On one side of the warm Salinas River the Gabilan Mountains slowly rise; on the other, the valley side, trees line the bank. Through the willows and sycamores a path is worn, by boys coming down from ranches to swim and by tramps coming off the highway. It is evening of a hot day; a little wind starts to move; two men emerge from the path and arrive at the narrow pool made by the river. Lennie, the big man, with imprecise features, shambling, flings himself prone and drinks from the pool. George is smaller; his eyes are restless. He remembers that Lennie got sick the night before, drinking too much, and warns the big man. George tastes the water carefully, then dabs himself with it. Lennie does exactly the same thing, trying to copy his companion’s ritual precisely. They discuss their destination; Lennie has forgotten; he looks in his pocket for his work card, but George reminds him that the smaller man is carrying both. But what is it that Lennie has just taken out of his pocket? Lennie grudgingly gives it to George—a dead mouse. George throws it away, disgusted. Why would anyone want to pet a dead mouse in a pocket?
They are going to a ranch, George tells the big man. Once there, Lennie is to shut up. George will do the talking. And Lennie is to behave himself, no “bad things” like he did before. Lennie is sent to get wood so they can start a fire and heat up three cans of beans. He comes back with one small stick of willow and—the dead mouse. George had suspected his companion when he came back with wet feet, having had to go across the narrow stream to get the mouse. Lennie starts to cry. George, his arm on Lennie’s shoulder, explains getting rid of the mouse is for the big man’s own good. They cook the beans.
For the second time Lennie says he wants the beans with ketchup; for the second time George explains there is none, then complains about the burden the big man imposes on him. With no Lennie around, George could save money, not worry, go to a cat house, go to a poolroom, do anything he wanted. But no. Lennie has to get them into trouble all the time, wanting to pet girls as if they were mice. And then they have to run. hiding in irrigation ditches. George, ashamed of his outburst, looks into the fire. He apologizes. Lennie’s Aunt Clara dead, George must now take care of the big man. After a silence, and an increase in the darkness of the evening, Lennie says he really doesn’t want any ketchup, wouldn’t cat any if he had some right there. As a matter of fact, if George doesn’t want him, he’ll go right up into the hills and live by himself. No deal, George says; Lennie must stay with his guide.’ At this point Lennie asks George for The Story, a tale so often repeated, so similarly repeated that it has become a completely familiar and predictable ritual between the two men. It is the picturing of an ideal future, in which the two companions look after each other, save their money, buy a house, own a cow and some pigs; in which Lennie can play with his rabbits and pet them. Lennie knows The Story so well that he interrupts George in the telling; but the big man will not tell The Story himself; he wants to hear it. to be told the dream—like a child listening to a completely familiar nighttime story and delighting in the repetition.
COMMENT: In the Viking Press edition of this novel, Part One occupies eleven pages. Probably between 80-90 per cent of this total is written in dialogue. Steinbeck was very much interested in the play form, often referred to it in his correspondence about various works. In addition, the reader will recall the enormous success of Of Mice and Men when it was transferred to the stage. It is clear that Steinbeck is trying to fill out his characters by presenting them and their speech rather than by describing them. He will occasionally interpret some of the action for the reader; he docs not rely exclusively upon purely dramatic means. For instance, after the scene in which George angrily explodes and complains bitterly about Lennie’s dependence upon him, George looks “ashamedly” at the flames and later stares “morosely” at the fire. Basically the narrative technique in this novel is an inheritance from the nineteenth century, the technical tradition of the “omniscient author.” What docs this mean? It refers to the novelist’s technical stance, by means of which—like an all- seeing god—he assumes full knowledge of the motivations lurking beneath his characters’ actions. In addition, he could at will turn the reader’s attention from one scene to another distant in space but occurring at the same time, “meanwhile, back at the ranch . . .” etc. This technique came into disfavor with many of the most important twentieth century novelists, impressed by a growing sophistication in the understanding of psychological processes. In other words, a nineteenth century technique, they felt, would no longer serve to involve contemporary readers in the novel and its characters. Who would really believe that a novelist could know what was going on in everybody’s mind? Who would really believe that a novelist, describing actions, could be in two or three places at the same time? In an effort to solve the problem, such a novelist as Henry James, for instance, would write a novel whose action is perceived through the eye.s and intellect of one particular character. Such a procedure, though it limits the author’s geographical and direct psychological range, allows the reader to understand that most people’s behavior is not clearly this or clearly that. When the reader meets the other characters in a novel through the understanding and analysis of one protagonist, a great deal of psychological realism is gained. After all. we must go through life making up our own minds about our fellows, our relatives, our friends and enemies; sometimes we make mistakes, but often learn about them only after we have committed ourselves to some point of view.
