pacific coast. (p. 23)
In the territory appear Mexicans, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as German, Irish, and English; not only ranchers and farmers but also migrant workers, community leaders, assorted whores and bums, as well as fishermen, bartenders, schoolteachers, and radicals. The characters include the wealthy, poor, and economically in-between; the able, bigoted, mature, puritanic, psychotic, and happy. The vast territory is a factor also in shaping dominant themes in the fiction, including man's relationships with the land, the attractions of the simple life, the conflicts of the haves and have-nots, the failures or dangers of middle-class existence. (p. 24)
[The Red Pony] examines the relationship of man and the land. (p. 30)
Unlike the luckless Pepé in "Flight," Jody grows up on good, fertile land, benefits from a secure family life, and survives his encounters with death and unpredictable nature. Steinbeck's accounts of Jody's life and survival show a similarly graceful and detailed realism. We gain a firm impression of the outward boy, his playing with Doubletree Mutt, deference to his parents, and a close relationship with Buck. The sensitive language and point of view create a sense also of the inner Jody, of his daydreams about armies marching down the country road behind him, of the large colt next to Nellie…. Descriptions of farm activities, the countryside, and other people are inseparable from descriptions of a boy growing up. The descriptions, point of view, concentration on the farm scenes and activities and on Jody in particular unify the four parts of the novel. (pp. 31-2)
Learning from experience like Hemingway's young Nick Adams, but more soundly prepared by farm life and his elders, Jody Tiflin learns that dying is natural and living requires sacrifices. Like Nick he learns also that forces in nature can be unpredictable and dangerous. The closing scenes of The Red Pony dramatize Jody's maturing tolerance for others and indicate that eventually he will outgrow his teachers. (p. 32)
In portraying dreams, friendships, and grim necessities, Steinbeck wrote his best novel to date [Of Mice and Men]. A more sensitive and perceptive work than Tortilla Flat or In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men compares favorably with the best short novels of the decade. It is also the first and best of Steinbeck's experiments with the novel-play form, which combines qualities of each genre…. The individual chapters or scenes contain few descriptions of place, character, or action. The unities in Of Mice and Men are based on drastic limitations. Action is restricted usually to the bunkhouse. The restriction of time to three days—sunset Thursday to sunset Sunday—intensifies suspense and drama. With place and time compressed, the action is necessarily simple and dramatic; the superfluous and complex have been eliminated. There are no scenes of travel or of work and few of the past. Foreshadowing is obvious and suspenseful. Lennie's rough play with mice and the shooting of Candy's old dog foretell subsequent violence. Future action is more or less anticipated by what is said. And the characters themselves make for simplicity of action.
To create such effects, Steinbeck's craftsmanship was at its best. All aspects of the novel are finely done. A few techniques can be noted. A general technique, as the above would suggest, is a highly restricted focus. With the emphasis upon the scenic, a skillfully managed third-person point of view is also essential. To create a sense of the impersonal and objective, Steinbeck concentrates, with exceptions, on exteriors: a river bank, a bunkhouse, a character's appearance, card players at a table. The setting is not panoramic, as in the description of a valley scene in In Dubious Battle; it is, figuratively speaking, only as wide as a stage. The focus is also upon the present: what can be seen or heard. Thoughts, recollections, and fantasies are directly expressed by the characters involved, except in the case of Lennie's Aunt Clara and the giant rabbit in chapter 6. This interlude of fantasy may or may not violate the objectivity of the third-person narration. Generally, however, the point of view remains objective and exterior.
