Am I the only person in the world who didn’t have to read Of Mice And Men in high-school? It’s a staple of English lit classrooms, despite repeated and sustained attempts to have it banned or censored. Having finally got around to reading it for myself as a grown-up, I have to say, this might be the first time I’ve ever thought that people wanting to keep a book out of the classroom might have a point. Not because of “vulgarity” or “obscenity” or whatever bullshit they’ve come up with this year, but because this book is messed up.
On the off-chance that there’s someone else out there who skipped the rite of passage that is reading Of Mice And Men as a teenager, let me break it down for you. This 1937 novella by John Steinbeck follows George and Lennie, two drifters with big dreams but only their hands to work with. They move from farm to farm in California, during the Great Depression, hoping to get enough cash together to buy a little plot of land for themselves.
My edition includes an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw (Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University). I read it before I read the story, of course, and it gave some good context. It was part of an unofficial trilogy of Steinbeck novels (the others being In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes Of Wrath) that focus on the Californian labouring class. He based Of Mice And Men (originally titled ‘Something That Happened’, which I reckon would’ve been better) off his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers in the 1910s. Apparently, Lennie was based on a real person Steinbeck had worked with during that period.
Before I describe the plot, I want to offer a few trigger warnings (I wasn’t kidding when I said this book was messed up – like, seriously, I might never get over it). You might be expecting the standard violence, racism (including racist language), and ableism (including ableist language) that was all too common in that period, but what you might not be prepared for is the constant and pervasive animal cruelty and death! Dogs and puppies – oh, my heart. Their deaths were discussed with such cavalier abandon, I had to cuddle with Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for an hour after I’d read it.
Alright, with that out of the way: Of Mice And Men begins with George and Lennie camping by a body of water, en route to a new farm job. George is street-smart but bitter, and Lennie is physically strong but lives with a non-specific intellectual disability. George feels obliged to keep Lennie out of trouble, and he doesn’t always succeed. They both hope that this new job will earn them enough money to realise their long-held dream of purchasing land of their own.
When they arrive at the farm, the vibes are immediately off. The Boss’s son, Curley, is an arsehole with a Napoleon complex, and he sees a big ol’ target on Lennie’s head. His wife (a ‘tart’, can you believe it) has the audacity to flirt with the farmhands for lack of anyone else to talk to, and Curley doesn’t like that one bit.
They befriend an elderly ranch hand, Candy, who is eager to leave the farm after one of the other workers euthanises his elderly dog against his wishes (*sobs*). Candy offers George and Lennie $350 towards their purchase of land on the condition that he join them and help where he can.
It all goes to shit when Lennie accidentally kills a puppy (*sobbing grows violent*), and then double-accidentally kills Curley’s wife. He does a runner, as he and George had earlier planned an escape route in the event of such trouble. George catches up with him – and, uh, shoots him in the back of the head? And everyone else is like “oh, good, the big stupid murdery guy is dead, let’s go get drinks” and no one can figure out why George is a bit conflicted about the situation. The end.
I told you! Of Mice And Men is messed up. M.E.S.S.E.D. U.P!
It’s a short novel, but it’s brutal and terribly sad. It’s masterfully written – no notes on that front! – but it’s far from an enjoyable read. Devastating. Nightmare fuel. I am exceedingly glad I was not compelled to read it as an angsty adolescent, as I’m quite confident I never would have recovered.
If I set my personal feelings aside for a second, I can see that Of Mice And Men has the same timeless qualities and themes as The Grapes Of Wrath: class struggle, bonds, sacrifice, race, gender, loneliness. One of the characters sums it up well when he says: “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”
Steinbeck inverts our expectations by putting Lennie, the character who should be the most powerful in that context (with his strength and size, in a physically demanding job), in a position of powerlessness due to his intellectual disability, compounded by his socioeconomic position. And again, as with the Joads in The Grapes Of Wrath, there is no happy ending to be found, no neat resolution to the position in which Lennie finds himself due to structural oppression.
Plus, the brevity of Of Mice And Men (at 30,000 words) lends it to dramatic adaptation and performance. This was very much by design, according to Steinbeck. He wrote in 1936: “The work I am doing now is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel. Written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” As such, it’s been adapted to multiple formats across the decades, mostly to critical praise.
What fucks me up, though, is that Steinbeck clearly thought he was capturing something essential (maybe even hopeful) about humanity in Of Mice And Men. I’m not sure he realised how truly depressing his story was.
In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.John Steinbeck (Journal Entry, 1938)
I mean, that’s a beautiful and resonant sentiment – but Of Mice And Men got me closer to understanding nothing but a bottle of wine and a trashy rom-com to try to cleanse my mind of it. Really, that’s my reaction to Steinbeck’s writing on the whole, and it makes it very difficult to give a pithy summary or a star rating: five stars for mastery of the craft, negative five stars for enjoyment.
Anyway, I’m determined to end this review on a happier note. My favourite fun fact about Of Mice And Men is that an early draft was literally eaten by Steinbeck’s dog. As he explained, in a letter in 1936: “My setter pup [Toby], left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months [sic] work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”
Dogs are awesome. Steinbeck was twisted. End of book report.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Of Mice And Men:
- “Don’t read. Waste of time. Only Boring old English teachers read this garbage” – SHOPPER
- “Really don’t see why a children’s book needs swear words. What the heck!! This book is not meant for young kids. The word “bitch” is not appropriate for any kid book” – Lucy
- “Of Mice and Men is just a major downer with no redeeming qualities.” – SDH
- “because five pretentious critics gave these books great reviews back in the 50’s, we’re now forced to read them even today. For the actual book, it has one of the stupidest endings i’ve ever read in a novel, the characters are uninteresting, and this should not even be at a garage sale for a quarter, let alone an ‘american classic’. of mice and men gets 1 dead friend out of 5” – Raditz
- “This was the first book I ever felt like ripping to shreds and unless you yourself are depressed or wish to become so, DO NOT READ A STEINBACK NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE TELLS YOU!” – not so great expectations