DIALOGUE AND POINT OF VIEW. These considerations, though they may appear to be a digression, constitute important suggestions toward an understanding of Steinbeck’s way of writing Of Mice and Men. He does not construct this novel so that all the action is directly perceived only through one particular character. Thus, aware to some degree of the weaknesses of the old-fashioned narrative style, Steinbeck utilizes dialogue as a means of seducing the reader into a belief in the reality of the world represented in the novel. Within certain built-in limitations, this process operates quite well in this novel. But such words and phrases as “unhappily,” “uncomfortably.” and “with dignity” continually show up in the course of the tale. And they tend occasionally to stop the reader in his progress. He is forced to ask: why “uncomfortably?’ Through whose eyes is the particular action perceived? Perhaps, thinks the reader, if l were looking at this scene, present in these circumstances. 1 would not use this adverb; perhaps a dimension of complexity is missing. At one point in this first section, when George asks the big man what he has in his pocket. Lennie makes a simple denial, “cleverly,” as the text reads. Now according to whom is this statement “cleverly” made? Certainly not according to George, who secs through it immediately. Then it is made in reference to Lennie’s own sense of the “cleverness” of his remark. This analysis of an apparently small point emphasizes the running inconsistency of the point-of-view throughout Of Mice and Men, since in many other contexts in the novel certain adverbial and adjectival modifiers clearly emanate from the omniscient awareness of the novelist.
LENNIE’S SPEECH: But the first part demonstrates Steinbeck’s capacity to permit verbal behavior to work towards definition of character. Lennie, with his child’s mind, would be expected to talk like a child; and he does. His speech patterns conform to the reader’s experience of children’s language. A little boy in the question-asking stage of development will include in his queries the name of the “authority.” He will ask, “Daddy, why is this wood?” or “Where do the stars go Daddy?” Analogously, a large proportion of Lennie’s conversational segments with George include the smaller man’s name: “Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George . . .” Another important verbal index of Lennie’s developmental age is implicit in the big man’s sentence structure and length. George will sometimes speak in complex sentences, involving a relatively subtle sense of subordination, an awareness that one point is more important than another in a particular way. and that several ideas may be put together in one sentence: “You never oughta drink water when it ain’t running, Lennie,” and “God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy.” Lennie, on the other hand, will usually speak in simple or compound sentences, utilizing no more than an “or,” an “and,” or a “but” to link thoughts. This preponderant use of the coordinating conjunction is typical of children’s speech. When Lennie does use such a subordinating conjunction as “because.” implying a greater precision of thought processes, he tends to copy the form after having heard George speak. The reader will isolate such an instance when Lennie interrupts George’s hypnotic retelling of The Story; the big man knows the ritualistic talc so well that he is able to reproduce even George’s syntax: “. . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you …” A further aspect of Lennie’s speech involves repetition; the big man. at one point, repeats the same sentence, word for word, three times, in an attempt to remember a particular point. In this case, the verbal behavior accents the limited functioning of Lennie’s memory. Indeed, his sense of time is rudimentary and can not clearly differentiate between the now and the past or what is to be. In this section, the reader already perceives that for Lennie, reality is a kind of eternal present. Another representative aspect of Lennie’s speech, immediately apparent in this first section, becomes clear particularly in comparison with George’s vocabulary. The normal man will use a number of expletives and “substandard” phrases, commonly the products of clashes of wills, frustrations and strains typical of a man’s dealing with the world. George will say, “. . . gives a damn,” and “blowin’ in our jack . . .” and “. . . you crazy son-of-a- bitch,” and “Poor bastard.” Lennie’s speech is singularly free from such phrases; little boys don’t regularly use “bad” language; that happens when they get older. But Lennie will never grow up. Beyond this list of differences observable in the speech patterns of both men, certain similarities remain, largely involving equal misuse of tenses. George will say, “I been mean . . and “you ain’t gonna . . Lennie’s language will include, . . like you done before . . and . . like I seen in the fair . . Steinbeck attempts to indicate pronunciations peculiar to each of the two men, “fambly” for “family,” “jus’ ” for “just,” and “som a’ the things.” But in this intermittent procedure there are inconsistencies: Lennie says “and” as well as “an’.”
