Born in 1902 in Salinas, California, John Steinbeck used this region as the backdrop for most of his works including ‘Of Mice and Men’. Steinbeck not only observed but also lived the life that he wrote of, with such assurance. A mere teenager, he offered his services at various neighbouring ranches during the summer. He was significantly impressed by rural California and therefore wrote thoroughly about it. In 1919, he enrolled at Stanford University where he attended his classes sporadically before leaving bereft of a degree. His first novel was an adventure based story which was quite interestingly named, ‘Cup of Gold’. However, Steinbeck himself didn’t strike gold professionally till ‘Tortilla Flat’ was published in 1935.
Writing with a noticeably proletarian mindset, Steinbeck’s writing usually speaks of poverty, struggle and of unrewarding circumstances even though now and again his characters do triumph spiritually. But Steinbeck is one of those fascinating forces of nature that can evade being stereotyped with quiet, uncaring vengeance. ‘Of Mice and Men’ is as dissimilar from ‘Tortilla Flat’ and ‘In Dubious Battle’ as they are from each other. What links them together however is the author’s deep understanding of the ‘proletarian’ approach.
Maudlin and moralistic, in ‘Of Mice and Men’, Steinbeck runs the risk of appearing superficial. Although one of his greatest achievements, the ‘Of Mice and Men’ is weighed down by monochromatic, largely undynamic characters. These characters are placed rather predictably in a markedly deterministic plot that apparently seeks to increase the prominence of the lesson learnt than the characters. Even so, it is startlingly absorbing to read about this firm friendship that existed between a gentle, simple- minded giant and a strong, protective man. Lennie, the monster with the intelligence and humour of an unintelligent child and George, a shrewd and dynamic character, both attempting to fit into a social pattern while retaining their unique, mostly idealistic friendship, are the central carriers of Steinbeck’s genius.
Using Depression-Era America as an effective and emotive milieu, Steinbeck exemplifies how utterly arduous and often thankless the life of migrant farmers could be. Just as George and Lennie dreamt of a better life on their own farm, many other farmers of the Great Plains too harboured the dream of a better life in California. It is this dream that seduces, beguiles and plagues the mind and tampers with the motivation of the people. The dreams of Steinbeck’s characters are typically American, dreams of unsullied bliss and the freedom to pursue their own desires. ‘Of Mice and Men’ chronicles one such journey towards this dream that leads to tragic disenchantment.
The underlining and overriding theme of ‘Of Mice and Men’ is fraternity and utopian male friendship where women are merely seen as interlopers. The men in this tale want to shield each other and want to know that there is someone committed to protecting them. Keeping in mind the harsh context in which these men were living, it doesn’t come as a surprise that they romanticise male camaraderie in such a way.
‘Of Mice and Men’ might appear to be a controlled flight of fancy and heartbreaking reminiscences, but Steinbeck’s signature penchant for harsh reality kicks in seen as he explores irrefutable truths about the human nature. He records an intense behavioural tendency: oppression is not inflicted by the strong or the powerful. Visible strength, that is used to intimidate others is born out of weakness. Steinbeck uses this maxim to illustrate how the world is too callous and rapacious a place for the sustenance of idyllic relations. Consequently Lennie and George, who come closest to achieving this ideal fraternity, are forced to separate tragically.
Whether or not these utopian views amount to a flaw in the novel, it is admissible that Steinbeck puts human relations on a rather lofty pedestal. True to the nature of tragedy, Steinbeck’s imagery of a better life is ensnaring but the story itself is darkly foreshadowed with the doom that awaits the protagonists.
Although written with the hope of victory, ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a chronicle of defeat. A defeat, packaged so disarmingly until the very end that it makes a brilliant read.