Reith, Duncan."Futile dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men: the American novelist John Steinbeck has sometimes been criticised as a sentimentalist. Duncan Reith uncovers the bleak political pessimism behind his novel of ranch life during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men."The English Review. (Vol. 15). . 2 (Nov. 2004): p6. Literature Resource Center. Gale.Nassau Community College Library - SUNY.14 Mar. 2010.http://go.galegroup.com/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=sunynassau
Title: Futile dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men: the American novelist John Steinbeck has sometimes been criticised as a sentimentalist. Duncan Reith uncovers the bleak political pessimism behind his novel of ranch life during the Great Depression, Of Mice and MenAuthor(s): Duncan Reith Source: The English Review. 15.2 (Nov. 2004): p6. From Literature Resource CenterDocument Type: Critical essay
Albert Bierstadt's 'Mount Corcoran' (1878), an
enormous, romantic vision of the Sierra Nevada, is perhaps the most
well-known painting of the Californian landscape. In the background, golden
foothills lead away from the green pool up to a dreamy profusion of heavenly
clouds. In the foreground, by contrast, we are offered precise, realistic
details: a clutch of trees, one fallen trunk in the river, perhaps the debris
of the winter's flooding. A solitary bear, dwarfed by the sweeping,
dramatic landscape, comes to test the water.
A predatory world
Steinbeck opens Of Mice and Men with a similar set of symbols.
Lennie Small is described as a bear, huge and strong yet somehow
insignificant when framed against such an imposing landscape. His green pool
is a stagnant Soledad (the ranch on which he and his friend George find work)
and the ripples he causes there come back to him. His progression from
killing mouse to dog to woman ends predictably in his own death. At the end,
Lennie gazes longingly at the Gabilan mountains and George sends him to that
heaven with a gun.
Steinbeck marks the near side of his river with images of hell and
decay. Animals balance the need to drink with the need to avoid predators. In
the river itself, there is suggestive activity. A carp tries to come up for
air but is drawn mysteriously back down into the dark water. A heron waits in
the shadows. Later, its head lances down, plucks out and swallows a water
This symbolic scene lets the reader know what to expect. Events in
the river will be mirrored by events on the ranch. For example, when
Curley's wife meets her fate, a four-taloned Jackson fork is suspended
above her, and her body flops 'like a fish'. The message is clear:
ranch life will be a lonely experience, as the word Soledad suggests. Men
live like animals, in a pecking order, struggling for survival, growing old
and weak, helpless individuals in a predatory world which will determine
their fate. The only escape from this bleak predicament is to a land of
Films of Of Mice and Men rarely do justice to Steinbeck's
depiction of the bleak existence endured by migrant ranch hands. Sanitised
for the average American cinema audience, the story usually becomes a trite
tale of strong friendship in the face of mild adversity. The most recent
Hollywood offering ends with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich as George and
Lennie strolling together through golden fields in a celebration of the
spiritual benefits of working the land. Throughout, the characters have worn
stylish clothing which changes in each scene. It would be hard to imagine a
greater distortion of the ranch hand's experience.
These were hard times. In the middle of the Great Depression, the
influx of a million migrants into California from the Dustbowl states had
made labour even cheaper, and competition for jobs was fierce. The wealthy
landowners could pick and choose a workforce, and offer low wages, because
the ranch hands were in no position to complain. Indeed, George and Lennie
would be thankful for the work when most Oklahoma migrants, like the Joad
family in The Grapes of Wrath, were utterly destitute and enduring barbaric
conditions and oppression in overcrowded camps. Even local ranch hands like
George and Lennie lived in very basic accommodation with only the barest
essentials. They worked all day in the hot sun until their skin was almost
black. Utterly dependent on the boss for their welfare and sustenance, they
could be 'canned' at any moment. With low pay and no security, they
could not make long-term plans, and could not afford to start families. All
the ranch workers in the novel remain single, wasting what little money they
can set aside in the local 'cathouse'. In the context of this
social and economic background, their dreams of living 'off the fatta
the lan' are both psychologically necessary and ludicrously far-fetched.
Powerlessness and the will to powerThe best laid schemes o' mice and men
Gang aft agley
And lea'e us nought but grief and pain
For promised joy.
The novel's title, taken from Robert Burns's poem
'To a Mouse' (1785), invites the reader to make comparisons with
the plight of the tenant farmers in Scotland in the late eighteenth century.
In the poem, the tenant farmer, dependent on an absentee landlord for food
and shelter and knowing he could be evicted on the instant, feels as
powerless as the mouse whose house his plough has accidentally overturned.