THEIR PAST. At this point, how much does the reader actually know about either of the two characters? Very few hints about their geographic, socio-economic, religious backgrounds can be found. The most specific indication of a past and a problem in that past involves Lennie’s Aunt Clara, who is now apparently dead. We learn from bits of conversation between the two men that Aunt Clara had once given Lennie a rubber mouse to play with; Lennie would have nothing to do with it: it “wasn’t no good to pet.” Lennie’s sense of relationships and of time is so poor that he can’t even remember her name, calls her “that lady.” We know that the two men have been together for a while, but we have no idea how long that period has been. It has obviously been long enough to allow for at least one major breach of the peace by Lennie, whose reflex-like, unthinking tendency to pet anything soft —in that case an unwilling girl—touched off an immediate and undignifiedly precipitous escape from their last job. They had had to run, and worse, to hide while they tried to shake off their pursuers.
THEIR CLOTHES. Do their clothes tell us anything about them? This line of inquiry is not too helpful. They both are dressed in denim trousers and coats with brass buttons. They both wear black, shapeless hats. They both carry blanket rolls over their shoulders. Besides identifying the men as travelers, and poor ones who arc not city people, their apparel tells us little. They are introduced to the reader as “losers,” and it is partly their clothes, as well as their own sense of themselves, which probably induced the bus driver to misinform them about the precise location of the ranch. Lennie is too lacking in insight to make such observations, but George, for all his deprivation, has enough pride to realize the bus driver’s discourtesy and to comment on it.
Fortified by Lennie’s promise that in case of any trouble the big man would hide out in the brush by the river, George heads for the ranch bunkhouse. It is a long, rectangular building containing eight bunks. An apple box is nailed over each bunk to provide shelving for personal belongings. A big cast-iron stove and a big table arc in the middle of the room. An old man leads in the pair, telling them that the boss is angry because they had not come the previous evening; it is now ten A.M. He shows them their bunks; George looks into his apple box shelf and notices a can of louse- and roach-killer. “What the hell’s this?” he says. The old man goes through an elaborate series of assurances, all testifying to the extraordinary, even obsessively scrupulous cleanliness of the last inhabitant of the bunk. Why, he’d put that stuff down even if he saw nothing, no bugs or anything. That’s the kind of a guy he was. George, still suspicious, looks under the mattress. (Lennie immediately does the same thing with his bed.) Satisfied, George starts to put his things away. In conversation the old man mentions the stable hand, a Negro, who serves as the boss’ scapegoat when the owner gets angry at something else—like the lateness of Lennie and George.