The prose style—particularly the rhythms and diction—possess greater sensitivity and naturalness than in In Dubious Battle. The language is generally more realistic and precise. Descriptions of the bunkhouse interior—walls, bunks, scanty possessions, stove and table, George's things—and of sights and sounds in Crooks's room and the barn, create a sense of the workaday world and its crudities. Hanging in the harness room, where Crooks stays, are "pieces of harness, a split collar with the horsehair stuffing sticking out, a broken hame, and a trace chain with its leather covering split." The precision is notable. Although there are no work scenes, references to bucking barley eleven hours daily, to workers who put in a month and leave, to evenings of card games and pulp magazines underline the weary monotony. The physical bareness of the bunkhouse, the mechanical neatness of bunks and wooden boxes, suggest a bareness of spirit as well. Yet, appearing throughout the novel, often in ironic contrast, are sensitive, sometimes poetic descriptions of the pleasant, secure, or beautiful: the pastoral scene at the beginning; the warm, sunlit scene in the barn on early Sunday afternoon; the late afternoon scene at the "green pool of the Salinas River" at the end.
The symbolism, which does not include the pervasive mythical materials of In Dubious Battle, is convincingly part of the talk, places, and incidents of the time. The river bank scene is at least suggestive of life-in-nature, a level Lennie is not too far above. The river bank is reassuringly peaceful until George fires the luger and destroys friend and dream. The ranch provides another kind of security and also a place for dreams, but for the Lennies and the Georges of the world it remains essentially unfulfilling.
The river bank and the ranch provide on one level the idyllic and real boundaries of their world. The centrally placed bunkhouse and barn, offering only physical security and a minimum of that, symbolize the essential emptiness and impersonality of that world. The fundamental symbol is the dream itself—"a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs and …"—which keeps the two men together, stimulates hope for two others, and very likely expresses the hopes of still others. (The "little house" symbol reappears under more difficult circumstances in The Grapes of Wrath.) The action traced in Of Mice and Men, possessing a parable-like simplicity and theme, reminds one of journeys of other figures in American fiction, Wellingborough Redburn, Huck Finn, and Henry Fleming, who with others also search for ever-elusive goals.
Another mark of excellence appears in the variety and depth of characterization…. The superb dialogue gives life to all the characters.
In the last analysis, George and Lennie symbolize something of the enduring and hopeful as well as the meaningless. They manage—if only for a brief time—to rise above circumstances and to convince others as well as themselves that dreams are part of the territory, that all they have to do is keep working and hoping and some day they will have their own place. If they could only somehow control their own weaknesses and keep a little ahead of circumstances. But they cannot. These and other matters are examined by Steinbeck in more complex terms and with greater range and authority in The Grapes of Wrath. (pp. 60-4)
Appearing in a decade that saw the publication also of As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner and the trilogy USA by John Dos Passos, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the period's brilliant, innovative works. It combines a long, eventful narrative and many passages of exposition, broadens the narrative level with several important structural patterns, and demonstrates, among other things, the writer's imaginative techniques and craftsmanship. (p. 67)
To create a work of such scope and depth, Steinbeck relied upon a number of techniques. The most general one pertains to the language itself, which, in order to serve various functions, had to be supple and figurative, yet often plain. The novel has in fact several languages…. These various levels of language, both written and spoken, show affinities with the free verse of [Walt] Whitman and [Carl] Sandburg, the ironic simplicity of Hemingway, and the distinctive rhythm and phrasing of biblical passages. The most characteristic qualities of the written language are precision, natural and sometimes biblical rhythms, and imagery customarily based on elements of the land or daily life.
