Symbolism and themes in the opening to Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck is not a subtle writer, or a writer who only does things once. You’ll notice if you read a lot of his stuff that he has several big ideas that run through his novels. His symbolism and use of themes in Of Mice and Men are ideas that are picked up and tracked through the whole novel.

Opening sentences are so vital. Writers fret over openings more than any other part of their story. Some openings have become so famous that most people don’t even realise which novel they are from any more. Of Mice and Men is no different.

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hill-side bank and runs deep and green.”

So what do we have here?

We have a place, Soledad. Of all the places John Steinbeck could have picked in California, along the course of the Salinas River even, and he picks one which is the Spanish for ‘solitude’. A Town called Loneliness. I don’t think it’s difficult to work out why he chose this town out of all the towns in the area.

Soledad picks up on other themes John Steinbeck has explored in other novels, such as in East of Eden, one of his “big two” novels. In the opening to that novel, Steinbeck is at pains to point out the history of this area, how it foreshadows what is to come. An area where indigenous tribes lived, followed by the Spanish.

“First there were the Indians… they ate what they could pick up and planted nothing… Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God… Then the Americans came – more greedy because there were more of them”

You always get a sense with John Steinbeck that he sees California as the last great hope for the American Dream, a land that is plentiful and rich, but a land that has outlived any attempt at settlement. Right from the opening of both novels, we get a sense of the permanence of place and the impermanence of Man.

Notice too in that first sentence how Steinbeck uses the present tense. The river “drops”. The present tense gives it an immediacy and a reality. It was like that then and is like that now, even though eighty years separate us from the story, written in 1937. He’s telling us that this place still exists, is still like this. It adds to that sense of the permanence of the place and the way that men are just passers-by.

The river is important. It’s the river he chooses to describe first. Rivers are laden with symbolism – a symbolism you can’t avoid. A river is a river is a river, but it is SO much more than that, especially in a context that is about to get REALLY Biblical.

Water is first, foremost and scientifically, a life-giver. Water is why there is life on this planet. It’s the first sign that scientists look at when speculating about whether there is life on other planets or not. After air, water is a necessity. In many creation mythologies, rivers play important roles. It’s the Garden of Eden, though, that comes to mind first.

The garden of Eden is the mythological paradise given to Man by God when he made us. First, we hear about the garden. Then we learn that God filled it with trees. Next up are four rivers. The first river is the Pishon, which flows through a land of gold. Hmmm. Strange. Here we have the Salinas which flows through a land of gold (it’s not called the California Gold Rush for no reason!) Into this garden, God puts Adam, to work the land “and take care of it.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Steinbeck uses the same sequence as the book of Genesis. If you worry about making links between Steinbeck and Genesis, don’t forget he gave titles taken directly from the Bible to his two great epic novels. Both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath pick up on these ideas and develop them. It seems like he’s just playing around with the ideas here. There are other symbolisms for a river, but I think the most logical one is to forge a connection between this text and Genesis.

There are other options though. Rivers are tears. Rivers are also a big part of purification too. They can be a symbol of life and renewal, or the passage of time, since they too are unstopping and unrelenting. But, to me, the Genesis connection has much more evidence to go with it, not least the “golden foothills” and the “trees”. It’s like John Steinbeck is creating his own Eden.

So, from the first sentence, we pick up two main strands: a strand involving the theme of loneliness and a strand involving links to Eden. We’ve got Steinbeck acting like a playwright here, picking out and describing a scene into which he will introduce his characters. He’s describing a visual image for us that we can quite clearly imagine.

This is a gentle scene, filled with peaceful words and a relaxed pace. The river “runs deep” and “the water is warm”. There are lots of words that convey a sense of sunshine and warmth, “the yellow sands in the sunlight” and the “golden foot-hill slopes”. Everything is green and filled with life, from the “green” river to the “willows fresh and green”.

Rivers and trees. Two of literature’s most powerful symbols. When Romeo is sick of love, where does he go? To the sycamores – sick-amore – sick-love. Willows are not called weeping willows for no good reason – their branches trail into the water. Did you know that most countries have a tree as a national symbol? Countries like to choose oaks – strong and long-lasting. Canada put its whimsical maple leaf on its flag. Lebanon has a cedar on its flag. We all bring evergreen pines in at Christmas time as a sign that life continues in the darkness. The Japanese have whole festivals around cherry blossom. Willows can be a symbol of tears and loss, but in Shakespeare, they are a reminder of the impermanence of life.

