The Best Laid Plans: Of Mice and Men

Banned_Mice_and_Men

A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody . . .

I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.

Warning: This post may contain politically incorrect language and expletives. They exist for the purpose of example and edification; they are not intended to disparage or defame any particular person, race, creed, color, or religion. If you feel you may be offended by such language, stop reading now. You have been warned.

From the Back Cover

They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation.

Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. For George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, the fulfillment of these dreams seems to be within their grasp. But even George cannot guard Lennie from the provocations of a flirtatious woman, nor predict the consequences of Lennie’s unswerving obedience to the things George taught him.

~ 1993 Penguin Book Edition

Why the Book was Banned

1. Offensive language

2. Racial slurs

3. Promoting euthanasia

4. Anti- business ideas

Synopsis

A short book begets a short synopsis. Lennie and George eke out a living in Depression-era California. Forced to leave town when Lennie causes a “misunderstanding,” the two find work on a ranch in Salinas County. Hoping to own their own land, this will be the last time they work for someone else. Then Lennie causes another “misunderstanding.” You know what Shakespeare said about “the best laid plans of mice and men…”

MouseTrapBox
The polar opposite of Ockham’s Razor

My Thoughts

Steinbeck covers a variety of themes in Of Mice and Men, including dreams, prejudice, weakness, and violence. Here’s several that stood out to me:

First, he addresses the idea of equality.

Ranch workers represent the plight of migrant workers. Set during the Depression, Lennie, George, and others are forced to find work where they can, often traveling long distances on the mere rumor of work. Employers negotiate pay upon their arrival and renegotiate at will. Workers receive substandard room and board while their masters (for lack of a better word) live in luxury. In his sympathy for the overworked and underpaid, Steinbeck calls attention to the abuses of impersonal corporations.

Crooks, the stable hand, highlights racial inequality. Although born and raised in California, Crooks is treated as an outsider. The men force him to live apart and constantly refer to him as “nigger.” Even the name Crooks is insulting; it refers not to his given name, but to his crooked back.  Nevertheless, Steinbeck shows Crooks to be a normal human being. Neat and bookish, Crooks dispels the “ignorant savage” stereotype common in the 1930s (and still existing today). Crooks even opens up to Lennie and begins to dream of partnering with George and Lennie in their dream to own some land. Sadly, Crooks’ dream dies when Curely’s wife threatens his life in front of Lennie and some other men.

Curley’s wife highlights gender inequality. She possess no name in the novel; she is the property of her husband. The only woman on the ranch, she must make do with “men talk” and tolerate Curley’s narcissism. Desiring her own form of freedom, she dreams of Hollywood. Admittedly, she is self-obsessed and cruel, but I also feel sympathy for her. When she dies, we see what she might have been under different circumstances:

[T]he meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young. Now her rouged cheeks and her reddened lips made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly.

Second, Steinbeck addresses the ruthlessness of big business. Curley, the boss’ son and main antagonist of the novel, embodies this idea. Relatively small and weak, Curley is obsessed with appearance and power. Some might say he possesses a Napoleon Complex, but that would be insulting to Napoleon. Curley habitually picks fights with larger men (often ambushing them) to “prove” his prowess (not unlike a corporate businessman in an unfriendly merger). To Curley, power is everything: sexual power, physical strength, and business acumen are his goals.

Third, Steinbeck’s overarching theme is friendship. The relationship between George and Lennie resembles that of a bromance, after all, their friendship is the only real constant in either of their lives. However, I’m not sure what Steinbeck meant to achieve with this theme.  For Lennie and George to be so close, why do they choose a job seemingly more well-suited to loners? Was Steinbeck trying to show that their friendship was solid, or that it was merely superficial? Was it even friendship, or was George just using Lennie? After all, he constantly had to protect Lennie from getting into trouble (something he wasn’t always successful at doing) and spends some time telling us how much better off he’d be if he didn’t have Lennie to look after. If that’s the case, why not just leave him? Furthermore, if that’s how he really felt, is George’s final act done to protect Lennie or to free George from further obligation?

To the chase: Overall, I’m not sure what to think about Of Mice and Men. Throughout most of the book, Steinbeck keeps the reader hopeful of a happy ending. George and Lennie’s friendship seems to last insurmountable odds. The men find work (and good work at that) and a partner to help make their dream a reality. Hope disappears in the last 17 pages. Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife and runs away. George tries to help him, but this time there is nothing to be done. George must either turn Lennie in, or . . .

This is too depressing. Here’s what another reader thought of the ending:

Even though the dream never becomes reality, Steinbeck does leave us with an optimistic message. George and Lennie do not achieve their dream, but their friendship stands out as a shining example of how people can live and love even in a word of alienation and disconnectedness.

I wonder what book this reviewer read; it certainly wasn’t Mice and Men. What optimism is there? Facing the loss of his dream and the necessity of turning Lennie over to the authorities, George opts to shoot Lennie and claim “self-defense.” How then does their friendship “stand out?” That the people you trust the most will be the one to stab you in the back? That the mentally challenged should be treated like animals, to the point of being “put down” if they pose a danger to society? I might be confused about the book as a whole, but I’m not confused about George and Lennie: George used Lennie, and, when Lennie was no longer useful, threw him to the wolves.

I wish I could end this review on a happy note, but I can’t. Instead, here’s a picture of my cat:

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3 thoughts on “The Best Laid Plans: Of Mice and Men

  1. It’s been a long time since I read this book, but I loved it. It is depressing but I think what happens in the end is about perspective. You could look at it as you do, but I think George took that step because he knew HE would be able to get out of the mess but in the 1930s someone with mental handicaps would be treated much worse – prison, science experiments, frontal lobotomy (which is horrible because being a vegetable for life is a prison all it’s own) who knows. I think George reasoned that it was more “humane” if you will to shoot Lennie than to let the law get him and that’s IF the law got to him. Who knows what Curly would have done to him if he’d had his way. So that reviewer I think is correct – but then again, I tend to be an optimistic person. I think the book is about their friendship and that while imperfect and difficult throughout, it outlasts everything. Was it the ideal ending? No but let’s face it, life can be cruel and sometimes there simply isn’t a happy ending. That doesn’t take away from the friendship though.

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