Craftsmanship in The Grapes of Wrath is generally excellent in other respects as well. While customarily narrated in the third-person voice, the novel's point of view varies dramatically in tone, purpose, and method, providing an elevated panoramic view, as in most intercalary chapters, or a close dramatic one, as in narrative chapters. The point of view within a chapter, moreover, may shift from the personal to the impersonal, from the objective to the ironic. (pp. 69-70)
The principal focus in early and later chapters … is not so much on the land as on the farmers themselves and their families. In a general sense The Grapes of Wrath is a book about families. These include the many anonymous families appearing throughout the novel, usually in intercalary chapters; the individual families, particularly the Joads and a few others; and, in a general or thematic sense, the family of men. (p. 72)
The views and feelings of dispossessed families are particularized in accounts of the Joads, Steinbeck's most significant family and as noteworthy in modern American fiction as Cather's Bergsons and Faulkner's Bundrens. (p. 73)
The Joads are impressively drawn: a down-to-earth farm family unexceptional in most respects but determined to survive and keep their identities intact. (p. 74)
The Grapes of Wrath can be read not only as fiction but as a social document of the time: a record of drought conditions, economic problems, the sharecropping life. Not separate from the fictional, this level or record is a vital aspect of it. The document clarifies the nature of family and small farm life and also of underlying concepts. One of the most important is the traditional agrarian idea of the simple rural life based on principles of natural rights. Those who live and work on the land, who pay for it with their blood, sweat, and toil, own the land. Muley Graves believes this, and up to a point so do the Joads. This way of life is seriously threatened by nature and, more ominously, by another tradition, a largely modern one that has reappeared in recent years: the combination of big farms and financial establishments. (p. 76)
The migration of hundreds of thousands of people westward was a major cultural phenomenon of the 1930s. Steinbeck's portrayal of that phenomenon is another example of The Grapes of Wrath as a form of social document. (p. 78)
The four novels appearing between 1947 and 1952 show the continued importance of western materials and a preoccupation with two familiar staples of his fiction, allegory and realism. Steinbeck's interest in allegory had appeared first in his boyhood love of Morte d'Arthur, a little later in characters and actions of a Stanford story, "The Gifts of Iban," and then in Cup of Gold (1929) and To a God Unknown (1933). Characters and actions representing ideas or attitudes, archetypal patterns, and a strong ethical focus—all qualities of allegory, and particularly of parable—appeared most noticeably in Tortilla Flat (1935).
Although such qualities are less vital in the realistic Depression novels, portrayals of Joy and Jim and of the strike confrontations in In Dubious Battle (1936) include an allegorical level stressing ideas or qualities. That emphasis appears also in the two-dimensional figures and specialized situations and patterns of The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Cannery Row (1945) may be regarded as primarily a parable…. (p. 106)
Important though allegory and parable are in the postwar fiction, they are no more so than another longstanding Steinbeckian predilection, the realistic, which goes back almost as far as his interest in allegory, appearing, for example, in "The Chrysanthemums" and "Flight" in the 1930s and also in the Depression novels. In fact, as we shall see, novels of the late 1940s and early 1950s reveal a weakening of the allegorical emphasis and a strengthening of Steinbeck's disposition toward both realism and the romantic, a blending of which is evident also in his earlier works, including The Grapes of Wrath. (p. 107)
To regard East of Eden as a romance, or as significantly romantic, is to make the same kind of critical realignment that appears necessary for a reevaluation of The Wayward Bus. Both novels rely upon allegorical materials, with the important general difference that realism is the central shaping influence and mode in The Wayward Bus and romanticism provides that influence and mode in East of Eden. The romanticism of East of Eden differs from that of Cannery Row in being more complex, pervasive, and affirmative. In its confident treatment of many topics and various aspects of the national identity, and in its expansiveness and variety of remarkable characters and actions, East of Eden resembles [Herman Melville's] nineteenth-century romance Moby-Dick. (p. 118)
Although [inconsistencies in his treatment of the biblical motif] and other flaws provide ample evidence that Steinbeck's hopes for another major work were not to be realized, East of Eden remains impressive. It shows a largeness of vision and treatment evident previously only in The Grapes of Wrath. If the insights into good and evil reveal no unusual depths or subtlety, they do show a complexity seldom evident in Steinbeck's earlier works. The problem of evil—oversimplified in earlier works, sometimes avoided, or often expressed in largely political terms—is examined in the discussions between Sam, Lee, and Adam, and in the motivations and fates of several figures, principally Cathy-Kate, Charles, and Caleb Trask. Affirmations of the good are effectively dramatized through Sam and Lee, the former an inventive dreamer, and the latter a humanist who never loses faith in human dignity and reason; and through the persistence of Adam and Cal, who, despite odds, manage to illustrate that faith.