In the opening, we’ve got the mention of “willows fresh and green with every spring” – the first reference, other than the vivid present tense, of anything to do with the passage of time. Steinbeck goes on to mention “winter’s flooding”. I told you he’s not subtle. If you didn’t pick up on the “every spring”, you should have got it by “winter’s flooding.” Flooding is a very natural phenomenon, but also reminds us of the flood sent by God as a reversal of Creation – a wiping-out, a purging of the wicked. Here, the floods bring death.

The only signs of disturbance are very gentle. A lizard with its “skittering” run who disturbs the “crisp and deep” leaves – another seasonal reminder of the passage of time. This scene seems like a scene without death or predators, with rabbits who feel safe enough to “come out of the brush to sit on the sand”. Those rabbits are going to be very significant in the story. The word “rabbit” or “rabbits” is mentioned seventy-four times in Of Mice and Men. Is it a coincidence that Lennie mentions rabbits in one of his early conversations with George? I’d go as far as to say that rabbits are an obsession of Lennie’s.

“I remember about the rabbits, George.”

“I wish’t we’d get the rabbits pretty soon, George.”

“Go on, George… tell about the rabbits!”

“Let’s have different color rabbits, George.”

“George, how long’s it gonna be before we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’ – an’ rabbits?”

As Curley’s Wife says, “Don’t you think of nothing but rabbits?”

In fact, when Lennie loses control, he imagines a huge rabbit hopping up and telling him off in the final chapter. The rabbits are like a little reminder of the dream – that’s Lennie’s dream. He’s not interested in the house or the farm, or eating even. He’s interested in “tending the rabbits.” Once you start looking for the rabbits, you can’t stop seeing them. Steinbeck has put them everywhere.

There are other animals here, too. There are racoons and dogs from the ranches, the deer that “come to drink in the dark.” It’s very pastoral (countryside!) and idyllic. It’s a perfect, tranquil, undisturbed world without predators. Having said that, there are little reminders with the winter and the flooding that life is as much about death as it is about birth and growth.

At the end of the first paragraph, we get a feeling for the opening so far: an idyllic, undisturbed paradise on earth that establishes some of the big ideas – the permanence of nature and the world, the cyclical nature of things, the present tense and its immediacy.

The shift comes with the paragraph change. “There is a path through the willows” – the path is still there, it’s still in the present tense. At first, it could be animals, but Steinbeck makes it more precise: “a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.”

The path in itself is often a symbol of a life. Paths and roads are often symbols of how lives go. It’s perhaps a sign that there have been many people who have followed the same route. As we read more about the farm workers as the novel unfolds, these are the ranch hands that come and go like an unceasing tide. Nothing changes. To me, the path shows how people come and go. It doesn’t matter who they are. As we learn later about the ranch hands and the American Dream, it’s perhaps an indication that George and Lennie will not be the first wanderers to dream of success and security, there are many others who have followed the same route. A path is not a place in itself. It is a journey. A connection between where you have been and where you are going. This is why it’s a powerful metaphor for life. In a way, that’s a bit like the river, too. A path can also be a learning curve. When someone says they are ‘on the path to enlightenment’, they mean they are in the process of understanding something. We also say something is ‘off the beaten path’ if it is undiscovered and less popular. In Of Mice and Men, this IS a beaten path. It IS a popular route. We might ask ourselves why this little scene is such a popular destination.

A path is also a very powerful Biblical image as well, from the most well-known psalm – psalm 23. This psalm is known as the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ which says God “leads me along paths of righteousness” – but is a psalm that has become associated with death and funerals. It’s a very evocative image of being guided through life.

If we had not picked up on the “beaten hard”, we are reminded that there is the ash of “many fires” and the limb of the tree is “worn smooth” by the men who have sat upon it. Three little details that reveal John Steinbeck impressing upon us the popularity of this spot. It is a path travelled by many men. George and Lennie’s story may be unique and different, a story worth telling and a story that stands out, but for other ranchers, they are one of many.

After the second paragraph, the text becomes past tense. The time shift moves the text back many years. Steinbeck’s establishing shot is complete. He has already planted the seeds of ideas which will grow – the idea of paradise lost and the idea of a dream or path followed by many. In evoking the image of Eden and the use of the present tense, Steinbeck gives us the idea that this place endures unchanged. Men come and go, with their dreams and ambitions, but the mountains, the passing of the seasons, the sun, these things remain the same.

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