Reading Of Mice And Men in public drew some raised eyebrows from those around me; not because it’s anything like as controversial now as it has been in so many schools since it first became a noteworthy text, but simply because people were astonished that I hadn’t read it sooner! It’s a set text for so many younger high school kids, and somehow it was never taught in any class I was in. To be honest, I’m so glad that I wasn’t forced to read this in a classroom environment. John Steinbeck writes with a wonderfully dignified air of melancholy that perfectly compliments the characters and setting, and the gut-wrenching ending, to my mind, rivals any work of modern fiction. As I write this review, it’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, and yet George and Lennie’s relationship was so real to me that it still brings a small wave of emotion back each time I think about it.
Yes, George and Lennie – two characters whose relationship has become so iconic (not a word I use lightly) that I’m pretty sure simply saying the two names together conjures up images of rabbits and farms and friendship for anyone who’s read the book. Their relationship is defined by two things: codependency (ie George’s almost parental role to Lennie) and their shared dream of one day owning their own farm to work on. Lennie believes in this imagined utopia wholeheartedly, and his simple belief also manages to uplift the ever-weary George and sustain their commitment to their way of life. It doesn’t matter to George that the idea of them ever owning their own land and chickens and crops and rabbits is nigh-unfeasible: what matters is that they share the idea, and the shared vision binds them together in friendship.
Steinbeck then brilliant explores how this simple and wholesome friendship is affected by a bitter, tired world of downtrodden blue-collar workers – people who are so thoroughly disenchanted with the even the idea of the American Dream that they threaten to destroy George and Lennie’s sustaining hope by sheer pernicious cynicism. Curley is such an unabashed asshat that it’s fantastically fun to hate him; he is a true pantomime villain if ever there was one, and a fantastic foil for both the untampered innocence of Lennie and George’s world-weary optimism. Curley’s wife, however, is a far more interesting character. She is unnamed, downtrodden, and crying out for help as best she can in the situation she’s in. She is unaware of how dangerous a paradox she is: she feels powerless as the only woman in a world of men, but is totally unaware that this stems directly from the mere potential to influence men she holds as a woman. I would argue that she is actually the emotional core of the book – not only the catalyst for the book’s spellbinding ending, but the most poignant encapsulation of a widespread disillusionment, a loneliness, a dysphoria that everyone in the book experiences, struggles to pin down, and that she best articulates.
Now that my university reading list has arrived, this might be the last work of American fiction I read for some time, but I hope it isn’t – with such a stunning novella, Steinbeck finds himself on a rarified list of authors whose work I will now eagerly anticipate. It’s always gratifying to find that a widely beloved book lives up to its own hype – and “Of Mice And Men” is good enough to earn that distinction.