80 years on, Steinbeck’s classic still packs a punch

Of Mice & Men
By John Steinbeck
First published 1937

This year marks the 80th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s great mythic novel of alienation under US capitalism, Of Mice and Men.

On Google Earth, you can see where the Salinas River “drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green”, a few miles “south of Soledad”, the novella’s opening lines.  Clearly, John Steinbeck knew this area intimately to be able to describe it so strikingly.

The story is of lonesome labourers, reeling from the Great Depression, wandering from farm to farm seeking respite from their endless oppression. Steinbeck’s power is to raise their seemingly petty, mouse-like misfortunes to the level of epic allegory.

It is at the place where the river of time bends and pools, south of Soledad (Spanish for “solitude”) that we meet George Milton and Lennie Small, on the run from a crime of Lennie’s and headed for a further round of alienating toil at yet another farm. 

At the conclusion, Steinbeck leaves the reader at the same place after another, terrible crime.

The farm where they find work is nameless and only vaguely situated, making it emblematic of all American workplaces.  Anonymity is one of Steinbeck’s techniques for elevating the story into the symbolic.

All the farm characters represent various types within US working culture.

There is the nameless boss whose relationship to the workers is summarised by his dress boots — indicating he does no real work. His son, Curley, is a petty thug who builds his self-image by beating up people weaker than himself. 

Curley’s nameless wife symbolises the limited life choices of US women of the time. Denied the right to enjoy her sexuality, she uses a loveless marriage to the rich man’s son to gain economic security. Her only avenue for empowerment is the ruse of flirting with the ranch hands in order to manipulate her stupid husband.

The other workers demonstrate the various levels of social hierarchy in the working class. Slim is the “prince of the ranch” because of his skill and ability to lead the other workers. Another worker, Carlson, demonstrates power by bullying the aged cleaner, Candy.

Candy’s looming fate summarises the future for all the workers. Nearing the end of his usefulness, he knows that soon the boss will put him “on the county” — turn him out to die alone in poverty. Candy’s faithful old dog is killed during the story by Carlson, symbolic of the value of life under capitalism.

At the bottom of the social heap is the man who lives next to the manure pile, the Black worker Crooks. In his living quarters, Crooks has a well-thumbed edition of a law text next to his bed. He is the best educated person on the farm, yet racism condemns him to the most precarious life.

At one point Curley’s wife, in one of the most savage parts of the text, turns on Crooks when he speaks to her as an equal.  She reminds him that with just a word she can have him strung up. As a white woman, she has the ability to falsely accuse him of sexual assault and have him lynched. 

Thus all the oppressed keep themselves divided, one against the other, trying to gain some scrap of self-worth by putting each other down. Yet George and Lennie have a secret that cuts through this fog of alienation and with just a few words inspire the spirit of the workers.

Their dream is to buy their own farm and, through sharing the labour, create a decent life for themselves. As Lennie naively blurts it out, the individual workers’ initial scepticism falls away as they dare to imagine themselves as part of it.

George and Lenny’s dream is a synonym for socialism and its power is subversive in the farm.

Lenny demonstrates something else, as well. Like the workhorse character Hercules in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (another allegory of power situated on a farm), Lennie contains within him the awesome power of the working class.

Only once does he demonstrate this, when George authorises him to defeat the bully Curley. Lennie crushes the fist of the oppressor in the palm of his hand.

However, Steinbeck chooses a tragic ending for the novella.

Returning to the river as symbol of the circle of life, Lennie dies, put down like Candy’s dog. Only George and the wise worker Slim know the truth of his death and the bystanders wonder why they seem to have suddenly bonded.

Steinbeck leaves us at this point, but a moot question remains. Will George and Slim, as the wisest of the workers, rekindle the dream and lead the workers away from “south of Soledad”, to freedom?

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