John Steinbeck grew up in rural California and spent much of his early life working as a farm labourer. Many of his novels tell stories of the migrant labourers he worked alongside, especially those fleeing the dustbowl states of Oklahoma and Texas. Of Mice and Men is one of these stories.
This novella begins with two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who have travelled and worked together for many years, arriving at a new farm in Salinas, California. George has a dream that they will one day work up enough money to buy a small piece of land and farm for themselves. Lennie is a useful farm worker, due to his size and massive strength, but he is also a simpleton, reliant on George to find him work and keep him out of danger. There is also a small supporting cast of fellow labourers and a sole female character, a labourer's wife who is nameless. All these characters, trapped in tedious poverty, wish they were living the American dream, but there is no real sense of hope for their future. Inevitably Lennie's strength and lack of intelligence leads to trouble, and George must choose between Lennie and his dreams.
This novella is deliberately structured like a play. Steinbeck wrote it so that people could read it like a book, but it could be easily developed into a play by lifting the dialogue. The action takes place in a number of long scenes set in single locations: first a river bank, then the bunk house the labourers share, and so forth. Much of the exposition is done through dialogue; in particular Lennie wants George to tell the story of the plot of land they will farm together over and over again. Characters talk almost across each other, in long pieces of dialogue, as though they are on stage. Each chapter (act?) begins with a description of the setting; these could easily be the directions in italics in a script. Beautiful as the writing is, I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a script. I didn't know until I read the introduction this was deliberate, but it was obvious, and slightly strange to read.
The final set piece is, frankly, a little unbelievable. Throughout the story Steinbeck has emphasised how strong Lennie is, and that he is unable to comprehend how strong he is due to his reduced mental capacity. Lennie has been accidently killing small animals, mainly mice but also a puppy, throughout the novella. When Lennie hurts a human, badly, it is hardly a surprise. Steinbeck is clearly exploring the issue of culpability rather than trying to keep us in suspense. While I can appreciate this, and feel a little for George in his dilemma, it just doesn’t work for me. No matter how clearly Steinbeck tries to set up that Lennie is strong and stupid, I just can’t quite believe he could be that strong and cause that much damage by accident. The way Steinbeck works so hard to set it up makes me think he always knew it was a hard sell.
Still, it is hard to argue with this book’s successful history. The prose is crisp and vividly conjures up a vision of early twentieth century America. The structure of this ‘playable novel’ has also been a success, with multiple films, Broadway plays, and even an opera. It has also been the subject of controversy, at times banned in various schools and libraries in America and throughout the world for vulgar (or some would say, accurate) dialogue. It is clear that Steinbeck has achieved what he set out to do, bringing the world of the labourers to life. However the novella is so constrained by its structure and themes that while it is a book I’m glad to have read, it ultimately left me a little cold.