Of Mice and Men: Steinbeck Introduces Readers to the Unfamiliar

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California in 1902. Like his literary contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck concentrated on writing about the familiar settings, characters, and complex situations that he had experienced in his life and work. After he attended s classes for several years at Stanford University, he worked as a construction worker, a freelance journalist, and a migrant farm worker. Although he published several early interesting, but scarcely noticed works, his 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat, was his first book that received widespread success. That book was set in the familiar context, for Steinbeck, of Monterrey, California. The story,which is about several friends who are attempting to adjust to the demands of post-war living, is both humorous and very insightful. The success of that book, along with strong financial support of his first wife, Carol, allowed Steinbeck time to carefully craft the prose and dialogue of his most familiar and popular book, Of Mice and Men (1937).

I now understand that I was one of the legions of twentieth-century readers who scanned through the book in high-school, college, or because it persisted on best-seller lists, but scarcely understood some of the finer writing techniques that the author employed. Because participants of my First Friday’s Classic Book Club, in Midlothian Virginia, asked me to lead discussions of books by Steinbeck, I chose the popular, Of Mice and Men, as one of  the embarkation points for our studies. Previously, we had discussed one of his last books, Travels with Charley (1961). See my January 8, 2017. Litchatte.com discussion.

The Introduction of the book on my Amazon Kindle Reader by Susan Shillinglaw, noted that Mice and Men was one of several books that Steinbeck wrote to present an inside account of the 350,000 mostly migrant workers who came to California from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in the 1930’s looking for temporary work because of the severe drought and dust bowl conditions. She notes that these migrants were proud men who “moved up and down the California coast looking for different crops to ripen.” California needed many workers from outside the state to farm the crops to provide for a large segment of America’s food needs. Although these jobs brought relief to many of the migrants, there was not enough work to bring relief to the workers who moved quickly from place to place owning little more than the bundles on their backs. The migrants forced the state to struggle with widespread poverty, homelessness, health and mental issues. These workers, who Steinbeck also characterized in his later masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), were mostly powerless and oppressed. However, they still attempted to buy into concept of The American Dream, i.e., of owning permanent homes, establishing roots, and becoming financially independent. These two books, perhaps as well as any others books written about this period, describe the struggles that those characters met in trying to reach the “Dream.”

What Steinbeck achieves so successfully in Mice and Men that we hardly notice it, is to introduce the mostly white male characters trying to adjust to the unfamiliar settings of the migrant camps. Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, calls the literary technique, defamiliarization, where the author introduces familiar characters into unfamiliar settings, or provides familiar settings with unfamiliar characters.  Today, if we would read about Mexicans working in California’s migrant farm camps, those characters and settings would seem more familiar. However, in Steinbeck’s migrant books, we might hardly notice that they those people do not normally exist in those situations unless we stop to consider the idea. Another technique that Steinbeck uses in his migrant books is to focus mostly on the characters, situations, and settings, without emphasizing the historical or political implications of the migrant movement in the twentieth century. Also, Steinbeck does not give social commentaries or offer moral judgments about what happens to the characters in Mice and Men. Instead, he presents their stories like he was observing and telling us about them. Thus, he leaves it to school students and participants in book clubs to draw their own conclusions about their actions.

Unique to Steinbeck,  he wrote Mice and Men to work both as a short novel and a play. The play was performed many times in major theaters as well as in countless school productions. It was also the subject of two major film productions: in 1939, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.; and in 1992 with John Malkovitch and Gary Sinise.

In the opening pages, and in various other transitional sections of the book, Steinbeck serves as the narrator, allowing the reader to envision specific stage settings and re-arrangements of the props before he introduces new scenes. Consider how the opening section of Mice and Men introduce us to both the setting and the characters in the book or play: “There is a path through the willows among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who came wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of a low the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.” As if on a stage-cue, Steinbeck quickly introduces us to the iconic characters Lennie, a socially, emotionally, and intellectually retarded person and his travelling partner, George, who has assumed the job of trying to protect Lennie from a cruel and unpredictable world. It is unfamiliar for the reader to think of a character like Lennie travelling with anyone in an itinerant society, let alone in trying to adjust to the nuanced situations of the migrant camps. However, Steinbeck was familiar with a character much like Lennie and makes him very believable and compelling. It was also unfamiliar, and perhaps unsettling in the 1930’s, to see characters travelling to the camps in pairs and having loyalties to each other. The question of why these two men were traveling together was also asked by other characters. Among the central questions of the book are whether George really wanted to be the caretaker of Lennie; how dedicated George was to the American Dream, and whether his shocking actions to resolve Lennie’s most serious dilemma was the best one, or even the only one available. Without moralizing, Steinbeck simply has two unsympathetic characters of the story end the story when they ask each other, “What…do you suppose is eating those two guys.” In case you  haven’t read this marvelously written book yet, I am not going to spoil the ending or explain it in further detail. However, I can say that readers in my First Fridays Classic Book Club, even those who had read the book or seen the play or movie several times, sat quietly after we read the last pages-and were speechless!

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature at Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult  daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER,Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Monthly Book Club , and is co-founder and organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU English Alumni, Working Titles Book Club, which will begin in February 2017 with a discussion, led by Murray, of Ann Hood’s, The Book That Matters Most.

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