Although the novel's language lacks the vitality and richness of prose found in The Grapes of Wrath, it is usually equal to the demands the author places on it. East of Eden, despite failures, not only deals with a wealth of diverse materials but does so primarily through the elusive and challenging forms of romance. (pp. 123-24)
Literary historians may have difficulty in placing John Steinbeck and his work because neither belongs convincingly with a recognized trend or group. Developing as a writer about the same time as Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Hemingway—all born around the turn of the century—he appears separate from them in various ways. Unlike these writers, Steinbeck was not powerfully influenced by World War I; and unlike them and others he was not among the expatriates writing from Paris in the 1920s about the predicaments of Americans in Europe and at home.
Along with such writers as John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell, Steinbeck has been considered a social-protest writer of the 1930s. In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath strongly criticize economic injustices and particularly the plight of the have-nots. Yet the generic hallmarks of social-protest fiction—a revolutionary message, and characters and actions designed to express that message—rarely appear. The 1930s fiction and other works by Steinbeck have been described also as realistic or naturalistic, familiar terms for dominant literary trends or groups in those years. However, Steinbeck's fiction resists such categories, for in The Grapes of Wrath the realism is enriched by a poetic language and by concerns with the mystical aspects of the biological. The naturalistic emphases, which are sometimes as severe as those of Dos Passos, are moderated in that novel and in Of Mice and Men by down-to-earth humor and compassion. The man and his work may be regarded as western—possibly the most apt of these descriptions—until one thinks of various fictions and nonfictions that are not western and of others like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row that appear to be western, but do not deal with such primary concerns as space, the land and nature, and man's place in them.
The nature and direction of Steinbeck's fiction may be understood more clearly if approached through characteristic symbols and themes, such as the tide-pool image…. The family is another important symbol, often at the center of the dramatic forces of a story or novel and illustrating human strengths and weaknesses. (pp. 139-40)
Territory and social protest are two other identifying marks of the fiction. Central California—most memorably Monterey and several valleys—and the area near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, may appear less familiar to readers than Frenchman's Bend, Jefferson, and the farms of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county, yet the Steinbeck treatment of land is nonetheless remarkable for its acute and graphic portrayal of environment and of the effects of nature on man. It is remarkable as well for an early and brilliant study of the predicaments of the small farmer and migrant worker confronted by the powerful alignment of big farmers and finance—a confrontation that persists into the 1970s. Social protest, a sine qua non in many of Steinbeck's novels, figures significantly in the satiric realism of The Wayward Bus and in a more subtle form in The Winter of our Discontent, as well as in the tougher-grained novels of the 1930s.
Instrumental in shaping such elements and the fictions themselves is Steinbeck's moral vision which has been variously described, interpreted, praised, and questioned through the years. Steinbeck's pervasive compassion for human beings appears most characteristically in portrayals of the most vulnerable: the naive, handicapped, and disenfranchised—the Maltbys, Danny and the paisanos, George and Lennie—who rarely find the promised land, at least not as they dream of it. Tolerance and sympathy are evident also in the complicated predicaments of Elisa, Doc of Cannery Row, Juan Chicoy, and Adam Trask. The fundamentally affirmative quality of the vision, however, tends on the one hand to minimize complexities and shadings of modern life, particularly in ethical values or choices, and on the other hand, to reveal more of group characteristics and ideas than of an individual's heart and mind. This is in keeping with the strong idealistic and intuitive elements in the vision. Major characters such as Danny, Jim Nolan, Tom Joad, and Sam Hamilton, whose feelings and motives are rarely probed in psychological depth, tend to lose concreteness as the novel's end approaches; they gradually become vague embodiments of social and economic views.
