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Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

July 8, 2012

And here, I spit on one of the most beloved classics in American Literature. I read this book a few months ago and wrote a review on the back of some kid’s assignment I plucked out of a recycling bin. (Substitute teaching is quite glam, remember.) I got insanely busy between jobs and never came here to publish the review. I figure now is a great time, that way I can stick this book in the Free box sitting in our driveway. (But will it go as fast as the Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Burger King crowns?)

Of Mice and Men starts in Depression-era California. Steinbeck sets quite a scene: desperation, heat, and frustation surround and swallow our main characters. You can’t help but love Lennie and George. Lennie, the huge oaf, who can crush another man’s fist in his paw without even trying. George, who takes his unofficial ward with him to every job. George is a fast talker and a big dreamer, but for some reason he remains committed to keeping Lennie around. You pity Lennie as you might those people you know with developmental disabilities: does he realize how different he is, and how hard he has it? So you thank George for giving him a semblance of a normal life. They travel the California country doing odd jobs. Moving from place to place, for $50 a month, they labor for a bit before Lennie inadvertently gets them in trouble, forcing them to flee to another ranch.

When we become acquainted with them, they are getting hired onto a ranch that seems to be a good prospect: decent owner, decent cabinmates, and a co-worker Candy who has some money saved. The three of them plan to head out and buy some land after a month’s wages are saved. George is the brains, Lennie’s the brawn, and the one-handed Candy is capable of menial tasks such as sweeping. It’s the idea of having their own space—and of having rabbits, for Lennie. That’s all he really wants, are some small cuddly creatures to love. He just loves to pet soft things. (Often to a disasterous degree, sadly.)

The love story between George and Lennie is something to applaud; it seems to be a realistic look at what it’s like to look after, and be frustrated with, a developmentally-disabled adult. And by “love,” I don’t mean romance; the two men are like brothers, although they aren’t. George resents Lennie at times, but he also brings him into his big dreams.

However, I have some issues with  this book that make it hard for me to recommend as relevant. In 1935 when it was written, it may have been commonplace to call every black guy the n-word for no reason. Every woman who wore makeup was a tart. Developmentally disabled folk all had massive amounts of retard strength*. If it were written and published today, we’d trash it for being rife with caricature. The fact that it has beautiful imagery, a few realistic [male] characters, and a sweet core doesn’t make this a must-read.

Don’t get me started on female characters. (Is it a Steinbeck thing? When I read East of Eden that was my biggest issue. His women’s personalities are paper-thin. His creation Cathy/Kate couldn’t reach evil greatness because her sons were her weakness. C’mon. If you’re going to write an evil bitch, give us a break and make her evil through-and-through, not subject to maternal Kryptonite.) Anyway, Of Mice and Men contains two female characters: Aunt Clara and Curley’s wife. We don’t see much of the former, and the latter, you get the feeling she got all she had coming to her because she wore makeup and was a flirt. I suppose my 1955 printing of the book followed that thought, as the cover states it’s a “strong, beautiful novel of the love between two lonely men, and the wanton girl who destroyed them both.” If you read it, you’ll say, “Curley’s wife, the wanton girl, is really responsible for all this carnage? Even her own death, merely for wearing makeup and talking suggestively behind her jackass-of-a-husband’s back? Give me a break.”

Maybe recent pressings let that description go. But I can’t. The novel is so bent on blaming female sexuality for every problem that I can’t take it seriously, classic or not. Some people read classics and defend them with, “Well, that’s just how it was at the time,” to which I have to answer, “but not every woman in classic literature is written like that. Why did this author take such an easy way out? Frakking Shakespeare didn’t write his female characters like that.” Then I doff my English-major hat and come back down to reality, and remember it doesn’t matter. It’s just a book, KK.

Recommend: Not as a course of study. It’s a quick read with some tear-jerking scenes, but I can’t get over how vivid the main characters are at the expense of women and racial minorities. I would recommend one read it to fulfill canonical requirements, though.

KK

*the idea perpetrated by many that developmentally disabled persons make up for brawn what they lack in intelligence. Google it if you haven’t heard of this, and you’ll be shocked/ashamed at how people subscribe to this idea and then denigrate others. There may be some truth to it, but that’s more likely related to impulse control or something. I can’t say I’ve studied it, nor am I a medical doctor. However, there is a hilarious Strangers With Candy episode that addresses it. That show, guys.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 8:15 am

    Steinbeck has let me down before an this was no exception! I agree with you! How much makeup does a woman have to wear to warrant a death and decades of blame?

    • July 9, 2012 8:18 am

      We certainly wear more than enough, according to his standards.

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