The door opens. It is the boss. He takes their names, asks them questions, but George answers for both. The boss resents this procedure, and suspiciously wonders out loud about the quality of George’s interest in the big man. He finally accepts them; they are to work on Slim’s team in the fields, picking barley with a thresher. The boss leaves and the old man returns, followed by an old sheep-dog, moth-eaten and tired. Curley enters, asking for his father, the boss. He goes over to Lennie and asks him to identify himself; the big man doesn’t speak and Curley and George almost come to blows until George allows Lennie to say a few words. After Curley’s departure the old man briefly discusses Curley’s general lack of a sense of justice. Curley has been married for two weeks, the old man adds, and his wife is already giving others the eye. A nasty situation might be brewing; George impresses upon Lennie the absolute necessity of staying away from Curley. Suddenly, Curley’s wife is standing in the doorway. Lennie is fascinated, watches her carefully. She throws her body forward by leaning against the door frame. She leaves quickly upon hearing from Slim, walking by. that her husband is home. . . what a tramp,” George says. But Lennie has fallen for her. George fiercely warns the big man to stay away from her.
At this point Slim enters, talks gently to the two men, and smiles appreciatively when George compliments Lennie on the big man’s capacity for work. Another man comes in; his name is Carlson, apparently another hand. He tells Slim that the dog belonging to the old man—Candy—should be shot; the dog has no teeth, is near blind and smells. Slim has a dog and five pups; he could give Candy one of the pups as a substitute. Lennie excitedly asks George to have Slim give the big man one of the pups. They all start out for chow when Curley stalks in looking for his wife; he scowls and leaves.
COMMENT: This entire Part takes place in the bunkhouse. If it were a play script, it couldn’t have been written in a manner more useful for the stage. The formal structure is extraordinarily simple and direct. After the two men have entered the bunkhouse, preceded by Candy, every single new character enters by the same door, one at a time. Seen abstractly, this formal procedure smacks of artifice; but the fact is that the bunkhouse is the center of life in the ranch, and that the entries and departures do not lack verisimilitude. In addition, there is inherent in the Part an almost formal or ritualistic process, a sequence of more or less deliberate entrances and exits into and out of the small world of the bunkhouse. Ritual is more readily thought of in the case of poetry,and poetic drama, than in prose. But the reader will gain a greater understanding of this section if he recalls that Steinbeck, although nominally placed in the “realistic” novel tradition by general consent, also manifests in a number of works a strongly poetic sympathy—not only with the processes of nature, but with the relationships between men as well. It is true that the Introduction has discussed Steinbeck’s preference for the “biological point of view,” but it has also pointed out the particular qualities which he admires in the paisanos he often wrote about. And those qualities involve modes of ritual—courtesies, devoted enjoyment of natural processes, admiring concern for sexuality, a pattern of warm-hearted appreciation of goodness outside a concern for property. These are merely instances. Mainly these considerations attempt to bring the reader’s attention to an aspect of Steinbeck’s thought as it works itself out in a particular context. No reader will mistake the degree to which George and Lennie are different, physically, verbally, mentally. But although Steinbeck succeeded here in creating believable characters, these characters also operate as symbols. In such a novel, for instance, as The Moon is Down, the novelist created types instead of people, and thus lost not only the reader’s belief but also the reader’s involvement in any other level. In this novel both George and Lennie come across, generally, as believable figures, and they belong in a scene which is characterized as well by the presence of a kind of symbolic shorthand.
OF MICE AND MEN AS ALLEGORY. Typically, instead of demonstrating to the reader the temperament and moral stance of a particular character by a slow and continuous sequence of ten or twenty social involvements, Steinbeck here chooses one anecdote, one telling trait, one item of clothing and allows each to take on symbolic power in the definition of the essential quality of a person. This is the reason why Of Mice and Men has an allegorical quality. That is to say, the novel tends to single out primary character traits. Such a procedure makes the book vulnerable to accusations of superficiality and dubious simplicity; a person, after all. is not just the representative of one or two attitudes, but of many, and what matters is the total. But if the reader accepts the somewhat allegorical mode of Of Mice and Men. he will experience a greater sympathy for it. We may find in certain specific aspects of this Part some illustrations of our general statements.
