I read this on a train back to where I’m living in England from a trip up to Scotland for a holiday. It didn’t take me long to read, and I can see now why it is so relentlessly studied in schools. The story itself almost seems designed not to be imposing, and the physical volume is much the same. The way my copy—a Longman edition for students, with extra notes and questions for consideration—was bound, as a slick hardcover built to withstand years of desks and bags and storage cupboards and everything else in between, with the sans-serif font staring out at me, definitely makes it even less imposing. Like so many classics, Of Mice and Men has become a book that can be packaged and consumed—classics meet mass culture.
Of Mice and Men has a simple style but should not be taken as a simple book. It’s certainly worthy of being regarded as a good novel, for despite Steinbeck’s adherence to clear, descriptive prose and plenty of dialect-infused dialogue, there is a very serious, thoughtful subtext here. There are enough layers here for one to peel it very thoroughly over several readings. This style is not one that appeals to me that much, but Steinbeck demonstrates how, my own tastes aside, it remains as vibrant and viable as any other.
The core of the novel is the relationship between the two main characters, George and Lennie. George is small, clever, and has dreams for the future. Lennie is big, too strong for his own good, and “simple-minded”. Theirs is a relationship that vexes many other characters: why does George bother sticking up for, and looking out for, Lennie? Steinbeck never explicitly addresses this, though he comes close, hinting that without Lennie, George would truly be alone and would staunch that loneliness with the same remedies as the rest of the farm labourers—booze and women. George needs Lennie to keep the dream of the future—their own plot of land—alive. Without someone else to work towards this goal, George would lapse into easier but emptier ways.
The emptiness of that era, or at least that part of society in that era, pervades the story. Steinbeck’s sparse writing lends itself well to creating a sense of isolation on this farm. The world has stopped; progress has come to a standstill. To these men there is only the job: six days on and one day off, getting paid so they can spend it at the end of the week, moving on when it is time to find a new employer. It’s a dull cycle, and though we may gripe at our 9-to-5, we would be hard-pressed to say that we are worse off, with our Internet, mobile phones, libraries, and parks.
I can only fault Steinbeck for not being as loaquacious and expansive as I would like. There’s nothing stopping him from expanding his narrative. As it stands, Of Mice and Men’s story suffers from the kind of aimless, “and then this happened” storytelling that lesser writers make intolerable. It works here, thanks to Steinbeck’s other stylistic choices, but it’s not my favourite type of storytelling. And I know one can achieve effects similar to Steinbeck but with purpler prose—Of Mice and Men reminds me of John Irving’s works, particularly The Cider House Rules.
So I can see why Of Mice and Men has ruled the charts for so long. Like many classics, it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me personally—I think it’s a good novel, but it’s not one of my classics. Its brevity and simplicity mean, however, that reading it is not a chore. For that reason alone, this is probably a good novel to put on your list so you can cross it off and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that.” It’s another chapter in the cultural consciousness. And you never know … it might mean a lot to you.