“A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. It don’t make no difference who the guy is, long as he’s with you. I tell you, I tell you a guy gets too lonely and he gets sick.”
LOST 3.04 ‘Every Man For Himself’
Of Mice and Men by Peter Lisca, in The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958)
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck takes a hard look at America, the land of dreams, and shows not only how those of lowly estate dream of a better tomorrow but also how they suffer in modern American society. In focusing on Lennie’s dream of the farm, Peter Lisca provides a thorough examination of Of Mice and Men, exploring Steinbeck’s articulated intentions, the book’s realistic elements, its allegorical nature, and formal patterns. Lisca shows how the American Dream is embodied in the book's characters and how this dream, forever elusive, is a source of American tragedy.
Concerning the book’s theme, Steinbeck wrote his agents, “I’m sorry that you do not find the new book as large in subject as it should be. I probably did not make my subjects and my symbols clear. The microcosm is rather difficult to handle and apparently I did not get it over— the earth longings of a Lennie who was not to represent insanity at all but the inarticulate and powerful yearning of all men ...” To Ben Abramson he wrote a similar comment on the book’s theme: "... it’s a study of the dreams and pleasures of everyone in the world.” (JS-BA, ca. September, 1936).
Such words as “microcosm,” “of all men,” and “everyone in the world” indicate that the problems he has set himself in Of Mice and Men was similar to that he had solved in his previous novel, In Dubious Battle. But whereas in the earlier work the de-personalized protagonists were easily absorbed into a greater pattern because that pattern was physically present in the novel, in Of Mice and Men the protagonists are projected against a very thin background and must suggest or create this larger pattern through their own particularity. To achieve this, Steinbeck makes use of language, action, and symbol as recurring motifs. All three of these motifs are presented in the opening scene, are contrapuntally developed through the story, and come together again at the end.
The first symbol in the novel, and the primary one, is the little spot by the river where the story begins and ends. The book opens with a description of this place by the river, and we first see George and Lennie as they enter this place from the highway to an outside world. It is significant that they prefer spending the night here rather than going on to the bunkhouse at the ranch.
This transference of symbolic value from the farm to the rabbits is important also because it makes possible the motif of action. This is introduced in the first scene by the dead mouse which Lennie is carrying in his pocket (much as Tom carries the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath). As George talks about Lennie’s attraction to mice, it becomes evident that the symbolic rabbits will come to the same end—crushed by Lennie’s simple, blundering strength. Thus Lennie’s killing of mice and later his killing of the puppy set up a pattern which the reader expects to be carried out again. George’s story about Lennie and the little girl with the red dress, which he tells twice, contributes to this expectancy of pattern, as do the shooting of Candy’s dog, the crushing of Curley’s hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley’s wife. All these incidents are patterns of the action motif and predict the fate of the rabbits and thus the fate of the dream of a “safe place.”
The third motif, that of language, is also present, in the opening scene. Lennie asks George, “Tell me—like you done before,” and George’s words are obviously in the nature of a ritual. “George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically, as though he had said them many times before.” The element of ritual is stressed by the fact that even Lennie has heard it often enough to remember its precise language: “An ’ live off the fatta the lan'. An’ have rabbits. Go on George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden and about the rabbits in the cages and about. . . .” This ritual is performed often in the story, whenever Lennie feels insecure. And of course it is while Lennie is caught up in this dream vision that George shoots him, so that on one level the vision is accomplished—the dream never interrupted, the rabbits never crushed.
Although the three motifs of symbol, action, and language build up a strong pattern of inevitability, the movement is not unbroken. About midway in the novel (chapters 3 and 4) there is set up a countermovement which seems to threaten the pattern. Up to this point the dream of “a house an’ a couple of acres” seemed impossible of realization. Now it develops that George has an actual farm in mind (ten acres), knows the owners and why they want to sell it: “The ol’ people that owns it is flat bust an’ the ol’ lady needs an operation.” He even knows the price—“six hundred dollars.” Also, the old workman, Candy, is willing to buy a share in the dream with the three hundred dollars he has saved up. It appears that at the end of the month George and Lennie will have another hundred dollars and that quite possibly they “could swing her for that.” In the following chapter this dream and its possibilities are further explored through Lennie’s visit with Crooks, the power of the dream manifesting itself in Crooks’s conversion from cynicism to optimism. But at the very height of his conversion the mice symbol reappears in the form of Curley’s wife, who threatens the dream by bringing with her the harsh realities of the outside world and by arousing Lennie’s interest.
