Can anyone actually enjoy reading this book? I mean, appreciate it, dissect it, talk about it, parse it, give it a good rating, praise it, but enjoy it? The thing is, most books that I read while a teenager or even young adult, when I reread them I find waiting for me a completely different experience. I read Of Mice and Men in high school and I found it unbearably depressing. I just re-read it, an over-40-year-old woman and I will not read it again. It’s just too freakin’ sad. And every positive thing that gets said or dreamt about? You see it all coming like a slo-mo train wreck through the whole thing. In ashes by the end. In-ci-ner-a-ted. Like my sense of well-being.
It’s a well-written book. Short, descriptive paragraphs to set mood and paint a picture. Characters that leap off the page with just a few strokes of the pen. Metaphors and symbolism as common as page numbers. A look into a time and a place and a people that is unique and interesting. And all in such a small space—officially Of Mice and Men is a novella and will set you back only a few hours. The writing itself is sparse and beautiful in its sparseness. There aren’t any plot holes here or rushed editing. It’s a classic. It goes on the record about a piece of American history. It’s not a flattering story, yet it is acknowledged as universal in its portrayal of human nature, of humanity. (Also not flattering, but also the only way in which you can find redemption in this book.) We can talk about foreshadowing, bracketing, inevitable endings, whatever.
Been under a rock for two centuries? Of Mice and Men is by John Steinbeck, also famous for a much longer book, The Grapes of Wrath. It’s about George and Lennie, two migrant/itinerant/nomadic farm hands during the Great Depression in the western United States. The book opens on a small time in their lives when they come to what they hope will be their last farm gig before they can get their own piece of land. They have just fled one disaster and it’s clear that’s the kind of life they live: two unlikely partners—one small and smart and the other very large and strong and with the mind of a child (Lennie has an undefined disability)—in a time and place where men weren’t able to form lasting relationships or settle down. Lennie’s brute strength and mental disability further complicate their bleak, poor, powerless existence, but—like thousands of others like them—they have a dream. The reader can smell tragedy in this first page and the sense of foreboding only worsens with each turn until you feel like your emotions are on the rack. Other characters enter. A few things happen. Disaster looms ever closer.
It is said that Steinbeck wrote his novella to be honest about a time and a people. This is often said because there are some morality and PC issues here. Depression-era, migrant farm workers lived quite the sketchy life. Filled with all the conventional vices—cussing, gambling, sex addiction, violence, soliciting prostitutes, drunkenness, etc.—there is hardly a page without a heavy load of all of the above. Then you have race relations, which some have called racism. Then you have women and their portrayal. While I am okay with portraying the vices of the time in the measure it was meted, I don’t think I can take this book to a high school class. (I know many do. I don’t think my particular parents would appreciate weeks of me explaining a “cat house” or why a man might want to keep one of his hands smooth for his wife.) The thing is, this book does really come across as a portrait and not as a valuation. It doesn’t read political or even ideological. It’s barely philosophical. It is mostly anthropological with a dash of psychological. So while the portrayals of the workers, their boss, the one Black man, and the women are disturbing all around, they feel accurate and not in any way convincing that any of this is right. It’s like journalism, not propaganda. Except for maybe with the women. The women fall into the three basic categories: the saint, the princess/damsel, and the whore. Most of the women in the book fall into the last category. Whereas Steinbeck is shading his main characters to give us a more nuanced experience, his female characters suck. They’re just what you would expect them to be, written by a man in the 1930s. Angels or villains and only complicated in the trite ways. Let’s just say this is a book about men. (And maybe all of his villains are a little flat. The era of the villain wouldn’t arrive until our time.) Maybe just keep in mind that this book has been banned more than once for all of the reasons I have listed here.
There’s another thing, but while the literary devices, history, and controversy of Of Mice and Men are all frequently talked about, I don’t see anyone talking about this: it’s really a play, right? I mean, not literally, not on the page, and not in a few of the details. But really, this book reads so much like a play to me that I found it distracting. The scene-setting, monologues, slightly stilted dialogue, physical description and movement through the scenes. And mostly that each chapter is a new room and we don’t move from that room. It’s as if a light has come on over the next place and we watch the characters come and go and say important things aloud and there are never any scenes with more than a handful of people, never anything wide or magical enough to make a simple play out of reach. I don’t know that you care, but it really felt like it should have been a play, to me.
I rarely discourage reading a classic. I don’t discourage it, now. Of Mice and Men is a quick read and there are many things to learn from it and admire about it. Don’t read it when you are depressed or especially anxious. Read it for a literature class or read it for history or read it to appreciate it. Just know you might get emotionally walloped and have a lot of self-explaining to do. I’m sure someone must enjoy reading this novel, somewhere, but me? I cringed through the entire thing, wishing I could call “Uncle!”
I was at home “cleaning” when I finished Of Mice and Men so I found the time to watch both of the movies that were readily available. The first one was the black and white 1939 version. Welp, I don’t appreciate movies that old, hardly ever. I can’t get over the whole we-haven’t-figure-out-cinema-isn’t-the-theater-yet thing. The acting is so goofy, the framing, the lighting, everything like we’re still looking at a stage and everything’s transient and distant. It does stick pretty close to the book (except for some anachronisms, perhaps in dress and accent the most). It gets the point across. It gets pretty good reviews. Being from a certain time and place it attempted to white-wash much of Steinbeck’s “realism,” but not all of it. Not really my cup of tea. I would rather watch the 1992 version, which was directed by and starring Gary Sinise who was upstaged by his casting of John Malkovich as Lennie. I was nervous for the actors in this updated, color portrayal of an old—and always terribly sad—story, but they really did an excellent job. I saw some complaints that the movie was too beautiful and had too much happiness in it, but it was the only one out of the three that made me sob at the end. Yes, after I had just seen the same dang, awful scene two other times. I think there’s something about movies as opposed to books: well, don’t be mad at me because I will take a great book over a great movie any day but sometimes books put a certain distance between reality and the character and then movies come in and it all looks so real and believable and that distance between the characters and reality melts away. That happened for me in the 1992 Of Mice and Men. It’s like the novella and the other movie had been a tragic study in human nature and history and then seeing Malkovich and Sinise on the screen with the farm and other characters in color and movement brought the whole thing alive for me. When the horrible ending came, it was more affecting. Obviously, I would recommend that you watch a movie after reading the book (if you can take it), and that version would be the 1992 one. In fact, it’s a good movie (minus a couple, small missteps) all it’s own, but so. sad. So…