It’s clear that John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men was written to be read as a parable. But a parable for what? I mean, what’s the lesson it is teaching?
It’s not about euthanasia. It’s not about intellectual disability (what used to be called mental retardation). It’s not about doing what you have to do even if is painful, even though the “god-like” Slim tells George on the final page:
“A guy got to sometimes.”
And a few lines later:
“You hadda, George. I swear you hadda.”
Yes, the book is about all of those things. But the parable’s lesson is deeper, and it has something to do with friendship and with dreams.
Isolated, separate, apart
The friendship that George Milton and Lennie Small have is, within their world, extraordinary. No one else in Of Mice and Men is in a twosome.
Curly and his wife are officially in a twosome, having married, but they are each lonely souls wandering through their days. And so is every other character — alone.
Even Slim, the great hero of the ranch’s landscape, is alone. Steinbeck describes him this way:
He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule.
There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love….His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.
Like an Achilles or a Hercules, Slim is head and shoulders above everyone else around him. Yet, like everyone else except Lennie and George, he isolated, separate and apart.
His character and talents make him a champion. Yet, he doesn’t own the ranch. He is, like everyone else, attached to this land and this job as if the ranch were a prison. Sure, he could go somewhere else, but the situation would be the same.
He is alone the way Curly is alone and Curly’s wife and Curly’s father, the owner, and Carlson, and Crooks.
“Scared of each other”
As the novel opens, Candy, the handman who lost a hand in a ranch accident, is in a kind of a twosome with his old and smelly dog.
But, perhaps because of the companionship that he has that others don’t have, Candy is forced by Carlson, with Slim’s approval, to let Carlson take the dog out into the night and shoot it in the back of the head.
The twosome of George and Lennie is much more unsettling to those on the ranch, mysterious.
George is questioned over and again why they are together. The insinuation is that George is somehow taking advantage of Lennie. Even Slim wants to know, perhaps to protect Lennie. Slim says:
“Ain’t many guys travel around together. I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
I think that Slim’s comment gets to the heart of Steinbeck’s parable in Of Mice and Men.
“Kinda used to each other”
Slim notes that it’s “kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart guy like you travelin’ together.”
George defends Lennie as “no cuckoo” and says it isn’t so odd that the two of them travel together since “him and me was both born in Auburn. I knowed his Aunt Clara…When his Aunt Clara died, Lennie just come along with me out workin’. Got kinda used to each other after a little while.”
It may look, George says, that Lennie is dumb and George is smart. But he says that, if he were smart, he’d have a place of his own instead of working for other people. Besides, the friendship of the two men isn’t one-sided. George benefits too:
“I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time.”
“A hoot in hell”
George and Lennie don’t go around on the ranches alone. They are a twosome. They aren’t isolated, separate, apart.
In the final pages, George, at Lennie’s urging, tells again about their friendship, about how “guys like us got no fambly…make a little stake an’ then they blow it in….ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em.”
And Lennie interrupts:
“But not us. Tell about us now.”
George starts, “But not us,” and Lennie again interrupts: “Because—” and George goes on: “Because I got you an’ —” And Lennie responds in triumph and joy:
“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us.”
Because they are a twosome
Maybe, as Slim says, everyone “in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” But not Lennie and George.
Their friendship, for all the difficulties they have with each other, is a source of fun and joy. They aren’t mean and bitter like those who travel alone. They feel good about themselves. They feel loved.
This is one aspect of the lesson of Steinbeck’s parable. It is through friendship — i.e., through love — that people find themselves and feel good about themselves.
Yes, George has less freedom because of Lennie and the trouble he gets into. Yes, Lennie has less freedom because George is constantly reining him in. But these irritations are simply irritations.
Because they are a twosome, neither man feels alone, separate, apart.
The other aspect of Steinbeck’s lesson is the dream that George relates with great relish and that Lennie celebrates whenever he hears it.
The dream has to do with an actual place that’s up for sale:
“Well, it’s ten acres. Got a little win’mill. Got a little shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ‘cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfalfa and plenty water to flood it. They’a a pig pen —”
“An’ rabbits, George.”
“No place for rabbits now, but I could easy build a few hutches and you could feed alfalfa to the rabbits.”
Over several pages, halfway through the novel, George expands on this dream as Lennie grows more and more excited, finally saying:
“An’ it’d be our own, an’ nobody could can us.”
“We got fren’s”
And it’s not only Lennie who’s excited. George’s own excitement is clear every time he talks about his vision. And this excitement is contagious. First, Candy and, then, Crooks, the crippled black stablehand, want to join in with Lennie and George, captivated by the dream.
Indeed, when Curly’s wife, bitter and lonely, tells them their hopes are a mirage, Candy stands up to her, telling her that they have a place to go to if she gets them fired.
“An’ we got fren’s, that’s what we got. Maybe there was a time when we was scared of getting’ canned, but we ain’t no more. We got our own lan’, and it’s ours, an’ we c’n go to it.”
It is a dream, and one that the men aren’t able to achieve because tragedy intervenes. Yet, Steinbeck’s parable is about how dreaming and friendship enrich life.
Whatever George and Lennie have to face on a day-to-day basis is easier because they have a dream of someday finding a better life. And, even if they fail to make it a reality — and there are many indications in Of Mice and Men that they will fail — the dream fills their days with wonder, beauty and hope.
Love and hope
Their friendship makes the dream possible. And the dream makes the friendship possible.
Candy and Crooks, hearing the dream, want to join with Lennie and George. They will be, Candy says, “fren’s.”
The landscape described in Steinbeck’s novel is difficult and brutal to work. The people set in that landscape are alone, separate, apart.
Except for George and Lennie. Their lives are rich and vibrant because they have each other and share their dream.
Set in a world where “ever’body…is scared of each other,” Of Mice and Men is a novel of love and hope. And, ultimately, tragedy.
Patrick T. Reardon