Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1382
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a powerful and vivid depiction of life in rural America. It recounts the tragic story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two lonely itinerant farm workers who belonged nowhere and to no one but themselves. George has accepted the burden of protecting the mentally incompetent but uncommonly strong Lennie from the thefts and tricks of both ranch bosses and other hands, but, in so doing, George has considerably reduced the possibilities of his own successful attainment of independence and peace. In order to placate his childishly effusive companion, George has invented a fantasy in which both of them operate their own farm and Lennie, in particular, is in charge of the rabbits. It is a vision which immediately quiets any of the good-natured giant’s anxieties, as well as bringing a comforting repose to the otherwise realistic and rather cynical George.
When the two friends arrive at the latest farmhouse, Lennie promises faithfully to obey his companion and be good. A somewhat skeptical George arranges jobs for both of them, and the fate of these two friends of the road is sealed. Curley, a sadistic paranoid, takes an immediate dislike to Lennie simple because of his strength. After a series of provocations, Lennie is driven to put Curley in his place. Unable to control his massive strength, the brutish innocent breaks the bones of Curley’s hand before his co-workers can pull him away from the unwitting victim. From this moment on, Curley plans full revenge.
The opportunity tragically presents itself in the guise of Curley’s own wife, a rather coarse but pathetically lonely creature who frequently attempts to attract advances from hired hands to relieve the tedium of her life on the ranch. Driven away from the bunkhouse in which the men have their quarters by her jealous husband, the young woman waits until all but Lennie have left the ranch, and then proceeds to engage him in conversation. So preoccupied with her own misery is the girl that she does not realize her companion’s potential danger. Enthusiastically recalling an opportunity she once had to appear in Hollywood films, she invites Lennie to feel the soft texture of her hair. At first reticent, the fellow is soon persuaded by the friendly insistence of the girl. Suddenly she is locked in his uncomprehending grasp; moments later, her dead body slumps to the floor of the bunkhouse.
When George and Candy, a down-on-his-luck worker who had expressed great interest in joining the friends in their dream farm, realize what has happened, Lennie is told to take refuge in a secret place George had once designated for some emergency. Taking Curley’s gun, George waits for the others to form a search party. Raging with jealous anger and despair, Curley makes it clear that, when found, Lennie will not be brought back alive. During the course of the chase, George manages to separate from the others. Finding his friend at the appointed meeting place, he suggests that Lennie watch out across the river and try to picture that farm they will one day share. As his burly friend complies, George raises the gun and fires into the back of Lennie’s head. When the others catch up to him, George explains that he had happened to stumble upon Lennie who was killed in a struggle for the gun which he tried to use against George.
There are a great many indigenously American elements in the plot and characterization that Steinbeck provides in Of Mice and Men. In the first place, the novel was written in 1937, a time during which the plight of the nation’s migrant workers was beginning to be a subject of concern among thinking Americans. It remained, of course, for Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, presented in 1939, to furnish a definitive portrait of this tragedy, but the saga of George and Lonnie takes as its basic material the frustrations and touching hopelessness that characterize the lives of all such unfortunate men and women.
It would seem, having established the background of the narrative, that the distinctive American flavor of the characters is worth commenting upon. Perhaps Steinbeck might be accused of an uncompromisingly cynical attitude, but, nevertheless, the novel underscores with poignant irony the characteristic belief in tomorrow that is, at one and the same time, the saving grace and the inherent weakness of American life or, more accurately, American life at that particular point in history.
The major figures in Steinbeck’s story are all driven by a compelling faith in the possibility of dreams coming true. George and Lennie are the protagonists and, in a certain sense, the author has them epitomize all the dreams of the others. George is the prototype of one who is torn by the need for a kind of solution to the painful enigma of life and by a realization, at the same time, that there is none that might ever be considered satisfactory. George is perfectly aware of the impossibility and total impracticality of the dream he has projected for Lennie; however, he is also keenly conscious of the fact that the fantasy keeps Lennie in a certain dubious contact with reality and, therefore, in a position where he is determined to prove his ability to work productively and keep out of trouble. Using the fantasy to this advantage, George is able to protect the hapless imbecile and see to it that he remains properly clothed and fed. There is, however, another consciousness of the part of Lennie’s loyal companion that should be noted, even emphasized. Although George clearly realizes how he uses the fantasy to keep Lennie in check, he is also rather painfully conscious of the fact that he cannot himself keep the fantasy in check. He, too, is moved by it to hope that someday soon his friend and he might find that safe harbor from the world that would exploit innocence and helplessness. When the equally cynical Candy hears of their dream, and cannot help but express his interest and desire to join them in the achieving of it by adding his own financial support, George finds it difficult to maintain a real hold on reality. His nature and his experience have taught him that life offers little; one wonders with him whether or not he dare hope nature and experience have deluded him; the novel’s conclusion indicates they, of course, have not.
George and Candy are similar victims of the twists which fortune manufactures for humankind; they suspect anything that looks good. Lennie and Curley’s wife represent a different view of reality. Both dream their impossible dreams and are unable to relate them to the realistic situation in which they are enveloped. Lennie does not know his own strength nor how to control it; Curley’s wife can only conceive of life as movie glamour and happy-ever-aftering; she’s too caught up in fantasy even to realize the threat Lennie poses to her unhappy life.
Steinbeck’s documentation of frustrated dreams, though utilizing a regional locale, offers a basic universality in the manner in which the reader is able to sympathize with the desires of those characters trapped within the confining strictures of the debasing lives they lead. George is a more approachable figure than the unforunate Lennie, but even the latter is appealing in his well-meaning innocence.
Of course, one might suppose that, despite Lennie’s death, George could very well decide to persevere in his dream, and take Candy on as his new partner. The relationship between George and Lennie, however, suggests this is not a probably event. The former is frequently out of patience with his relentlessly confused companion; he frequently complains that there is no reason to put up with such stupidity as Lennie’s. However, he does, for they are tied to each other for the whole of their journey on the road of life; they are tied to each other as body is tied to soul. When the body finally dies, a victim of the cruelties of daily and inexplicable reality, the soul is left to wander by itself. It is the feeling of this reader that it is for such a reason that George will remain alone.
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