Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

I hate this book.  It's sad, it's depressing, it's basically pointless.  I read it in high school and hated it, and when I re-read it this week, I hated it even more.  I have come to the conclusion that Steinbeck was an unhappy man, and that he enjoyed being so.  He seems to have delighted in creating miserable characters, sticking them in hopeless situations, and then watching them squirm.  This strikes me as cruel.  He deliberately creates worlds where the only choices are bad ones, where kindness and innocence are stomped upon, where there is no possibility for a change for the better.  That is not good writing -- in fact, it smacks of laziness.  I recently read a wonderful blog post called "Why the Hunger Games Needs Yellow Boots," and I have concluded that John Steinbeck's books needed yellow boots.  This one certainly did.

Of Mice and Men is about two drifting farm hands, George and Lennie, during America's Great Depression.  They get work on a ranch baling alfalfa, and George tries to keep the others there from learning about the trouble Lennie has gotten into in the past.  Lennie is feeble-minded, but a brutishly strong giant.  He loves soft things, like mice and puppies, but has a tendency to accidentally kill them.  Nothing good can possibly happen in this book, there is no uplifting lesson to be learned, and all told, I find it dreadful.

There is only one reason why I re-read this book, and why I read it all the way through to the end instead of chucking it back in the library bag after a few pages.  That reason is named Sawyer.

(Josh Holloway as James "Sawyer" Ford on Lost)

Yes, I re-read a book I hate because of how much I love a fictional character.  I'm a sad, strange little woman, I expect.  But it's the truth.  Sawyer reads the book while in prison during one of Lost's flashback sequences, and the book itself is referenced or discussed several times throughout the show.  One of these years, I'm going to embark on a quest to read all the books that Sawyer reads throughout the series, but I'm not really feeling up to that yet. 

Anyway, at one point in the show, Sawyer said that his favorite author is Steinbeck, and while he may have been lying (Sawyer is a consummate liar, after all), I take that statement at face value because I find it revelatory.  From what I know about Steinbeck's novels, they are about miserable, lonely, dysfunctional people.  What would draw a character I love so much to books like that?  Well, possibly the fact that he himself is miserable, lonely, and dysfunctional, for starters.  

As I read this, I kept trying to imagine Sawyer reading it.  In prison, isolated not by choice this time.  Would he have identified with George, the drifter trying to protect and care for the simpleminded giant, Lennie?  At the time, I think he would have scoffed at George for being soft, for making the mistake of letting himself care about someone who could do nothing for him.  But I like to think that, subconsciously, Sawyer would have understood, maybe even wished for a devoted friend.  

Later, on the island, I see echoes of George and Lennie in the way Sawyer interacts with Hurley.  Hurley, like Lennie, is large physically, but almost childlike in his kindness and innocence.  He is just about the only character who is nice to Sawyer throughout the first season.  Sawyer, like George, repeatedly says hurtful things to his only friend, then feels kinda sorta bad about it.  Sawyer, like George, is a drifter, a dreamer, and a pragmatist.  But unlike George, Sawyer has options.  There are plenty of yellow boots on the island.  Again and again, Sawyer has opportunities to grow, to change, to make good decisions or bad, to learn.

I can see why Sawyer the con artist might have been drawn to Steinbeck's books.  I hope that later in life, though, he saw them for the contrived exercises in misery I find them to be, and found a new favorite author.  Even Dickens would be a more cheerful choice.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for lots of bad language, discussions of whorehouses, and innuendo.

This is my 24th book read and reviewed for the Classics Club.

18 comments:

  1. Ah....but I love this book. (and...bit of an aside, one of the things that I enjoy about the Classics Club, is the affinity I have with other members, that occasionally runs completely opposite). You and I are more often of a similar mind, so let me tell you why I love this book, with no attempt or hope of dissuading you.

    I love it for ONLY one simple reason. George loves Lennie. His love is horribly misguided, but nonetheless the horrible decision he makes at the end...is out of love for his friend. George does not know how to help Lennie but he knows that prison will be a slow, miserable death. So he does the only thing his ignorant but not simple mind can think of. It is wrong, it is misguided, it is horrible...but it is driven by unconditional and sacrificial love.

    I weep every time I read it.

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    1. Joseph, I've found that to be true with a lot of bloggers I follow. We'll like 90% of the same things, but then that other 10% we couldn't disagree more on. Keeps things interesting! On another blog, I'm currently embroiled in an increasingly long-winded debate over whether Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is kind, considerate, and helpful or vain, manipulative, and selfish!

      Yes, George does love Lennie. And George needs Lennie, I think, because George needed that dream about the farm just as much as Lennie did. That's part of what depresses me so very much about this book -- not just that George is forced to kill Lennie, which is sad, but that George's future is now so very bleak, which is heartbreaking. He has no more friend, no more dream, nothing to look forward to but $50 to spend in a cat house every month. His life is now as bleak as can be, and it makes me cry too.

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  2. Sounds like such a delightful, upbeat read. I must run out and buy a gilt-edged copy right this very moment. *end sarcasm*

    Honestly, my single experience with Steinbeck is James Dean in East of Eden, a fairly depressing movie that I absolutely adore. From what I understand, it's not even all that close to the book. I've thought of reading the novel, but never motivated myself enough.

    I may read at least one of Steinbeck's works at some point, but I'll avoid him for as long as I can. I commend you for finishing a book that you clearly hated. Those types of reads are always such an uphill battle, but at least you can say you've read it and then gives reasons why you hate it.