THE BOSS AND CURLEY. We find in Part II only two references to the boss, both short, both conveyed by Candy, the old man. He first tells George that when the boss gets angry, he takes it out on the Negro stable hand; the reader gets the impression that the Negro is a kind of whipping-boy. Right after that statement, Candy tells a story about the boss, who showed his generosity the previous Christmas by bringing in a gallon of whiskey to the bunkhouse and then told everyone to drink up. And in the jollity that followed, the stable hand was allowed to come in to the bunkhouse from his own room in the harness- room. There was a fight for everybody’s amusement, between the stable hand and another worker. Since the Negro had a hunchback, the worker was forbidden to use his feet in the fight—in the interest apparently of a sporting match. The fact that the stable hand won seems quite clearly secondary to the reader’s impression of the hidden and manipulative malice operating from the top down. It is directly after the telling of this story that the boss walks in. And his behavior with George and Lennie in their brief conversation together derives its overtones largely from what the reader has just found out. Another character in this Part is defined through the mention of one carefully observed trait, which comes up three times in the course of two and one half pages. Curley, the boss* son, is described only generally—thin, young, brown eyes, tightly curled hair—but the author notes that he wears a work glove on his left hand. The reader senses him immediately as an unpleasant character. After his very brief visit to the bunkhouse, Curley leaves. Candy, the old man, talks about him, tells George that the boss’ son has done quite a bit in the ring, is very handy with his fists. The old man continues by stating that if Curley jumps someone, a bigger man, and licks him, everybody praises him as a game guy; on the other hand, if Curley loses, everybody says that the bigger man should have picked on someone his own size. By this time, the reader, remembering the image of the glove on the left hand, has begun to conceive of that glove as a symbol. The final allusion to Curley’s glove, also made by the old man, discloses the information that it is filled with vaseline—Curley is keeping his hand soft for his wife, according to the old man. Thus the poetic value of the glove is increased; to the reader’s sense of Curley as an unjust, immoral creature of power is added the almost obscene suggestiveness of some of the qualities of the vaseline, smoothness, secrecy, cloying and hidden effeminacy.
CANDY, THE OLD MAN. The old man is an interestingly conceived character. On occasion, Steinbeck will not tell the reader the name of some of his protagonists. Sometimes this lack appears appropriate in the context of a particular work; at other times, it leaves a vacuum: with the lack of specific name comes a lack of a sense of reality. The reader meets “Curley’s wife,” in this Part, for instance; he does not learn her name; nor does he know whether he will find it out later or not. He does discover the old man’s name, but only on the next-to-last page of this section. Until that point, he’s just “the old man.” Whether by design or by intuition. Steinbeck would seem to have taken some hints from the function of the classical Greek Chorus in the use of Candy. In ancient Greek drama, the Chorus, identified no more specifically, sometimes represents the direct response of the people in general, sometimes attains to a further moral level in which it comments upon the action, attaches blame and praise. The old man, analogously, is relatively anonymous at first; he seems to represent a generalized level of moral blindness on the part of the bunkhouse hands when he acclaims the boss’ generosity in bringing whiskey to his men once a year; and he docs not directly accuse the boss of blame in the subsequent fight between the worker and the Negro. Later in this Part, however, Candy docs point the finger at Curley, deploring the moral laxity of the boss’ son. It is interesting that it should be this very man. Candy, who is directly involved in the first symbol of impending death of the novel. Near the end of Part II, in the same paragraph which discloses Candy’s name, the worker Carlson also makes his suggestion that the old man’s dog should be shot. Thus, as we see, another poetic aspect of this section arises from our examination.
