Why Of Mice and Men will always be relevant

On Edexcel’s January 2013 IGCSE English Literature paper, there was a particularly lovely question about Of Mice and Men. 

The novel was first published in 1937. What is it about the themes of the novel that continue to attract readers?

It’s a much more interesting question than the usual character questions and asks you to engage with the themes in general.

 

As a novella, Of Mice and Men picks up on some of the themes that Steinbeck would go on to explore in his two great works, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. It’s a didactic, moralistic text that preaches the dangers of believing in dreams, specifically in the American Dream, and it teaches us the value of friendship and companionship.

The title is our first indication of the major theme of the text, taken from Robert Burns’ poem Ode To A Mouse. In it, Burns writes a brief allegory about a field mouse whose house is destroyed by a farmer (i.e. Robert Burns in this case) and cautions the mouse that “the best laid plans of mice and men…” often don’t work out and leave us with nothing but “grief and pain”. Steinbeck seems too to find the dreams and plans of George and Lennie to be “silly” and pointless, although he ends a little more hopefully than Burns, who says that the mouse is better off than he, since the mouse isn’t filled with dread and anxiety about the future.

All through the novella, we get the sense that George and Lennie’s “dream” will never work out, that they will never have enough money, or that there are unforeseen problems that they have not thought about. From the moment we hear of the path “beaten hard” by men who have come and gone, the “ashes” of the fire, we realise that George and Lennie are but the latest in a long line of men who have come here before. George describes it as a dream come true, “it ain’t enough land that we’d have to work too hard” a Paradise-regained with rabbits and pigeons, a dog and a couple of cats, a place where friends could stay if they liked, yet within seconds, he tells Candy “the ol’ people that owns it is flat bust” Steinbeck also uses the words of Crooks to point out the ridiculousness of their dream, “I seen hundreds of men come by on the roads… an’ that same damn thing in their heads” pointing out that it’s “just like heaven”. For George at first, we get the impression that the dream is born of desperation, of hope for a better life, for roots and a place to belong, a place where Lennie will be safe and they won’t get “canned”. When Candy finally proposes the money, the dream becomes tangible, something they might finally achieve, rather than just a fireside story he tells Lennie by way of entertainment. George realises at that moment that “the thing they had never really believed in was coming true” which shows us that up until now, it was just a hopeless fairy story. Even Crooks falls for the dream, “if you guys would want a hand to work for nothing – just his keep”, but his dream is interrupted by Curley’s Wife, whose death will put an end to the dream for this bunch of “bindle stiffs and dum-dums”. Here, we’re reminded of a bigger truth: the novella is run through with images of Paradise, of Eden regained. From the very opening of the novella, Steinbeck paints a picture that is reminiscent of Eden whilst simultaneously reminding us that our species were banished from Eden for our sins. Just like Adam and Eve, a woman will be the downfall of mankind. Like Cain, the itinerant workers will be forced to travel from farm to farm, nomadic and rootless. Even in his choice of surname for George, “Milton”, Steinbeck is leaving us not-so-subtle clues about “Paradise Lost” – since John Milton’s major work was an epic poem recounting the tale of how Adam and Eve came to lose Eden. Every time there is mention of hope, of permanence, of a future more solid than the one they have now, Steinbeck reminds us that such dreams are bound only to leave us disappointed. It’s this theme that is universal, for him.

The belief in the American Dream doesn’t seem to be decreasing: it is the land of Bill Gates, the land of Steve Jobs, the land of Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. Men become millionnaires, rising up out of the masses. California is still the universal symbol of hope for riches and fame and a reminder of the reality. For every Angelina Jolie, there are a thousand waitresses waiting for their big part in a movie or film script. American movies and television shows are still filled with the ultimate belief that you can go to Los Angeles and become a movie star or a rock star, that you can move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley and build the next Microsoft, the next Apple, the next Google or the next Facebook. That’s why Of Mice and Men is still relevant. It’s an allegory for men and women who dream, who have “plans”. Whether it’s George’s dream of financial stability and a life in a modern paradise, or Curley’s Wife who thinks she “could of been in movies”, many of the characters in Of Mice and Men have a dream, and they are the ones who end up dead or broken-hearted. Steinbeck’s message couldn’t be clearer. That message is still relevant, perhaps even more so than ever.

Although there are clearly details that date the novella, the universality of the message is what makes it a classic tale. There will be times of plenty and times of poverty: you don’t have to have lived through the Great Depression to understand it, nor do you have to have lived in this period of matter-of-fact racism to understand it. We still see and hear racist things, although it’s doubtful we would be so accepting of the reality of Crooks’ existence. Few people today would let Candy’s tale about Christmas and the way the men “let the nigger come in” at Christmas only for someone to “take after” him, along with the anecdote that if Smitty had been allowed to use his feet, he’d have “killed the nigger”. Whether or not this the bravado of a man who has been beaten by a cripple in a fight, it doesn’t matter. We see the general acceptance of violence towards black men, just as we do when Curley’s Wife tells him that she could “get him strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even true.” One word and Crooks would be murdered. It’s doubtful many of us would stand by these days and allow such overtly cruel actions, but we still live in an age of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, where it is de rigueur to blame immigrants for everyone. Segregation and the Jim Crow laws may have ended in the 1960s, but we are no less tolerant as a species and every passing decade only serves to bring us a new target to hate. The isolation and social exclusion of different groups is still a topic that is as relevant today as it was to the 1930s.

We may find the “angel in the home” clichés about Curley’s Wife to be alien from us today. Perhaps. One only has to talk to students of the text to hear views that are not far removed from those of fundamentalist religious groups. Curley’s Wife “asked” to be killed, she “deserved it” – it’s almost laughable to think that because a woman might wear red, might put on make-up on a farm, might hang around looking for a little attention, that she might “deserve” to die. Yet many students believe this! We like to think that women are free to choose what they want to do or how they want to dress, that they can choose to marry whomever they like, that they have other options available than prostitution or being somebody’s wife, yet this is the time when “slut-shaming” seems to be as popular as ever, when men can sing songs about rape and get to the top of the charts with a fist-bump from their friends and men are always going to be “a dog” or “a stud” if they have many sexual partners, but a woman is just “a slut”. We like to think we have come so far in the eighty years since Steinbeck published his novel, but many people still believe that a provocatively-dressed woman “deserves” all she gets.

As for the other themes, friendship, loneliness, violence, justice… they’re all still just as relevant in today’s society. It’s this relevance that makes it a modern classic. Each time I read it, I take something more from it. I always find something new in it.

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