Of Mice and Men: Steinbeck Centennial Edition by John Steinbeck (New York: Penguin Books, 2002; originally published in 1937. 320 pp)

Born in Salinas, California in 1902, John Steinbeck grew up in a fertile agricultural valley about twenty-five miles from the Pacific Coast. In 1919, he went to Stanford University, where he intermittently enrolled in literature and writing courses until he left in 1925 without taking a degree. During the next five years, he supported himself as a laborer and journalist in New York City. He published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. After a marriage and a move to Pacific Grove, California, Steinbeck continued writing novels. Popular success and financial security came with Tortilla Flat in 1935 and he became best known for his novels on the California laboring class with Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck spent the last decades of his life in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York with his third wife. Having won the Nobel Prize in 1962, he died in 1968.

A Sea of Misfortune

No matter the socio-economic status, people tend to swim in a sea of misfortune. The poorest, marginalized individuals seek the slightest amount of sustainability. Some may talk about winning the lottery or becoming famous, but many care mostly about securing a job or having a roof over a head.

For those fortunate enough to live in the middle class, ends remain hard to meet. The added income corresponds to higher expenses and everything balances out to the point where many live paycheck to paycheck.

And the rich. Well, they might not experience fiduciary stress, but life throws others daggers their way. Worry shifts to legacy. Are they raising their children in a way that encourages the progeny to contribute to society? Even more, there’s a constant assumption of goodwill. Friends, acquaintances, distant family—they all assume a small five-figure gift is of no consequence.

No matter the amount of privilege, people have an uncanny ability to focus on misery. Of course, many people on the lower ends of the socio-economic spectrum would rather face the trials and tribulations of the rich. But this isn’t a piece on the justice of income distribution. I merely raise this point to suggest a large percentage of humanity can find something about which to complain.

A Keen Ability for Hope

And as an inverse, humanity contains a keen ability for hope. It might be a yearning for the weekend during a particularly difficult week of work. It might be an eternal hope—that the pain and misfortune of the disinherited here on earth will be rectified in a glorious heavenly future.

George and Lennie

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men explores the joy and sorrow in great detail considering its short length. Set in the Salinas Valley, the novella follows two migrant workers, George and Lennie. George is wily and quick-witted, while Lennie resembles an ox in size, strength, and intelligence. The duo travels from farm to farm during the Great Depression, seeking employment in any way they can.

In fact, George and Lennie make a good team as George capably negotiates the work and Lennie possesses the strength to achieve the work. The one Achilles’ heel in the operation, however, is Lennie’s simple ways. He means no harm, but his strength can injure others easily if improperly applied. This issue becomes especially resonant when Lennie finds an animal to pet. He carries immense love in his heart for these tender animals, but signs of affection for Lennie mean death by crushing for the animal. Despite a strong loyalty, such actions frustrate George:

“Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an’ no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want” (10).

Even with the many hardships, the pair have a plan and the hope of that better day drives them daily.

“’George, how long’s it gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’—an’ rabbits?’
‘I don’t know,’ said George. ‘We gotta get a big stake together. I know a little place we can get cheap, but they ain’t givin’ it away’” (53).

No matter how much they dream, though, there’s always someone there to knock it down. It’s nice to think about living off the fat of the land. But in reality, George and Lennie are a pair of uneducated migrant workers who will always struggle to make ends meet.

“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hunderds [sic] of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head” (70).

A classic, Of Mice and Men fascinates me in its ability to develop deeply moving characters. The reader can’t help but love Lennie for his soft heart, despite the many mistakes he engenders because of it. The reader understands George and his frustrations about making life better for himself. He clearly has the brains to provide value to society, but his socio-economic status keeps him frozen on his specific rung of the ladder.

Peaks and Valleys

Of Mice and Men lives up to its acclaim as an integral piece of the American canon. It must be noted that it contains the kind of racial language we no longer use in our modern lexicon, but Steinbeck in no way paints such remarks as a positive way of life.

In the end, life has its peaks and valleys. We all have our misfortunes; we all have those glimmers of hope. Of Mice and Men creates a mélange of these feelings and brings it to a boil. Well worth a read if you missed it during grade school.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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