Okay, okay, I’m not doing well at vacationing. Whatever. More guest posts to come and I’m not reading anything but magazines right now (!), so this is really and truly the last post from me for a few weeks. Plus Of Mice and Men is a novella and takes a couple of hours to read, so there.
Read it for book club and we had a decent discussion of the representation of women, the moral messages of the novel (life is suffering, individual ambition is foolish, mercy and justice are tricky) and the origins of the title (from the Burns poem, and not – as I thought – a message about the equivalence of mice and men in the order of the universe (OR IS IT…). And then the discussion turned to how you rate (or recommend) a ‘classic.’ (In our book club we each rate the novel on a scale from one to ten). Is a novel like this one – so tight, so well wrought, so contained and yet impactful – exempt from such reviews? Should we just take as stiuplated that if a novel has endured and continues to offer such rich readings that it is as a matter of course worth reading and recommending?
I concluded that I wouldn’t recommend this one, not because it had any faults or was in any way objectionable to read (though the representation of women did raise some questions), but… why not? I guess for me it felt stodgy and slow and entirely concerned with being an impactful piece of literature (I’m loathe to consider it, but I suspect if I returned to my – once favourite – East of Eden I’d find the same to be true). It makes a great novel to teach literary ideas, or to strucutre a Unitarian sermon, but it falls short – for me – of inviting a novel perspective, or — and this is silly — being that much fun.
That said, it does provoke unconsidered questions and is masterfully crafted. So I’m hardly going to say don’t read it. More I’m curious how you approach classic works: do you take for granted that they are excellent? Do you find yourself predisposed to a positive reading because you ‘ought’ to be?
Of Mice and Men asks a number of questions: what sacrifices are we willing to make for those we love? (as in George’s decision to continually uproot himself to protect Lennie) How do we know when we’re acting in the best interest of those we love, or acting selfishly? (as in Candy’s inability to put down his dog; and George’s climatic decision) What effect does intention have on culpability? (as in Lennie’s responsibility for crushing Curly’s hand, or *spoiler*)
But the issue that interested me the most was that of why, when we’re given the opportunity to have the things we’ve dreamed about and schemed for, why, when those things are within grasp we intentionally sabotage the opportunity, we turn away with two hands the (not even chance) promise of realizing our (supposed) dreamed future. Steinbeck’s novel proposes that there are two sorts of people: those who live for the perpetually postponed dream; and those who, when the opportunity for realization occurs, seize it. I’m not sure I accept such a stark dichotomy of people, indeed, I might rather have liked Steinbeck to have been a little more nuanced in his explanation of why this kind of personal sabotage takes place. It can’t be a simple as some people live in/for dreams, can it? And yet, Lennie’s childish interaction with the world, his constant deference to George work to build a character that is delicate, innocent, and for that, a fool. A fool not because he isn’t bright, but a fool to not just pass up, but actively refuse, the realization of his (or George’s?) dream. And George’s ultimate decision and action reveals him as the kind of man who will seize the opportunity, regardless of personal or ethical cost, the kind of man who will act selfishly and call it a benevolent or generous act. Though at the same time the selfishness – the at long last selfishness – is somehow its own kind of realization of a dream, to finally act for one’s own interest, rather than a constant deferral for the needs of the other (Lennie).
So I think I need someone else in my immediate circle to read this one so I can talk about it out loud. It’s only 100 pages, or an afternoon of reading, so if you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know. I’ll buy the coffee, if you’ll help me get George and Lennie (or me and me) out of my head.