James Gault reviews Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Who needs another review of a masterpiece by one of the greatest American novelists of all time? Surely it’s all been said before, and anyone who feels he can add something new has to have a tendency to megalomania. Well, I confess. Guilty as charged, but here goes anyway.
Steinbeck’s other great works are in the main sprawling epics, like The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. The short novella that is ‘Of Mice and Men’ is exactly the opposites of these, and for me its brevity and tightness make it the perfect short novel. Maybe the discipline of adhering to the constraints that he imposed on himself meant that he was forced to reject the superfluous, the imperfect and the inconsequential. For whatever reason, the result is faultless.
The outstanding attribute of the book is how economic the author has been in its construction. There is as much of everything as there needs to be, but no more. The settings are restricted to the areas of the farm where the farmhands hang out: the bunkhouse, the barn and the little room reserved for Crooks, the old coloured hand. It’s a claustrophobic construction ideally suited to a stage play, but Steinbeck brilliantly opens it out by bracketing the action with an opening and closing scene in the same location: the bank of the river just outside the farm. It lends itself to film, and has spanned two successful movies, in 1939 and in 1992. There is also an economy of characters, where every character has a key role in the exposition of the drama and contributes something unique to the story. This economy stretches to plot incidents; each one has a key role to play in the story.
The book doesn’t stray off into diversions from the main plot. There are no sub-plots and no authorial asides on social and political issues. It’s straight to the point, and your attention never deviates from the story. Because the author holds so tightly to the story line, everything that happens is significant, and this aids his extensive use of foreshadowing to build the hooks that keep us reading. Right from the start, Steinbeck signals that a traumatic ending is in prospect. George tells Lennie to meet him back at the river if anything goes wrong, and we immediately realise something will. The author even leaves clues as to what the disaster might be, as he recounts the story of the dead mouse and the little girl from the last town. The death of Lennie’s puppy reinforces our fears. We’re being led forward to the dramatic denouement and we can be sure it involves loss of life.
Steinbeck also uses analogies to signal what is going to happen. When Candy’s dog is put down, it may seem like a diversion from the story, but when we reach the end of the book the parallels and comparisons with the main story become apparent.
Steinbeck’s work is characterised by his two key skills – poetic descriptions of the landscape and great dialogue. The descriptions of the countryside speak for themselves. The authentic working men’s dialogue which fills this book demonstrates great insight into the way these men think. The dialogue also catches perfectly the relationships between the characters, the general admiration for Slim, the scorn and dislike for Curley, and most of all Lennie’s childlike dependence on George.
This is a very masculine story. The only female character is Curley’s wife, and she may be the only possible flaw in a perfect piece. In some ways, she is caricatured rather than characterised, and appears to be no more than a plot prop, with the same status as the mouse, the dog and the puppy. But this would be a false criticism; this is not a book about her, and the author’s depiction of her is part of the economy and focus Steinbeck uses in telling this story.
Steinbeck was a political author, and his themes reflect the concerns of the great American liberal tradition. But he is not intrusively political; he makes his case by describing what goes on, leaving readers to make up their own minds. He depicts examples of misogyny, racism, the futility of the American dream, without making overt judgements. But the main theme of the book is how society deals with those no longer able to exist within it. Is the fate experienced by Curley’s dog and Lennie the only solution? It’s a question the author poses, but doesn’t answer.
This is a very old book (first published in 1937) and a very short one, but remains immensely popular. It is so full of ideas and emotions that its full worth cannot be appreciated in a single reading. Its measure of success is not just how many people have read it, but how often.