Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Novella, Tragedy
Contrary to what most of us believe, life has never been easy. Throughout our history as a species, we have fought and struggled against our circumstances in order to somehow, someday improve them. Set in a California wracked by the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men tells one such story. Gruff, world-weary George and his strong but mentally handicapped friend Lennie roam from farm to farm working in the hope of one day owning land that they can call theirs and answering to no one. The novel’s themes of hope, compassion and independence remain as relevant to us today as they were almost a century ago. The timelessness of John Steinbeck’s classic comes not only from this enduring relevance but also from the simple elegance of its storytelling; at slightly over a hundred pages, the novel is a tender snapshot of the place and time.
Too many see the novel’s subject matter, age and status as a ‘classic’ and immediately assume that it will make for heavy reading. They are not entirely wrong – while Steinbeck’s word choice and style is simple and easy to parse, a transience tinges the characters and their interactions, as though the slightest disturbance could shatter it and disperse it into the wind. Likewise, throughout the novel the atmosphere too feels tense and fragile, like a stray word could set it ablaze. Despite the novel’s length, the side characters are fully developed and given a great deal of depth. Steinbeck has taken great pains to flesh these characters out and each one seems to be screaming silently, fighting desperately to get out of the cages that life has trapped them in. Exploring these characters’ pasts takes up the bulk of the book and some have stories that will pluck at your heartstrings – not so much because of the hardships they encounter and overcome but more because of how easy it is to understand their simple, powerful desire to be free and happy.
In the end, the events detailed in Of Mice and Men are not nearly as important or interesting as the characters and what their interactions reveal to us about human nature. The novel speaks to our need to be free of the shackles of society and its judgements, to be free of our debts and our desire to be our own people and answer to no one. It speaks to the power and the poison of hope – it can unite and uplift but without it we can crumble in a heartbeat. It reminds us of what it is like to be lonely in the presence of others and to not be understood but most of all it, shows us the rare, and sometimes baffling, compassion of mankind. Ninety years separate us from Steinbeck but in an era where we continue to isolate each other, Of Mice and Men can remind us just how little human nature has changed.