In addition to imposing a sense of inevitability, this strong patterning of events performs the important function of extending the story’s range of meanings. This can best be understood by reference to Hemingway’s “fourth dimension,” which has been defined by Joseph Warren Beach as an “aesthetic factor” achieved by the protagonists’ repeated participation in some traditional “ritual or strategy,”3 and by Malcolm Cowley as “the almost continual performance of rites and ceremonies” suggesting recurrent patterns of human experience.4 The incremental motifs of symbol, action, and language which inform Of Mice and Men have precisely these effects. The simple story of two migrant workers’ dream of a safe retreat, a “clean well-lighted place,” becomes itself a pattern of archetype which exists on three levels.
The title itself, however, relates the whole story to still another level which is implicit in the context of Burns’s poem.
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promis’d joy.
In the poem, Burns extends the mouse’s experience to include that of mankind; in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck extends the experience of two migrant workers to the human condition. “This is the way things are,” both writers are saying. On this level, perhaps the most important, Steinbeck is dramatizing the non-teleological philosophy which had such a great part in shaping In Dubious Battle and which would be fully discussed in Sea of Cortez. This level of meaning is indicated by the title originally intended for the book—“Something That Happened.”6 In this light, the ending of the story is, like the ploughman’s disrupting of the mouse’s nest, neither tragic nor brutal, but simply a part of the pattern of events. It is amusing in this regard that a Hollywood director suggested to Steinbeck that someone else kill the girl, so that sympathy could be kept with Lennie. (JS-MO, 3/?/38)
Almost every character in the story asks George why he goes around with Lennie—the foreman, Curley, Slim, and Candy. Crooks, the lonely Negro, doesn’t ask George, but he does speculate about it, and shrewdly—“a guy talkin’ to another guy and it don’t make no difference if he don’t hear or understand. The thing is, they’re talkin’. . . George’s explanations vary from outright lies to a simple statement of “We travel together.” It is only to Slim, the superior workman with “God-like eyes,” that he tells a great part of the truth. Among several reasons, such as his feeling of responsibility for Lennie in return for the latter’s unfailing loyalty, and their having grown up together, there is revealed another: “He’s dumb as hell, but he ain’t crazy. An’ I ain’t so bright neither, or I wouldn’t be buckin’ barley for my fifty and found. If I was even a little bit smart, I’d have my own little place, an’ I’d be bringin’ in my own crops, ‘stead of doin’ all the work and not getting what comes up outa the ground.”
1. Mark Van Doren, “Wrong Number,” The Nation, 144 (March 6, 1937). p. 275; also, Joseph Wood Krutch, American Drama Since 1918 (New York, 1939), p. 396.
2. Stark Young, “Drama Critics Circle Award,” The New Republic, 94 (May 4,1938), p. 396; also, Frank H. O’Hara, Today in American Drama (Chicago, 1939), p. 181.
3. “How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?” Sewanee Review, 59 (Spring, 1953.), pp. 311-328.
4. “Introduction,” The Portable Hemingway (New York, 1944).
5. Carlos Baker, “Steinbeck of California,” Delphian Quarterly, 23 (April, 1940), 42.
6. Toni Jackson Ricketts [Antonia Seixas], “John Steinbeck and the Non-Teleological Bus,” What’s Doing on the Monterey Peninsula, 3. (March, 1947). This article is now available in Steinbeck and His Critics, ed. by E. W. Tedlock, Jr., and C. V. Wicker (Albuquerque, 1957).
In: Lisca, Peter. “ Of Mice and Men." The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1958.130-43.