    (I always LOVED Sawyer in Lost, pretty much the only character I empathized with)

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    1. Carissa, yes, save this for a rainy day when you have PMS and your favorite TV show just got cancelled -- it'll lift you right up!

      Snort.

      Yeah, I've seen East of Eden too, and James Dean was luminous in it (of course). I think I will probably try both it and The Grapes of Wrath at some point, but I am not committed to reading them all the way through, I must admit. I read Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat about a year ago, and I didn't completely hate it, but I didn't really like it either. It's not quite as depressing as this, but equally pointless.

      Sawyer, Sawyer, Sawyer. While I do genuinely like some of the other characters (especially Desmond, Sun, Charlie, Juliet, and Hurley), by the time I'd finished the first disc, I was centered firmly on Sawyer, and he... is my constant, I guess :-) He's one of my 5 favorite characters of all time, all books, all movies, all shows <3

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  3. Yeah, my Grandma hates this book too. I'm keeping away. :-)

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    1. Naomi, that is a perfectly sensible plan! The best thing I can say about this book is that it's short.

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    2. Naomi, I thought you said your grandma liked it?

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    3. Emma, did I? (I told you my Aunt liked the movie, maybe. Because I have an aunt who loves it.) Maybe I forgot the 'doesn't' in my sentence. Those kind of typos do seem to happen in my life. (HAHAHA.)

      ~ Naomi

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  4. Oh, this book. What even is there to say? Like you, I hated it, but not completely and utterly -- because for some reason, I like John Steinbeck's writing in a strange sort of way. Not like, "oh he's such a great writer and his books are such FUN to read!" but more like, "Wow. This guy can write. I don't even know why this is so good, but it is."

    My first encounter with Steinbeck was East of Eden, which as you probably know is very dear to me. I watched the ABC miniseries and was BLOWN AWAY, and then I tackled the novel. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the novel. It's absolutely epic. I love it. Gaahhhh. I liked John Steinbeck's writing. Anyone who can create such deep characters has to have some amount of talent, I figure.

    So then when I found a copy of Of Mice and Men that matched my copy of East of Eden, I decided to get it. Then I read it. And OH MY WORD. If East of Eden was depressing, then Of Mice and Men is utterly hopeless. I didn't enjoy reading it. At some points it seemed very, like you said, pointless. It's not deep like East of Eden. It's grittier, and much more miserable. But for some reason it's still really profound. I can appreciate it. Still, I don't like it at all and would never re-read it.

    Yes, I agree that Steinbeck seems to have been a very unhappy personage. His books are certainly proof enough of that! But try East of Eden. It really is groundbreaking.

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    1. Emma, I can understand that dichotomy of loving a writer's way of writing, but not their novels -- I am exactly that way with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald! I do like a lot of their short stories and nonfiction writing, but I have yet to read a Fitzgerald novel I loved, and I only really like one of Hemingway's so far. But the way those two could write gives me goosebumps.

      I will try both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath at some point... maybe in a few years, when this book's bitter aftertaste has faded.

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  5. I don't hate "Of Mice and Men" or Steinbeck. I would say I have an appreciation for both; however, I completely understand those who don't like him. And I also found Sawyer a fascinating character and loved the fact that he read books. I got a kick out the episode where he was reading Judy Blume's "Are You There, God, It's Me, Margaret". I liked that he read whatever he got his hands on. There had to have been a limited amount of books from the plane crash.

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    1. Yes, until they discovered the hatch and the shelf or two of books there, he was particularly limited in what he could read. I love how that got him to try books like Judy Blume's that he would otherwise have disdained, which tickled me immensely, because I have a tendency to not want to step out of my reading comfort zone too, so I very much identified with his, "What am I reading? Why would I read this?" reactions.

      I think it was his reading that really endeared Sawyer to me. The first few eps, he only intrigued me, but once he started devouring books, I slid from fascinated to enchanted.

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  6. Well, I'm late to the party, but I'm glad I got to read your post. You had a legitimate reason for rereading Of Mice and Men. I used to like this one by Steinbeck, but when I reread it while my high schooler read it, I was taken aback. The language was too much for me, and the ending was more of a dead end (like Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl.

    I think Steinbeck was an unhappy man, too. Is it that he wanted to drag everyone down with him? I often wonder if that is why miserable people write such draining stories.

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    1. I was hoping you'd weigh in, Ruth! Especially considering your recent post about The Grapes of Wrath.

      I imagine that proponents of this book praise it for its gritty, realistic portrayal of the hopelessness people felt during the Depression. At least, I think that's what Steinbeck was trying to portray -- that for so many people, there were no good choices, there was no hope, there was no escape from the endless despair of hunger and want. Life was a dead end. I think that unhappy people often envy happy people their happiness, and want them to be more unhappy because, how is it fair that they are happy?

      Look at George and Lennie, even. Lennie's a pretty happy guy. He's got hope. He finds joy in the simplest things. George lashes out at him at times, trying to make him unhappy so that seeing Lennie's happiness doesn't make George feel worse about his own gloom.

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  7. So, I get that you hate, loathe, despise, and abominate M&M, but did you know Looney Tunes created a couple of characters based on George and Lennie?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idHnu6zkSaY

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    1. Hee! They can find humor in anything, huh?

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  8. Don't think I'll be reading this one anytime soon. But I did want to mention that article you linked to. I haven't read The Hunger Games, but there were so many great points she had. Lots of food for thought. I sent it to a friend of mine that has read THG and he thought she made a lot of sense. So thanks for sharing!

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    1. Kara, yeah, it is a major downer. I'm glad you liked that article! I haven't read that series either, but I think the article is so awesome that I've recommended it several times.

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