It’s no great secret to those who follow my blog that American literature is a love of mine. Despite it being cut from every English Literature GCSE going, I was able to teach this novella to my year 9 class last half term. What astounds me is the reaction you get from young people about the content and how people were treated during the Great Depression in America. Also, the live stream from the National Theatre Live is rapidly approaching, something I’m very excited about. Therefore, it seems to be the perfect opportunity to review this short but powerful book.
The novella opens with vast description of a plantation and two migrant field workers during the Great Depression. The surprise at this part being that these men always travel together. Notoriously during this time, men were lonely and were forever moving from place to place, so relationships were difficult to form and hardly worth doing. George Milton is an intelligent man, but uneducated. His friend, Lennie Small is almost an opposite to him. What has lacks in mental abilities he makes up for in strength and his large size. The men are in Soledad, meaning loneliness in Spanish, on their way to another ranch for work.
“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”
The man have massive hopes for the future, and dare I say it, unrealistic hopes for their future. They have a shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie’s addition to the dream is he wants to tend the rabbits. Lennie enjoys touching soft things, like animals fur. However, he always kills them, accidentally, because of his strength and over petting. This dream is one of Lennie’s favourite stories. He constantly makes George repeat it over and over.
At the start of the novella, we meet the men as they are fleeing from their current employment in Weed, California. Unfortunately they have to flee because of Lennie, who we quickly learn is more of a hindrance than a help. Lennie was stroking a girls dress and refused to let go. This resulted in an accusation of rape. George and Lennie are more than best friends. George is Lennie’s protector, despite the irritation Lennie causes him and the disruption to his life.
‘George’s voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.'”
The men stop for the night in the brush on their way to the new ranch and make a plan in case anything should go wrong. It is repeated by George to ensure Lennie remembers. It is here we see Lennie petting a dead mouse, which George throws into the outback.
Once the men reach the ranch and are hired, the men realise the ranch is more of a dystopia rather than utopia. The ranch is clearly a dangerous place. They are confronted by the boss, who is suspicious of Lennie (George gave him strict instructions not to speak) and then they are confronted by Curley – the Boss’s son. He’s a small but mean and aggressive person. He dislikes larger men which makes Lennie a target for his anger. It’s mentioned how he keeps a hand soft for his wife. What a charmer! Curley’s wife, who isn’t given a name, arguably because she’s a woman and Curley’s object, also poses as a problem for the men. Lennie is instantly attracted to her. Steinbeck’s description of her homes in the readers connotations of red. But equally, the description of her is one of my favourite pieces of writing.
‘A girl was standing there looking in. She had full, rouged lips and wide-spaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers.’
Contrastingly, George and Lennie meet the other ranch workers. Firstly, Candy: a kind, old, aged ranch hand, with one fully working hand, and a loyal dog. Secondly, Slim: the kind, intelligent, intuitive jerkline-skinner, whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. The first (of many) heartbreaking scenes come from when Candy’s dog is killed for being old, smelly and useless. Candy is heartbroken and lies facing the wall in silence. His only friend, gone. Slim gives a puppy to both Candy and Lennie but it isn’t the same.
There dream does show some sign of life when Candy offers to give the men $350 towards buying a farm at the end of the month, in return for their permission to live there. The trio are the happiest we ever see them. But, it doesn’t last for long. Curley stomps around the ranch looking for his wife, he picks on Lennie and repeatedly punches him. Lennie does nothing without George’s permission. After a moment, George tells him to retaliate. Lennie catches Curley’s fist and easily crushes it. He is immediately upset, he didn’t want to do it. A stark reminder to both Lennie and George that there’s plenty of obstacles in their way before their dream can be a reality.
“Lennie covered his face with huge paws and bleated with terror.”
Nevertheless, George feels relaxed, since their dream is almost within their grasp. He decides to leave Lennie on the ranch whilst he popped to town with the other ranch hands. Lennie aimlessly wonders into the stable where he meets Crooks. He too is isolated on the ranch. He’s a bitter, yet educated stable buck. He’s black, so has his own room. St first he is hostile towards Lennie being there, but eventually they get along and start chatting. Candy finds them and they talk about their dreams for the farm. Crooks too gets carried away with the idea and asks if he could hoe a garden patch on the farm, despite his initial reaction of scorning the possibility of achieving the dream.
Curley’s Wife appears and starts flirting with the men. Crooks is visibly uncomfortable with her being there. Contextually, it’s no secret that black people were not treated well at all. Curley’s Wife doesn’t get the reaction she’s looking for, so is spiteful to them, especially Crooks because of his race. She threatens to have him hung.
“Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”
The very next day, Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Lennie is upset. At this point, Curley’s Wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie. It is here, because of her audience being Lennie and him only, we learn her story. She’s given room for a voice, for a second anyway. She’s incredibly lonely, Curley wants her in the house all day every day. Her dreams of becoming a movie star were crushed. She tries to talk to the ranch men to pass the time, and ease the loneliness. Lennie confesses to her that he likes to stroke soft things, so she lets him stroke her hair. She repeatedly asks Lennie no to mess it, but he doesn’t let go. She panics and begins to scream, thus resulting in Lennie yelling at her to stop. Lennie is frightened and unintentionally breaks her neck. Again, his immediate reaction is sadness. He didn’t mean to, or even want to kill her.
‘Curley’s wife lay with a half-covering of yellow hay. And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young. Now her rouged cheeks and reddened lips made her seem alive and sleeping very lightly. The curls, tiny little sausages, were spread on the hay behind her head and her lips were parted.’
Lennie remembers the plan he and George made, and runs and hides in the brush. When the ranch hands return and find her, George realises what has happened. Their dream, or the illusion of their dream, is shattered. The men support George and keep him away so rules knows he had nothing to do with it. Curley wants revenge. He wants Lennie dead. George hurries to find him, hoping he will be at the meeting place they pre-organised. George knows that there’s only one thing he can do to save Lennie this time.
George meets a very unhappy and worried Lennie at the spot. It’s almost a little ironic that Lennie can remember this and not much else. The friends sit together and they share the story they love: the bright future together, yet knowing it is something they won’t get to share now. Whilst Lennie tells the story, George shoots his one and only friend, in the back of the head. His death was painless and Lennie died happy. The other men, Curley, Slim and Carlson find George seconds after he spot Lennie. Only Slim realises that George killed Lennie out of love. Surely it’s better to be killed by your best friend than a mob? Slim leads him gently and consolingly away, whilst Curley and Carlson look on. The mood is subdued. The dream is over.
“I can still tend the rabbits, George? I didn’t mean no harm, George.”
Whenever I read this novel, I feel heartbroken all over again. The themes of friendship and loneliness run parallel and throughout. This time period in America meant that the common every day working man struggled and was desperately afraid. There are lessons we can earn from this. It’s also almost incomprehensible that so much happens in such a short space of time. This is Steinbeck’s writing at its most honest and finest.
Big love x