Freedom to Read: of mice, men and morality

I’ll have to refer to the climax of the story for this post, but since the book is 72 years old, I doubt it could be considered a spoiler.

I read John Steinbeck’s short novel, Of Mice and Men, this morning. It’s one of the titles from Canada’s Challenged book list.

The language in the book is what bothered a politician back in 2000. Terry Lewis

distributed 10,000 copies of a pamphlet arguing against the book, said that Steinbeck’s frequent use of “God,” “God-damned,” and “Jesus” in profane and blasphemous ways offended Christians and couldn’t possibly have any educational benefit.

Apparently the violence and murders didn’t bother him a bit.

Well, all right. What educational benefit could the language in the book have? For one thing, Steinbeck wrote it in 1937, smack dab in the middle of the “dirty thirties” when the economy took a nosedive and that so-called loving God let a drought last a decade, all of which ruined hundreds of thousands of lives and homesteads and futures.

I’m sure the men who were desperate for any sort of work, no matter how hard and menial, rarely had time to give the love of God much thought. They were too busy working for their fifty bucks a month, the amount George hopes to earn in this book. He’s been trying to save his wages so he and his companion, Lennie, can afford to buy some land of their own and keep what they reap and sow for themselves for a change.

Unfortunately, Lennie isn’t the sharpest pencil in the box. Hell, he’s a crayon, soft in the head and far too impressionable. George promised Lennie’s aunt that he’d take care of the big dumb lug but Lennie’s just built to be trouble. He’s far larger and stronger than everyone else and lacks the mental capacity to understand why his actions have the consequences they do. He just thinks in terms of whether or not George will be mad at him and stop him from keeping rabbits on this farm they hope to have someday. This dream of “livin’ off the fatta the lan'” sustains him throughout the book.

The story opens where it ends, on a small patch of beach by a pond, where Lennie and George rest up after a long ten mile hike on a hot day. Lennie’s innocent stupidity just lost them a job and George is angry about that and worried that Lennie will say something that’ll lose them the next one, too. But no, they get hired and meet the rest of the men employed at the ranch, plus the boss’s son (Curley) and his new wife (of no name that I noticed). Curley turns out to be one of those mean little shits who picks fights with anyone bigger than he is, which is everyone, and the wife tarts around the bunkhouse pretending to be looking for Curley when she’s really just looking for attention.

Lennie winds up crushing Curley’s hand when the inevitable encounter happens and the men who witness the “fight” tell Curley he’d better say he caught it in a machine if he knows what’s good for him. The wife confronts Lennie about it later, though, knowing full well he was the “machine” in question – as witless as a machine would be, yet still at fault.

Here I get to the real meat of the morality — near the end of the book, Lennie’s alone in the barn, looking at the puppy he accidentally killed, just like he accidentally killed every mouse he ever played with. He’s trying to figure out if this will have any impact on whether or not he’ll be allowed to own rabbits someday when the wife wanders in, dressed in a bright dress and wearing mules with ostrich feathers on them. She’s a real farm girl, this one. But, it turns out that the tramp is a lady with lost dreams of her own. She tells Lennie that she wanted to be “in the pitchers” but wound up married to Curley instead when the guy who promised to get her a movie deal never delivered. She doesn’t like Curley, but what choice did she have?

It’s building up to be a nice scene between the two of them, Lennie lost in the dreams of rabbit land, her in Hollywoodland. She asks him why in the hell he’s got this thing for rabbits and Lennie tells her that he likes soft things. Well, she says, my hair’s soft… so Lennie has to check that out. But, she’d rather he wasn’t messing up her hair and gets angry with him, which is something he doesn’t understand. They wind up in a tussle and she winds up with her neck broken, dead in the hay just like the puppy.

Lennie understands that a dead girl adds up to more than a dead puppy and bolts for the beach, just like George told him to do if he ever got in trouble. Candy, a hired hand, comes in looking for Lennie, sees the body and hurries out to find George. George gets what happened right away and tells Candy he’s going to the bunkhouse to hide out for a bit, lest the rest of the guys think he had something to do with it. And soon we discover that George took Carlson’s Luger so he’d have it when the search for Lennie got underway. George heads straight for the beach, has a quiet chat with Lennie about their dreams and the rabbits and then shoots him quick in the back of the head, putting him down like Carlson put down Slim’s old and useless dog.

It’s not a nice story by any stretch. It’s damned depressing, actually. It certainly hits the mood and life of the times, though. It was a hard time to be living in and, in a lot of ways, probably reflects the lives of a lot of people now – low on cash and low on options. Choices have to be made and sometimes they’re all bad ones.

One Response to Freedom to Read: of mice, men and morality

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