John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men

Lennie is the character I’ve heard the most about, probably because he’s the most memorable: the seeds of his eventual downfall are expertly planted in his first appearance—he’s helplessly easy to scare and far too strong to handle the soft things he loves to touch more than anything:

“You crazy fool.  Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went acrost the river to get it?”  He heard Lennie’ wimpering cry and wheeled about.  “Blubberin’ like a baby!  A big guy like you.    (10)

Lady, huh?  Don’t you even remember who that lady was.  That was your own Aunt Clara.  An’ she stopped given’ ’em (mice) to ya.  You always killed ’em.   (11)

But I’m far more interested in George’s character.  He’s the center of the novel: all of Lennie’s actions revolve around him and all the things he says or does in one way or another.  Even though Lennie commits the accidental murder that climaxes the novel, it’s due to George’s warnings that he gets scared enough to panic and cause the death.  George even motivates Lennie’s fantasies with his stories about the farm they’re going to buy—though it starts as a pleasant fantasy about Lennie being able to care for rabbits, Georgie himself starts to believe it as more than the mere carrot he uses to keep Lennie going.

I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.  He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.    (92)

Why exactly George stays with Lennie isn’t really explained; undoubtedly he doesn’t really know himself.  The version he tells Slim when Lennie’s petting the pup Slim gives to him on George’s request certainly reflects some uncertainty in George’s reasoning:

Him and me was both born in Auburn.  I knowed his Aunt Clara.  She took him when he was a baby and raised him up.  When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie just come along with me out workin’.  Got kinda used to each other after a while.    (39)

There are two implicit reasons that George takes Lennie around with him: one is that George is just a good person—Steinbeck’s foil for Curley and most of the other ranchers.  Even when George gets frustrated with all that he does for Lennie, all that he gives up for Lennie’s sake, George quickly regains his composure and recognizes that Lennie can’t help it:

“I wisht I could put you in a cage with about a million mice an’ let you have fun.”  His anger left him suddenly.  He looked across the fire at Lennie’s anguished face, and then he looked ashamedly at the flames.    (13)

It’s appropriate that George should walk off at the end of the novel with Slim: they’re basically in the same position, and Slim clearly recongizes and respects the things George has done for Lennie.  We can see this the first time that we see Slim: he remarks that Lennie is a great worker and George agrees, waxing effusive about Lennie’s strength and will to work, and “Slimm looked approvingly at George for having given the compliment” (34).  Both George and Slim look out for those around them less capable of looking out for themselves and those who are less-empowered than they; it’s only that George has a permanent resident in his life, while Slim doesn’t (at least not during the novel’s plot).  This sort of relationship is foreign to the other ranchers: Carlson remarks as they walk off at the end, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” (105); and Curley makes the only implication with the slightest bit of queer imagery in an effort to understand George’s relationship with Lennie:

“We travel together,” said George coldly.
“Oh, so it’s that way.”
George was tense and motionless.  “Yeah, it’s that way.”    (26)

The other explanation—a bit less heartwarming—is that for George and Lennie, having the other nearby brings a sense of comfort from normalcy in a harsh world.  As Slim says, “Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other,” (34).  This is reflected in the idiom that George has evidently come up with to comfort first Lennie and then probably himself:

“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. … They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.”
Lennie was delighted.  “That’s it—that’s it.  Now tell how it is with us.”
George went on.  “With us it ain’t like that.  We got a future.  We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us.…”
Lennie broke in.  “But not us!  An’ why?  Because … because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”  He laughed delightfully.    (15)

This is paraphrasically repeated far more tragically at the end of the novel, as George prepares to shoot Lennie so he is not made to suffer.  George does indeed come through with his promise: he ensures that Lennie is not made to suffer at the hands of cruel people who don’t care for him when his situation is far too hopeless even for George to help.  Lenny has George looking out for him even as he pulls the trigger to kill him.

Even with a kindred spirit like Slim by his side, this interpretation of the reason for Lennie and George’s continued friendship doesn’t bode well for George, deprived of the other half of his looking-after partnership.  This thought has to be going through his head as they walk away.

The character Crooks, for the relatively small appearance he makes in the novel, leaves a very strong impression.  Even his name is significant to his character: as the only black man on the ranch he would undoubtedly have been typecast as something of a crook or criminal, and he is also afflicted with a crooked spine.

Crooks separates himself from the others on the ranch, due to his race and deformity: “He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs,” (66).  He also enjoys the carrion comfort of being something of an underclass of one even below the drifting working men, denying compliments about his comparatively private and permanent living accommodations:

“Must be nice to have a room all to yourself this way.”
“Sure,” said Crooks.  “And a manure pile right under the window.  Sure, it’s swell.”    (73)

When Lennie comes to join him, oblivious (or seeming to be) about Crooks differences, Crooks lets him in—literally and figuratively—nothing first the difference between himself and someone like George and then musing on what Lennie’s fate would be George were not around to look out for him:

This is just a nigger talkin’ and a busted-back nigger.  So it don’t mean nothing, see?  You couldn’t remember it anyways.  I seen it over an’ over—a guy talkin’ to another guy and it don’t make not difference if he don’t hear or understand.  The thing is, they’re talkin’, or they’re settin’ still not talkin’.  It don’t make no difference, no difference. … George can tell you screwy things, and it don’t matter.  It’s just the talking.  It’s just bein’ with another guy.  That’s all.    (69)

Want me ta tell ya what’ll happen?  They’ll take ya to the booby hatch.  They’ll tie ya up with a collar, like a dog.    (70)

The implication after these few pages of musing is that Crooks is not much different from Lennie.  And when his fellow cripple Candy shows up, he derives even more satisfaction from the company: “It was difficult for Crooks to conceal his pleasure with anger,” (72).