The literary craftsmanship and skill with which the themes, symbols, and moral vision are expressed would seem to identify most definitely Steinbeck's fiction and ensure his place with the best writers of his generation. With them he shared a ceaseless dedication to mastering the art of fiction. "The Chrysanthemums," "Flight," and Of Mice and Men are distinguished for precision, clarity, and sensitivity of language and for economy and proportion of form. Characters in these and other works illustrate a versatility of execution from the minutely realistic Jody Tiflin, to a variety of allegorical figures in many of the fictions, to the symbolic realism of Ma Joad and Juan Chicoy, to the complicated and introspective narrator, Ethan Allen Hawley. No less effectively at times than Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Steinbeck experimented with nuances of dialogue and prose style and with varieties of point of view; and in diversity of works if not in richness he may have equalled Faulkner, creating not only stories and novels but also parables, plays, novel-plays, and nonfiction, among the latter being the superb Sea of Cortez, written with Ed Ricketts. (pp. 140-42)
Steinbeck's best works brilliantly expose mankind's "grievous faults and failures," alert us to social and economic dangers, and remind us of our forgotten commitments and dreams. Steinbeck's strongest convictions and passions appear in his fundamental belief in humanity, in his expectation that man will endure, and that the creative forces of the human spirit will prevail. (p. 143)
Paul McCarthy, in his John Steinbeck (copyright © 1980 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1980, 163 p.
John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (1962), recounting his trip across the United States with his dog in a custom-made camper, was enormously popular. The book's many readers liked his anecdotal sentimentality. The dog with the crossed front teeth and bourgeois name made poodlehood forgivable, and the author avoided profound criticism of the country, lacing his account with vivid descriptions of the landscape and a variety of American characters. Travels is a collage that millions of Americans found to be pleasant, casual reading….
Though Travels is one of [Steinbeck's] potboilers, ignoring it is a critical mistake, for both the circumstances surrounding its composition and its content and structure reveal much about Steinbeck as a writer. Travels was written during a transitional period in Steinbeck's later life when he was attempting not only to face the specter of decline but to accept his limitations as a writer. (p. 186)
Travels with Charley opens on a note of braggadocio that is most awkward: Steinbeck recounts his rescue of his boat during the height of a hurricane, when he moved it from its moorings close to shore to a point several hundred yards out where it could ride the winds in safety. Since "no skiff could possibly weather it for a minute," he says, he leaps into the water fully clothed and lets the fierce winds blow him back to shore. He claims to have suffered no more harm than a quick shot of whiskey could fix. The story is irrelevant, a strange way to begin the narrative of the trip that is soon to begin. Perhaps Steinbeck felt that he had to establish in his readers' minds the idea that he was still quite seaworthy, as it were, before he could confide his "secret reasons" for taking this unusual trip. He does not want to be one of those men, he says, who trade "their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span." Fearful of packing his life in "cotton wool," of smothering his "impulses," of hooding his "passions," he asserts his determination to avoid what he calls the "sweet trap" of retiring from "manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism." He elliptically refers to his illness as "one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age"—here in the published narrative carefully unnamed. (pp. 191-92)
His determination to travel across the entire breadth of the American continent and back alone and anonymously was an obvious assertion of independence. And on one level he was indeed in full command. The plans he outlines in Travels with Charley are thorough…. He is certain that few people will recognize him as the novelist John Steinbeck and that few will even ask his name. And in fact, one of the themes of Travels with Charley is that Americans converse not only amiably but intimately under the protection of anonymity.