CLOTHES AND THE MAN. We have seen that very little, if anything, could be derived from the clothes Lennie and George wore when we first met them at the pool. In this Part, the way people are dressed does play into the reader’s reaction to the characters. The order in which they appear follows:
a. the old man
b. the boss
c. Curley, the boss’ son
d. Curley’s wife
Accidental or not, an interesting linear structure reveals itself here. The author describes the clothing of the first character—the old man—only minimally; the same lack of description holds for the last—Carlson. Aside from certain direct statements concerning moral worth (particularly in reference to Slim) articles of personal dress as well as hair, ornamentation and so forth tend to suggest attitudes on an ethical level. We know that the old man wears blue jeans and carries a big push-broom. That’s all. We know that Carlson is a “powerful, big-stomached” man. That’s all for him. But the boss, we are told, is a little man, a stocky man. He wears blue jean trousers, a flannel shirt, a black vest (unbuttoned), a black coat. His thumbs are in his belt; he wears a Stetson hat; and most importantly he wears high-heeled boots in order to prove, as the author tells us, that he is not a laborer. The reader is prepared to dislike the boss: the old man has just described the incident of the gallon of whiskey. And thus the unsubtle comment about the high-heeled boots begins to draw the reader’s sympathy away from the managerial, propertied symbol, and toward the workers. As for Curley, who enters next, besides the glove, he also wears exactly the same kind of boots as his father. In addition, he has a head of “tightly curled hair,” which, without too much forcing of similarity, can be interestingly compared to his wife’s hair, done up “in little rolled clusters.” Both are hair styles, products of artifice, and thus, in the common moral world of Steinbeck’s fiction, reprehensible. In addition, Curley’s wife wears heavy lipstick, red fingernails, red shoes decorated at the insteps with little bouquets of red ostrich feathers. Her voice is nasal and “brittle.” As for Slim, the next to enter, his hair is long, black and damp. At the very moment that he enters, he is engaged in combing it straight back. Slim does not wear high-heeled boots. We are told only that he has on blue jeans and a denim jacket and a Stetson. But here the narrator departs from his pattern to discuss Slim’s moral virtues abstractly. He walks with a majesty found only in “royalty and master craftsmen,’* is able to kill a fly on a horse’s buttocks with his whip without touching the animal, owns a manner so grave and profound that all talk stops when he speaks; his speech is slow and tokens understanding; his face, a “hatchet face,” lean, is ageless; his hands are large and lean. He is “the prince of the ranch.” And with that one word, “prince,” we perceive the particular quality of this novel again. Of course, we think, an allegory, a fairy tale, perhaps even a piece of an old epic story in which good and bad can be readily identified. The wonder is that such realizations do not make us stop reading; but the narrative continuity is skillfully worked. And even if we know, or think we know, what the ending will bring, the story is not completely the thing. As in rituals, we remain fascinated by the roll of events, the clash of good and evil, innocence and experience, and we give ourselves to the old story once more.
THE VERBS. Even the verbs used in the description of manner of entry into the bunkhouse play their part in setting up the characters in a kind of storied light. Both the old man and Carlson “came” into the bunkhouse. As for the boss, Curley, Curley’s wife and Slim, other means are required to enhance their dramatic stature. Steinbeck’s procedure is very simple, and very effective. The boss does not simply “come in”; he “stood in the open doorway”; Curley’s wife cuts off the rectangle of light in the doorway, and is “standing there”; Slim “stood in the doorway.” To stand in an open doorway, one’s back to the source of brilliant light, is to be framed like a portrait, to be arrested in time and heightened. What about Curley? He appears twice in this scene; at first he merely “came” into the bunkhouse; but in his last appearance, near the end of Part II, he “bounced in.” As we shall see later, Curley represents the active principle in the tragic development of the novel.