It gets to the point that, when Candy has convinced Crooks that he, George, and Lennie are serious about buying their own farm, that Crooks feels enough of an equal to ask to join them: “If you… guys would want a hand to work for nothing—just his keep, why I’d come an’ lend a hand.  I ain’t so crippled I can’t work like a son-of-a-bitch if I want to,” (75).  To his credit, Candy isn’t obviously opposed to the idea.

When Curley’s wife come in, though, the power dynamic shifts.  No loner are they three powerless workers discussing how they will empower themselves; now they are joined by a white woman with a somewhat powerful husband.  She puts down each of the men in turn, with her belittling of Crooks by far the most savage:

“Listen Nigger,” she said.  “You know what I could do to you if you open your trap?”
Crooks stared hopelessly at her, and then he sat down on his bunk and drew into himself.
She closed on him.  “You know what I could do?”
Crooks seemed to grow smaller, and he pressed himself against the wall.  “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well you keep your place then, Nigger.  I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”
Crooks had reduced himself to nothing.  There was no personality, no ego—nothing to arouse either like or dislike.  He said, “Yes, ma’am,” and his voice was toneless.    (78-79)

Reminded of just how low in society he is, Crooks effaces himself and, reminded that he is below even Candy and Lennie, he attempts to save some face by backing out of their plan with the farm.  “I didn’ mean it.  Jus’ foolin’.  I wouldn’ want to go to no place like that,” (81).  He even blames them for getting his hopes up and teasing him with equality: “You guys comin’ in an’ settin’ made me forget.  What she says is true,” (80).

(Note too that once he has been reminded of his place, he drops his Gs and Ts—e.g., “coming” becomes “comin'”—with a greater frequency than when he was talking to Lennie and Candy.)

The two most poignant images I would feel remiss not to mention are those of quite and silence and Calrson’s Luger pistol.

Quiet is mentioned at the very beginning and end of the novel, to describe nature before George and Lennie walk into frame at the beginning and before Lennie enters at the end.  It also makes very noticeable appearances at two key moments: when Carlson has gone off to shoot Candy’s old dog:

It was silent outside.  Carlson’s footsteps died away.  The silence came into the room.  And the silence lasted.    (48)

and just after Lennie leaves Curley’s wife’s body lying buried in the hay in the barn:

It was very quiet in the barn, and the quiet of the afternoon was on the ranch.  Even the clang of the pitched shoes, even the voices of the men in the game seemed to grow more quiet.  The air in the barn was dusky in advance of the outside day.    (89-90)

There are numerous similarities between these two passages, especially how they both slow down the narrative.  The reason is clear: terrible events have been set in motion and we already know the unavoidable conclusion.  All that’s left in between is the silence.

The Luger is used for two different mercy killings: Candy’s dog by Carlson and Lennie by Georgie.  In the confusion before the men leave to find Lennie, the pistol is mentioned and the reader is reminded of its original use, foreshadowing what will eventually happen.

This is just one of several examples of one thing leading to another in a logical if disturbing fashion.  I can think of no better use of foreshadowing in anything I’ve read than in Of Mice and Men.

Also of note:

  • Mice from the title: “It’s only a mouse, George.” (7)
  • “George rolled on his side.  ‘No reason [to hurry to the ranch] at all for you.  I like it here.  Tomorra we’re gonna go to work.  I seen thrashin’ machines on the way down.  That means we’ll be bucking grain bags, bustin’ a gut.  Tonight I’m gonna lay right here and look up.  I like it.” (9)
  • BTJ: “And these shelves were loaded with little articles, soap and talcum powder, razors and those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe.” (18)
  • “Never did seem right to me.  S’pose Curley jumps a big guy an licks him.  Ever’body says what a game guy like Curley is.  And s’pose he does the same thing and gets licked.  Then ever’body says the big guy oughtta pick somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy.” (27)
  • “ ‘Funny thing,’ she said.  ‘If I catch any one man, and he’s alone, I get along fine with him.  But just let two of the guys get together an’ you won’t talk.  Jus’ nothing but mad.’  She dropped her fingers and put her hands on her hips.  ‘You’re all scared of each other, that’s what.  Ever’ one of you’s scared the rest is goin’ to get something on you.’ ” (75)
  • “’Nother time I met a guy, an’ he was in pitchers.  Went out to eh Riverside Dance Palace with him.  He says he was gonna put me in the movies.  Said I was a natural.  Soon’s he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write me about it.” (86)
  • “As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment.  And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” (90)
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