On another level, however, Steinbeck was not at all in command, and he knew it. (p. 192)
Steinbeck's confusion …, about both his trip and his artistic life, is obvious. He simultaneously asserts that command and control are what he needs and seeks, and that such control is not possible and seeking it is a sure way to be wrong. The ambivalence that grips him at the outset of the trip keeps a stranglehold on him until the very end. He affects the manner of the gypsy and wishes us to believe (and wishes he could believe) that the days of his journey will shape themselves, that he has the capacity to drift with events, to let what comes his way determine his course. In direct conflict with this intention is his tremendously strong determination to assert himself, to prove his ability to take the helm, to demonstrate that he need not yet relinquish control. This contradiction persists throughout both the public account and the letters he wrote home to his wife while he was on the road. The letters confirm what a close reading of Travels suggests: that Steinbeck could not resolve the difficulty. Would his personal and artistic problems resolve themselves of their own accord, or could he force a solution? (pp. 192-93)
The strongest theme in the narrative is Steinbeck's aversion to the juggernaut of progress, the urge among Americans to lay waste to their own country. He describes a people unwilling to discuss politics and confront the public issues squarely, a people in the grips of a compulsive restlessness and lack of roots (the mobile home becomes the symbol in his eyes for American homelessness), but most of all a people still utterly blind to the waste and decay they themselves have wrought.
The changes in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula are like the changes he has seen everywhere. Steinbeck seems to be saying that whatever the eventual meaning of these changes might be, they have rolled over and past him, leaving him behind. It is the cry of someone who sees suddenly what getting old can mean. It is a cry of pain. (pp. 194-95)
Steinbeck's treatment of the South entirely in terms of the racial turmoil that was roiling to the surface in 1960 is understandable, for the mood of the South was brittle and anger was the dominant emotion of the time. He personifies that anger in the "Cheerladies" who gathered everyday in New Orleans to taunt the little black girl who was integrating a grammar school. This section … is one of the more powerful passages in Travels with Charley. But the unexpected note for anyone familiar with Steinbeck's fights for social reform is his reaction to the problem that grips the South. Although he foresees, if only dimly, the looming problems of urban decay, pollution, and waste of natural resources, he does not foresee the extent to which the racial problem would cease to be southern. Here in the South he feels like an outsider for the first time on the trip, and the feeling urges him home faster. Perhaps he feels like an outsider in other than strictly sectional terms; he is mistaken in believing that racism is a problem that only southerners can solve, but believing this may have been less painful than believing that generations of people not yet born will be the ones who establish racial justice. Every conversation with southerners in the Travels turns compulsively to the question of race, and Steinbeck's response, finally, is an exhausted one: the "dreadful uncertainty of the means" for solving the problem grips him. It may be that his "weary nausea," mentioned several times, is the consequence of his knowing that this is a battle in which he will not be a warrior. (pp. 195-96)
Travels with Charley ends on a sadly appropriate note: Steinbeck gets lost again, the last of many such incidents, in New York City, just a few miles from home. He pulls over to the side of the street; his hands are shaking with the "road jitters" and he is overcome with helpless, uncontrollable laughter. "And that's how the traveler came home again," concludes Steinbeck, echoing equivocally the theme from Thomas Wolfe he had used before.
It is odd that this travel diary of the black moods found so many readers who took pleasure in the book as light reading. There are deft touches of humor, to be sure, but some of the jokes do not come off very well, and every once in a while sentimentality rather than depth of feeling grips the prose. The writing is quite uneven. Steinbeck wavers between praise and blame for his fellow Americans, and he is uncertain of his own role as observer.
Obviously the trip did not bring about artistic renewal and rebirth. Steinbeck planned his trip with restorative purposes in mind; he ended the trip overcome by weary nausea and helpless laughter, losing his way once again. The mood of the final pages cannot be seen as accidental unless we are to conclude that Steinbeck had utterly lost control of his writing. It is more reasonable to conclude that he had discovered some important truths on his journey, but ones quite contrary to his initial hopes. He could not go home again; more than that, if change is the master and if events will march relentlessly on, then he could not go back to any splits in the path to begin again. He had hoped to remake himself as an artist. The shape and manner of his narrative indicates that his hope had not been realized. (pp. 196-97)
Barbara B. Reitt, "'I Never Returned as I Went In': Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charley'," in Southwest Review (© 1981 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 66, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 186-202.