Of Mice and Men is such a downer...
Steinbeck was the most depressed person ever. What is he trying to do to us? Tragedy = no happy ending. So why are we reading this book other than to get more depressed than we already are as teenagers? –T.T., USA
John Steinbeck told it like he saw it. Prior to writing Of Mice and Men, he was, like the characters in his novel, a bindlestiff—a wandering laborer (sometimes called a hobo) who carried his bag of possessions (“bindle”) with him. Steinbeck saw the promise of the Salinas River Valley, and he also saw firsthand how California was not the paradise that adventurers and fortune-seekers hoped and dreamed it would be.
Yes, Of Mice and Men is about how the American Dream remains just out of reach for most ordinary, hardworking men. (Like I said, Steinbeck was just telling it like he saw it.) But that doesn’t mean that this book is all dystopian and desperate. Steinbeck’s most relatable theme is also his most hopeful: Look out for each other. Especially look out for your friends.
Of Mice and Men...and brotherhood
At its heart, Of Mice and Men is a story about brotherhood. Look at George and Lennie’s relationship. Chapter One, in particular, portrays the depth of George and Lennie’s mutual reliance. Lennie relies on George to keep him safe—out of trouble and in a job.
Given Lennie’s compromised intelligence, this can be difficult. In fact, George’s life is constantly complicated by the fact that Lennie doesn’t know his own strength—or his own mind. But George sticks with him. He fulminates about it, sometimes gets angry at Lennie for being a burden. But George is committed. Call it love, call it obligation, call it what it means to be brothers. Whatever the motivation, George is determined to do right by Lennie.
And yet, George relies on Lennie, too. Lennie is the voice of innocence in Of Mice and Men—the flame of optimism that George has burning inside him, and which Lennie allows him to give voice to. It’s for Lennie that George re-tells the story of living off the “fatta the land.” Their shared dream of freedom and independence is made real by their bond. George articulates it, but Lennie draws it out of him.
Of Mice and Men...and we know how men can be...
The problem in Of Mice and Men, though, is that once George and Lennie get to the ranch, they discover that their bond is pretty unique. Most of the men they encounter are equally powerless. But rather than band together in the face of weakness and oppression, they turn on each other. They prey on each other’s weaknesses. They build themselves up by exploiting others’ shortcomings.
No surprise here: None of this ends well. But rather than be depressed about the poor choices of the characters in this book, take heart. Ask yourself: How might things have been different if the other characters in this story had shared the insight of Slim the skinner, who observed:
“‘You guys travel together?’ His tone was friendly. It invited confidence without demanding it.
“‘Sure,’ said George. ‘We kinda look after each other.’ He indicated Lennie with his thumb. ‘He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.’
“Slim looked through George and beyond him. ‘Ain’t many guys travel around together,’ he mused. ‘I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’
“‘It’s a lot nicer to go around with a guy you know,’ said George.”
Of Mice and Men(sch)
That’s the lesson from Of Mice and Men: Have each other’s back. Lift each other up. “Go around” with a guy (or girl) you know; stand by him or her no matter what. Forging, and then sustaining, the bonds of brother- or sisterhood is the path to the kind of “paradise” that George and Lennie find, albeit briefly, by the riverbank in Chapter One.
The real tragedy of Of Mice and Men is not learning from its characters’ mistakes.