Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck

While many consider 'The Grapes of Wrath' to be Steinbeck's finest literary achievement, I have always preferred the economy and pathos of this 1937 novel. The tale of the mentally impaired hulk Lennie and his diminutive friend and mentor, George, takes its title from the Robert Burns quote and, during the course of just over a hundred pages of tense dialogue and rustic narrative, unveils the ways in which plans can go wrong even when they are the kind of simple pipe dream men fantasize about to make the hardships of the Depression that little bit more bearable.
The bulk of the action takes place on a Southern farm where George has secured work for the pair. They are running from an incident in the more Northerly town of Weed in which a girl mistook Lennie's childlike obsession with the feel of her clothing for a more sexual motive. Before they arrive at their new workplace George tries to drill into Lennie the importance of no more 'bad things' happening otherwise it will ruin their plan to earn enough money to buy their own place, where Lennie can raise rabbits. This opening scene allows Steinbeck to give his descriptive powers full rein: his use of active verbs breathes constant motion into the natural world he depicts and thus renders the trees and the river and the wildlife fully alive. Lennie and George's hopes for the future echo the scenery, seemingly full of life and new-bud green.
The final moments of the novel also take place in the same idyllic spot a mile or so from the ranch but this time the overriding sense is of absence, silence, even stagnation. By now, of course, Lennie has yet again 'done bad things' and is expecting George to come and find him and 'give him hell' again. The wind dies in the clearing, the sun leaves the valley, the water is still - Steinbeck racks up the tension with such delicate ease that the mechanics are barely noticeable and we are kept in the moment right up until the novel's dreadful yet inevitable conclusion.
The narrative works so effectively because, as well as being so in tune with the natural world around him, Steinbeck seems to know and love the Dustbowl people so well. He does not judge them, leaves us enough space to make our own decisions. He merely opens a door into the frustrations and restrictions of their life and times and leaves the business of value judgements to our own consciences. It takes a great writer to keep their own morality out of their work in this way and, in his most economical and most telling novel, Steinbeck proves his greatness beyond any shadow of a doubt.

1 comment:

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