Thursday, March 13, 2008
Man’s predatory nature. Fraternity. Impossible American Dream. Imbalanced social power structures. All these themes are central to John Steinbeck’s acclaimed tragic novel, Of Mice and Men (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). The Story about Lennie and George friendship provides insights in life regarding the natural law of the strong disposing of the weak, the sense of belonging in brotherhood, the unrealistic fulfillment of a utopian world, and the tendencies of the oppression made by a weakling against a weaker fellow.
The time setting of the story is in the 1930’s, a period when idealism is so strong that people aspire for an ideal state of life even as its attainment becomes highly improbable for them who live, on the average, a hand-to-mouth existence. Meanwhile, the space setting is in south of Soledad, California where the hardy lives of laborers like Lennie and George make the friends hope for better living in a kinder world where they work not for other people and they live for their best interest—an ideal place opposite the difficult vegetable fields.
The novel’s characters have all sensed loneliness and isolation at one point in their lives; hence, they feel the need for companionship. Lennie is physically strong, but his potential goes unrealized that he becomes a helpless creature in the midst of overpowering events. This innocence of Lennie’s flat character brings him doom because he is rendered defenseless in the face of unavoidable dangers posed by Curley and his wife and the world in general. On the other hand, the loving and dedicated George once took advantage of the weak by abusing his friend Lennie, but which he realized was wrong. He soon discovers that the world is destined to harm the weak, so he ultimately relinquishes his hope for an ideal world when his and George’s present world proves unkind to fraternity aspirants like them. Candy meanwhile is an aging farm handyman who fears the coming of his uselessness so he futilely dreams of becoming part of the ideal place—a one-acre farm where the men can grow and produce vegetables and livestock—Lennie and George aspires for. Curley’s wife is a martially dissatisfied temptress whose rather impossible hope of turning into a movie star gives her a human quality and whose vulnerability drives her to look for larger vulnerabilities in others like Lennie’s intellectual deficiency, Candy’s old age and Crook’s dark skin tone in order to safeguard herself from real life’s harshness. Lastly, Crooks is a Negro stablehand who is extremely lonely that he desires too of having a place in the ideal farm that Lennie and George want to own primarily to cure his loneliness through company.
The story is told chronologically by a third-person omniscient narrator. The protagonists are Lennie and George while the antagonists, Curley, the society, and the human existence’ predatory nature. The story begins when Lennie and George arrives at a farmhouse to have themselves hired as laborers and to escape a manhunt on Lennie, whose weird liking for soft objects gets him accused of rape of a satin-dressed woman. Hoping that someday, the duo may have a farm of their own where they do not really have to engage in hard work, they get to meet the people in the farm and become aware that there are ill-motivated persons as there are good-natured ones whom they can let join them in their dreamland. The conflict is reached when Lennie accidentally slays Curley’s wife at the barn, after which the falling action follows: Lennie runs away from the killing scene, the men discover Curley’s wife lifeless, Curley commissions a mob to hunt and kill Lennie, and George find Lennie in the clearing and, while recounting their farm dream, guns him down in the back of the head. The novel’s tones are sentimental, tragic, hellbound, predetermined, rural, sermonizing and comic.
As mentioned initially, there are four universal concerns present in the novel, namely man’s predatory nature, fraternity, impossible American Dream and imbalanced social power structures. Man’s predatory nature is prevalent throughout the novel, wherein almost all the characters have felt loneliness and isolation, which makes them helpless but, despite their weakest state, they plot to annihilate people weaker than they are. Also, brotherhood prevails in the novel by virtue of the belongingness need characteristic of human nature, which need draws the men together in such a manner that they act brothers to each other, bearing in mind the friend’s best interest, protection and concern. Similarly, the novel looms with the impossibility of the American Dream, that the wish for unceasing happiness and freedom to do one’s will shall remain elusive and unfulfilled. Lastly, the damaging imbalance of social power structures wherein oppression is not only in the hands of the mighty or the influential but also in those of the weak towards the weaker can be seen in Of Mice and Men. Holistically, the novel presents the values of the inequality among men (therefore, the uniqueness), the aspiration of what is attainable only, and the sense of oneness with a fellow human being.
In the current world where everything is fast-paced and made artificial, it is somewhat difficult to find a room where fundamental human needs like dreaming for relatively “better” life and keeping a true friendship can be satisfied. Although in Of Mice and Men, the tragic ending of Lennie leaves his American Dream unattained and his fraternity with George interrupted for good, the ever-kindling human desire for betterment lives on, prompting the renewed faith in persisting until the dream is made true and real friendship asserts amidst impermanence and disenchantment. Of Mice and Men is an enchanting read for those who fight incessantly and are determined to win at their own expense and pursuit.
The world is thought of to be cruel to existing creatures dwelling on it, so unkind that one tends to deem life as purposeless, what with the unfulfilled justice, dream, friendship and equality. Seen in a brighter perspective, the world just acts as instrument of destiny by hurling challenges such as predation of the weak, impossible dream, unappreciated friendship and social power imbalance so that these challenges, when overwhelmed, will make these creatures stronger and wiser. Regardless of this world’s cruelty and gift of disillusionment, the creatures remain hopeful and unfazed until they get some sense of achievement.
If things are only learned to be assessed in proper perspective, everything is beautiful and is deserving of hoped-for betterment, despite life’s disenchantment and injustice, even the world of mice and men.