Of Mice and Men – published in 1937 by John Steinbeck – is only about 100 pages long, but I cried over nearly every one of them. I thought it was going to be a story about friendship and it is. The conclusion is that it’s no good to be alone, and yet no one can keep what and who they love. Everything inevitably, fatalistically, comes to naught: the dreams, the friendships, the brief hopes, the moments of human connection. But it’s a powerfully written book, simply told and yet bursting with feeling.
George and Lennie are friends traveling together during the Depression near Soledad, California. A short, savvy guy, George has known Lennie for years. Lennie is a giant of a man with a child’s mentality who doesn’t know his own strength. But he trusts George completely and likes to hear George tell him things, like how most guys are alone, without family, but it’s different for Lennie and George, because they will always have each other. George sometimes complains about having to look after Lennie – and Lennie does need a lot of looking after – but he knows he’d never leave him.
Their dream is to earn enough money so that they can buy a place of their own and grow alfalfa, raise rabbit and be their own boss. Lennie loves to hear George tell him about it, especially the part about the rabbits. They arrive at a ranch to buck wheat and meet Candy, an old guy who sweeps and cleans and has a very old dog he loves, but who is arthritic and blind. Slim is the sympathetic, kind skinner, the man who drives the mules. Curley is the boss’s son, a small guy who is good at boxing, likes to pick fights and is always jealous of his wife. Curley’s wife (she never gets a name) is flirtatious and generally seen by the ranch hands as a tramp. Crooks takes care of the horses and is the lone black man on the ranch.
Lennie and George are unique, because they travel together. and characters frequently remark on it. Most guys travel alone, but George says it’s no good to be alone because it makes men mean, something that elicits sympathetic understanding from nearly everyone. People need companionship, but no one seems to be able to keep those they love. Candy’s beloved dog is shot, supposedly out of mercy for his old age, Lennie likes to pet soft things, but accidentally kills both his puppy and the mice he occasionally finds. Curley is jealous of his wife, which alienates her. It’s all leading up to the ending, with the ultimate tragedy for George and Lennie.
The other theme is how all the guys want a “stake” of their own, a home that belongs to them and that they belong to. When Candy hears George telling Lennie about what their ranch will be like, he is infected with their hope and offers to go in with them on buying it, since he has some money saved. Crooks remarks that he’s seen a lot of guys dream and talk of a stake, but it’s never happened. Not even George and Lennie fully believe in the reality of their dream, but suddenly, with a group of people going in together, it seems possible.
Lennie and George’s friendship is contrasted with nearly every other’s characters’ lonely and alienated status. Candy is old and afraid of being considered useless someday, without friends or family and he is enthralled by George and Lennie’s dream of their own home. Another character is Crooks, who has an added disadvantage in that he’s black. He can play horseshoes outside with the guys, but when they go into their bunkhouse at night and play cards, he is not allowed and he has grown bitter over the years. But when Lennie walks into Crooks room in the stable – something no one ever did before – Crooks begins to see why George hangs out with Lennie. It’s simply being with a guy that is so important and there is something about Lennie that makes people tell him things, even though Lennie doesn’t understand what they are saying.
And while Lennie and Crooks are talking, Candy comes looking for him. All the other guys are at a brothel, except these three outcast misfits. Candy has never been in Crooks’ room before, but though he is initially uncomfortable, soon he and Crooks and Lennie are talking about their stake and Crooks begins to dream that maybe he could contribute some money and have a place with them. For me, this scene was the highlight of the book; three guys making a human connection, dreaming of a home of their own. But the happy dream is snapped when Curly’s wife shows up. Since all the other men are gone, including her husband, she flirts a bit, even though they are what she calls “the weak ones.” When they try to get her to leave, she pulls rank and says she could have Crooks lynched and when Candy says he would tell the truth, she points out that no one would take his word over hers. Crooks and Candy are reduced to their previous, powerless position and when George returns and tells Lennie he shouldn’t be in Crooks’ room, Crooks gives up his brief hope of going in with them on a ranch.
The irony is that even Curley’s wife is lonely and alienated, which is why she flirts. She’s the only woman on the ranch and she used to have her own dreams about going to show business or the movies.That same quality in Lennie that gets Crooks to tell him things he’s never told anyone also gets her talking, too: her broken dreams, why she married Curley, who she doesn’t like. It is a simple moment of human connection between her and Lennie and yet it causes the ultimate tragedy of the story.
I have’t read much Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t count because it was so long ago I do not remember it well – but I was deeply moved. It’s powerful, evocative writing with a devastating ending, all the more devastating for the power of the portrayal of George and Lennie’s friendship and the deep response in the other characters to them and their dream. It’s almost uplifting, but ultimately just makes the whole thing more devastating. The way the characters fatalistically accept their fate is heartbreaking, because their stoicism does not mitigate the pain and longing they feel inside.