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Of Mice And Men

“Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.”

-Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.

–                                               The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist religious leader (1935 – )

The above quotations refer to the eternal paradox of human existence, which has been investigated by philosophers, psychologists, and, of course, writers and poets for centuries. John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men is not an exception. Like many literary texts before it and after it, it explores the idea of friendship and compassion as opposed to extreme loneliness and isolation of people. Humanity is an endless archipelago of single islands rather than an integral continent. These islands are liable to all elemental forces, which aim at destroying them. Likewise, people’s lives seem to be toys in the hands of fate. This is one impression, which emerges from reading the novel. Another impression is the opposite one- sympathy, care, mercy are inherent in human nature as well. They are vital as air, that’s why people long for them tremendously. In this essay I intend to show the means the author resort to I in order to illustrate these two opposite emotions – empathy and indifference.

On the one hand, naturalistic background of the novel is evident: the characters are lower- class and they cannot cross the borderline, which separates them from better life. Some unexplainable force rules their life and makes transformation impossible, so that they cannot change their mould. Although theoretically it seems realistic, say, to gather enough money to buy a ranch and breed rabbits there, the author purposely creates the effect of doom. After Lennie kills Curley wife, George loses hope that his dream of his own land can come true, “”I’ll work my month an’ I’ll take my fifty bucks an’ I’ll stay all night in some lousy cat house. Or I’ll set in some poolroom till ever’body goes home. An’ then I’ll come back an’ work another month an’ I’ll have fifty bucks more.”   Heredity, instinct and passion seem to be beyond human control and all attempts to exercise free will are doomed to failure.

The impression emerges that all characters have some kind of fault in their mind, which is often reflected in some corporal defects. Thus, old Candy lost his arm, Crooks suits his nickname, Curley’s arm is broken in the fight with Lennie. In Lennie’s case it is not a physical flaw but a discrepancy between his physical strength and inner helplessness that strikes the reader. Conveying internal imperfection through human body is one of the particularly effective naturalistic means applied by Steinbeck.

The theme of violence and its motivation is another interesting theme the writer investigates. The type of violence is naturalistic in its source as well. Thus, Lenny just can’t help killing mice or the puppy presented to him, his physical force is uncontrolled. Playing with dead mice anticipates Lennie’s breaking Curley’s wife’s neck. In fact, the effect of anticipation pierces the plot from the beginning. “I want you to stay with me, Lennie. Jesus Christ, somebody’s shoot you for a coyote if you was by yourself” says George in the first chapter as if predicting shooting Lennie. Shooting a puppy is another sign that marks the disastrous outcome of events.

It is easy to notice the analogy between wildlife and human life as Steinbeck sees it. The name of the novel Of Mice and Men is indicative. Like Lennie kills mice, though he wants just to stroke them, people get ruined by other people or the life itself.  The predatory nature of human life is reflected in numerous animals, which appear on its pages- mice, puppies, rabbits… People killing animals, people killing people, by accident and out of mercy, show how easily predators transform into victims and how helpless people are before the fatal power of nature. Old Candy is associated with his equally dilapidated dog, killed by strangers out of mercy. In fact, the controversial theme of killing out of mercy is duplicated once again on a different level. Candy’s phrase is suggestive.  “I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.” To kill the dear creature yourself to relieve them from suffering is what George does in the end to save Lennie from Curley’s revenge.

“Guys like us that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place”, George says. “With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us” .Friendship between Lennie and George is perhaps the only case of friendship throughout the whole novel; it means the author wants to emphasize the fact that  it is an exception out of the general rule. That is why Slim is so surprised to see the relationship of the two men, or rather the parent-and-child attachment to each other. He believes people never stick together, that’s what makes them go wild. “Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he muses. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” The name of the place where the events occur is very suggestive in itself – Soledad. It emphasizes the people’s solitude, isolation and desolation, which they try overcome through the bonds of friendship. Virtually all characters confess of being lonely – George, Candy, Crooks, Curley’s wife. They confess of it to total strangers, which indicates how much desperate they are. “There wasn’t another colored family for miles around. And now there ain’t a colored man on this ranch an’ there’s jus’ one family in Soledad,” says Crooks. “If I say something, why it’s just a nigger sayin’ it.” Curley’s wife confesses, Why can’t I talk to you? I never get to talk to nobody. I get awful lonely.”

The only thing, which is left to people, is hope, which their last refuge. Now and then the characters fall into a sort of blissful dream, and life acquires brighter prospects for a moment. Curley’s wife wants to be an actress in Hollywood with crowds of fans following her; George and Lennie are dreaming about their own ranch, the old Candy wants to join them to die being a free person on his own land, Crooks wants to forget the universal despise because of his race.

To understand how sympathetic Steinbeck is to his characters it is enough to remember the origin of the novel’s title. It roots back to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse, On Turning her up in Her Nest with the Plough”, where he expresses his sympathy for the poor creature and states that mice and men are similar:

In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The only difference between mice and men, as Burns sees it, is that while mice tend to be concerned only with the present, humans are concerned with the past and the future. That’s what we see in Steinbeck’s novel. He deeply sympathizes with his characters but tends to show them as they are with all their flaws, with their inner emptiness and loneliness. At the same time he states how friendship and affection are essential for their existence and how mercy can be implemented through what is usually called cruelty. All of us realize that the scope if the issue exceeds that of a literary text, it exceeds the limits of naturalism or realism, the limits of a certain background or historical epoch. The problem of loneliness and of human affection as a counteracting force has always been a universal concern. Steinbeck was the one who made the characters’ emotions penetrate his readers’ mind and soul, and that’s what makes his novel outstanding among the twentieth century literature.

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