Tuesday, 1 February 2011

[014] Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

In this parable of commitment, loneliness, hope and loss John Steinbeck has created a powerful and moving portrayal of two men striving to understand their own unique place in the world. Clinging to each other in their loneliness and alienation, George and his simple-minded friend Lennie dream, as drifters will, of a place to call their own. Eventually they find work on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. Yet their hopes are doomed as Lennie, struggling against extreme cruelty, misunderstand and feelings of jealousy, becomes a victim of his own strength.

Why I Picked It Up:

Another in the series of 'classics I have yet to actually read.'

What I Think: 

Of Mice and Men is another one of those books that, even if you've never read it, it's enough in society's consciousness that you basically know what happens anyway. Man and his friend who is rather simple travel the West in search of employment during the 1930s. Despite their strong friendship, there is a tragic event and George has to make a tough choice. You either read it in high school or your best friend did and complained about it to you (I was the latter). 

To be honest, after I finished the last page of the book, I set it back into my purse and blinked. All I could think was "....this is it? This is the quintessential high school novel? No wonder my class skipped it." 

Now, I'm not trying to make an overall judgment on Steinbeck with this. No one is saying that the overall plot is flawed. The main theme of the book, of a man having to make the ultimate decision in perhaps one of the hardest eras of American history, is very tragic and rings true when you read the ending. The last ten or so pages are very powerful. However, the way the book meanders to get there, how incredibly short it is and just it's overall composition left me completely underwhelmed.

This may, in fact, be partly my fault. I admit that I am extremely prejudiced against "American classic fiction". I know this is vaguely blasphemous as I am American myself but I cannot think of a single American novel regarded as a "classic" that I have ever enjoyed. I don't even like our original poets (don't even get me started on Whitman) but then again, I'm not a big poetry person. 

Of Mice and Men, unfortunately, fulfills every stereotype I have of a typical American classic: hard lives on farms with lots of regional accents and brown. This is my mental image when I think of American literature and this is everything that Steinbeck's novel is. I understand that that was the situation that he was writing in, that this was published in 1937 during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era but, quite frankly, it has just never been my cup of tea.

I also cannot stand when authors write in a dialect. While I understand that it is part of character formation, I can stand it for awhile but a whole novel of characters speaking in dialect just gets on my nerves. It's like reading in a bizarre code, making you pay more attention but also making you really wish the characters would just shut up. They say that only really great writers can write in dialect and have it work. To be honest, I have yet to read a novel where I appreciated writing in accents. We'll see if it shall ever happen. 

The characters in Of Mice and Men are intriguing, to be sure, and very intelligent creations in their own right. The only problem is that the novel is so short that I hardly felt like I'd experienced anything when it ended. I never got a chance to really care about any of them so it made the tragic ending a little less painful. Of course, while writing this paragraph I've thought up several reasons why Steinbeck would choose to keep their histories and personalities more vague (a comment on the coming and going of the times, on the low value of human life, or simply making it a more everyman tale) but I'm going to stick with my first impression. 

All in all, I can understand why this book is taught in high school. It is a good introduction into literary analysis and character study. However, I do not see why it would be read outside of the ninth grade. This seems like a book that should be taught and not read.


  1. I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy Of Mice and Men. It's actually one of my favorite of Steinbeck's novels. If you never read Steinbeck before, I guess I wouldn't blame you. He's a difficult author to get through most of the time. And having Steinbeck shoved down my throat since I was 12 since he is from where I lived (Salinas Valley and Monterey), Of Mice and Men was actually refreshing.
    It's been awhile since I read the book, but I would recommend seeing the movie with Gary Sinise and John Malcovich. It's a decent interpretation. Or if you have a chance to see the play.

  2. I have a feeling it's a much better movie or play than it is a novel. Maybe it's the fact that I'm from the Northwest so I like covered wagons more than Dustbowl valleys but I just could not get into this book. I really wanted to like it but alas, it wasn't meant to be.