The tiny rodent scurries across the cluttered kitchen floor, dodging the pendulum of the broom’s bristles as it hunts for its next meal. A few more gusts of a breeze draws the creature’s attention to that dreadful device, attacking, descending upon the open floor. At once, the rodent recognizes a bright yellowish object beckoning it with such sweet scents. The furry critter perks up, attempting to ignore the crashing, cutting, cracking of the stiff synthetics thundering down from above. Each bristle booms against the wooden heath, never stopping, and the ground shakes under their heavy assault. As the destination is reached, the rodent breathes in that moment, scent and all. Complete bliss. Speedy operation is now in haste as that mighty mouse creeps across the elevated plane, following its nose, feeling its prize, licking the sweet nectar, not realizing each lick is one of the last meal. With no wine at hand, the mouse delights itself with the cheese until that fateful step releases the contraption, and our rodent is snapped twain.
Distractions come in many shapes and sizes, the best being human beings. But in my new place of residence, I find that the most tempting distraction is often the local half price bookstore beckoning me much like cheese beckons a mouse. For books under $5.00, the wonder is not that I am there on a weekly basis, but that I am not there daily. I cannot exactly pin down why I decided that John Steinbeck’s little novella Of Mice and Men was chosen as my next book. It was under $3.00 in any case and was read at a speed fitting with its small price.
[Warning: Spoilers to follow]
The book plays on so many levels despite its length that I feel there are many issues that can be dealt with as is the case with any good piece of literature. Is Lennie guilty of the murder he commits? Was George justified in his actions near the end of the story? Why such an apparently poor ending? (Steinbeck is very good at this.) Are we to face our problems or discard them at any whim? In the end, is there really much a difference between mice and men?
Steinbeck does so many things that I hate, yet I find him to be perhaps the most compelling American writer. Apart from Melville’s style, Steinbeck is the best pure writer in American literary history in my opinion. The way he sets a scene is virtually uncanny, and though his scene setting is nigh poetry, his characters are exact opposites. In the two books I have read, he has no absolute heroes. Everyone is corrupted. Everything is negative. Nothing is funny. At the end of it all, even that poetic scene starts to look drab and ugly as the people who inhabit it seem to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the picture.
Steinbeck is the best though because he is saying something. Though much of what he says is wrong in my opinion, I feel refreshed every time I read him. In this particular little story, the theme I came out with afterwards was the link between these little rodents that Lennie keeps killing and the people who claim superiority in the universe. Steinbeck seems to be posing this question after his final murder of Curley’s Wife. He kills her nearly as easy as he killed the mice, as easily as he killed the little pups. The debate about whether he is guilty for the murder is certainly an interesting debate, but what was more interesting to me was the slightly implied idea that maybe there is no difference between rodents and people. We all die, and George discards Lennie with even less effort (physically) than perhaps Lennie did with the pup.
The implications of this idea are obviously grave. If because Lennie can so easily kill humans as he does rodents and pups, what would keep men from killing each other over little disagreements? Lennie’s death symbolizes this in the novella. At the very beginning, we notice George getting on to Lennie for being a hindrance, and as the story moves along, Lennie becomes more of a hindrance, eventually “doing something bad” and causing George more vexation. George decides that the last recourse he will have to take is to get rid of his problem once and for all. People are no different than mice. After George kills Lennie and forever rids himself of his “problem,” Slim tells him he had no choice, and both Curley and Carlson wonder to themselves why George is shaken at the death of his friend. Lennie was not benefiting the ranch, he was slowing George down, and he even committed a nonsensical murder on accident because of his mental condition. In the eyes of many of the characters, he was on the same level as a mouse: discarded waste.
Steinbeck’s story reminded me much of Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis.” In Kafka’s story, the main character turns into an insect, the discarded waste that Lennie merely symbolizes in Of Mice and Men. Kafka’s character, Gregor, becomes what everyone hates and usually kills upon first seeing. His family can no longer accept him. They cannot kill him because they know he is still Gregor, but they certainly cannot accept him either. In a much different way, Gregor too is treated like discarded waste. Though he is not attacked or killed directly, his death allows the family to finally move on with their lives and live in peace. The story displays how his eventually unwanted existence becomes an annoyance to the family. No one tries to help him or care for him, and he eventually dies as discarded waste.
Steinbeck may have not had “The Metamorphosis” in mind when he wrote Of Mice and Men, but the parallels are certainly there. Lennie and Gregor symbolize the down-and-outs of society. The mentally challenged, the disabled, illegal immigrants, the elderly etc. — whatever our culture decides to put on the back burner and forget about because they are different or are not “contributing” to society. Steinbeck may just be pointing out a very important concept. The more we push people who we think are less than us to the back of society, the more we will see them as nothing more than wasted space. Abortion functions this way. A small child in a womb is no longer a person but a problem, and we must do away with that. Immigration is no different as a great number of people are here illegally because they cannot find food in their home country. But they are a problem, so we must get rid of them.
I will not guess that Steinbeck had abortion or illegal immigration in mind, but the same application can be made. As we go throughout our lives, the temptation mounts with population growth to put certain awkward people in the back, focusing on those who benefit us. Every time we do this, however, we are sending them to their own mousetrap. We are the one’s waving the broom around, looking to sweep up those annoyances from our memory. When we deny people love, we treat them as if they do not matter. In the end it may be all the same as bygone bug or a mouse sent to their trap.