Higher rents, consolidation of farms and the introduction of large-scale
commercial sheep farming to a struggling economy made the tenant
farmer's position impossible and culminated in mass migration following
the Highland Clearances. Steinbeck carries the same metaphor to his novel,
where the mouse is a cipher for the powerless ranch hand, trapped in the
pocket of a man who has no control over his own power and who cannot help but
Though Burns's poem may be read as a cry for revolution, it
is difficult to read Of Mice and Men in the same way, for its power
structures are not offered as something dispensable. At no point are we
invited to believe that the brutal hierarchy could be replaced with a
communist utopia and all would be well. The colour red is presented as an
attractive but dangerous, and ultimately fatal, temptation. Of Mice and Men
is no crude polemic, advocating a communist ideal. Instead, the divisions of
power seem ingrained. The characters are realistic precisely because each is
driven by his own will to power. Slim's authority, Carlson's
brutality, Lennie's strength, Curley's posturing--each character
has his own means of trying to gain influence over others. This is
specifically rendered in the description of each character's hands: the
temple dancer, the stick-like wrist, the bear paws, the glove fulla Vaseline.
Those who fail to achieve any influence restore their self-esteem
in their imagination: in their dreams they are powerful. Thus the alternative
societies offered in the text, such as Lennie and George's dream of
owning a ranch, are just as hierarchical as the Soledad ranch. Even the weak
characters in the pecking order inherit the brutality of the regime they have
had to endure. Crooks's face lights up with pleasure in his torture of
Lennie, and Candy pauses in relish of the memory of Smitty almost beating
Crooks to death.
The divisions of power are permanent and meticulously observed.
Characters only enter and leave the room in the order of status, a status
defined by the cards which George turns in his endless game of solitaire.
Each scene records the struggle and failure of each character to change that
status. Curley challenges Lennie only to have his hand crushed; Crooks stands
up to Curley's wife only to retreat into the 'terrible protective
dignity of the negro' when he is told she could have him 'strung up
so easy it aint funny'.
The rigidity of the existing hierarchy is reinforced by the
ideology of the ranch hands themselves. The Western magazines that they
'secretly believe' contain tales of solitary individuals somehow
capable of extraordinary feats of skill which set them apart from their
fellow men. Slim is initially presented to us as the embodiment of this
fantasy, an archetypal cowboy capable of 'killing a fly on the
wheeler's butt without touching the mule', although we are later
allowed to see through the facade: we note, for example, his shaking hands
when he fails to intervene in the killing of Candy's dog.
The Western magazines show the ranch hands a world of gunmanship,
posses and retributive justice. However, this culture is applied on the ranch
by characters struggling to satisfy their will to power, and what emerges is
not justice but a vengeful brutality. Curley's wife threatens to have
Crooks lynched, Carlson shoots Candy's dog merely because of its smell,
and Curley hunts Lennie down not to achieve justice for the killing of his
wife but because Lennie has crushed his hand.
A glimpse of a better world
The harsh economic conditions and the self-centred application of
Western magazine culture combine to create a world which discriminates for
disability, gender and race. The disabled characters like Candy become old
and useless with no place to go and no future. Women are treated as
prostitutes. Curley's wife is denied the dignity of a name, and is
described as a tart and a lulu, the same name given to Slim's dog. The
negro Crooks is housed with the animals, and suffers in abject loneliness.
The ranch his father owned has long ago been taken away, and the mauled copy
of the California Civil Code of 1905 on his shelf suggests many vain years of
trying to recover it.
Yet at the edges of this desperate gloom, Steinbeck allows us
glimpses of a better world. The ranch hands play a horseshoe game in which
Crooks is allowed to participate, and the contrived puns on stake and
tenement here suggest the possibility of holding property in common. George
has progressed from an attitude in the past in Sacramento when he exploited
and ridiculed Lennie to a parental role in which he now cares for him. The
novel closes with a distinction between those like Carlson and Curley who
will never understand the emotions and needs of others, and those like George
and Slim who are capable of understanding and forming friendships but who
have to cope with a society so sickened by the struggle to survive that they
are forced into mercy killing. Thus the glimmer of hope for a better world is
Of Mice and Men argues that the gulf between the gritty struggle
for survival and the ideal dream life can never be bridged, except in death.
While Steinbeck exposes the inequalities in society and encourages the reader
to sympathise with the plight of poor migrant workers, his depiction of the
inherent will to power in human nature shows us that attempts to change the
social system will be futile. As the opening scene reminds us, men are
trapped in a set of relations which work like fate. Americans will continue
to dream, like Martin Luther King, that the nation will live out the true
meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal. But for Steinbeck the
American Dream of self-sufficiency and living off the fat of the land,
premised as it is on a gun culture which involves brutality and the
exploitation of the weak, is doomed to failure. The magnitude of this failure
is recorded by the extent to which Lennie, a cipher for America, is denied
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Proulx, A. (1992) Postcards, Scribner.
Slater, J. F. (1974) 'Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men'
in T. Hayashi (ed.) A Study Guide to Steinbeck, Scarecrow Press.
Duncan Reith teaches English at The Thomas Hardye School,
Source Citation Reith, Duncan. "Futile dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men: the American novelist John Steinbeck has sometimes been criticised as a sentimentalist. Duncan Reith uncovers the bleak political pessimism behind his novel of ranch life during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men." The English Review Nov. 2004: 6+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Mar. 2010.Document URL