MORAL HIERARCHY. The reader might speculate here about a possible scale of moral perception in which these characters are involved. Directly and indirectly Slim constitutes the high point of such a hierarchy; he looks at the two men “kindly”; he talks to them “gently”; his tone is “friendly” and invites confidence “without demanding it.” And implicit in this last citation lies the kernel of Slim’s moral ascendancy. He docs not demand, or manipulate; he is not self-seeking, has no vested interest. He derives satisfaction from his physical work, which he does supremely well, and does not ask for reassurance from others. Curley’s wife wants recognition, wants flirtation, wants commitments of interest. The boss wants reassurance too; his suspicious nature cannot rest satisfied with its own perceptions. He is on the look out for trouble. He wants to be told about the relationship between Lennie and George. He wants not to be fooled. He wants to keep on top of everything. He wants to impress the pair with his power. Curley, more extreme than his father, wants even more. He wants to manipulate physically. He wants to set up situations for testing his strength, about which he is unsure. He wants not only recognition, but deference. It is interesting to note that, if Slim constitutes the high level of ethical perception in the scene, the other significant moral generalization made is uttered by Lennie, who says, “Le’s go, George. . . . It’s mean here.” Although the big man lacks complexity, he is apparently able in his gross and untutored way to act as a moral antenna. Whether in strict terms of mental development this perception is believable is a question; however, Lennie’s comment certainly underlines Steinbeck’s frequent note of the sham in social forms and the corresponding goodness in simplicity.
It is evening; in the bunkhouse it is dusk, even though evening brightness shines through the windows. Slim and George enter together. George thanks the other man for his gift of the puppy to Lennie. They sit down on boxes. After Slim admiringly mentions Lennie’s immense capacity for work, he comments about the closeness between the pair; such loyalty is unusual, he feels. George explains that he is now filling a kind of guardian role, after the death of the big man’s aunt. George experiences a feeling of trust for Slim; he tells about the incident in their previous place of employment; Slim simply asks if the girl got hurt, and adds that Lennie is not mean. Lennie walks in, hunched over. George immediately tells the big man not to bring his pup into the bunkhouse. After some complaining Lennie takes the pup back. Candy and Carlson enter. The latter again suggests that Candy’s dog is better off dead. Although the dog is old, blind, and smelly. Candy desperately counters Carlson’s suggestion. For the first time Slim speaks up; he agrees with Carlson, and will give Candy one of the pups as a substitute for the old dog. Carlson, despite Candy’s plea to wait for the next day, takes a Luger pistol out of his clothes bag. Candy yields. Carlson takes the dog out; Slim reminds him to take a shovel and says he must put some tar on a mule’s hoof. A shot sounds, and Carlson rolls over on his bunk. Crooks, the Negro stable hand, enters. He’s got the tar for Slim, and reports that Lennie is messing around with the pups. Slim and Crooks leave. Whit, a young laborer who had come in just before, talks to George about Curley’s wife and the trouble she might stir up. He also invites George to a whorehouse in the vicinity, cheap drinks and good clean girls. George might go for a drink sometime, but no more; he needs the money for the house he wants to get with Lennie. Lennie and Carlson come in. The latter cleans his gun. Curley bursts in, looking for his wife, and asking for Slim’s whereabouts. He then rushes out to the barn to see Slim. George, Candy and Lennie are left alone when Whit and Carlson go out to sec what’s going to happen. George and Lennie talk about their dream house and farm. Candy suddenly asks where such a house might be located; George answers ambiguously and then tells the old man the house would cost six hundred dollars. Candy, who had lost one hand working on the ranch, got compensation for his accident. He says he will donate a total of three hundred fifty dollars if he can be included in the project. George and Lennie, amazed and happy, accept and swear the old man to secrecy.
Slim and Curley, Whit and Carlson, walk in. Slim, Carlson, and even Candy attack Curley for his lack of control of his wife, his not standing up to Slim. Lennie, still smiling absently at the memory’ of the ranch, infuriates Curley, who punches him in the face. The big man retreats, terrified. George stops Slim from interfering and yells to Lennie: “. , . get him.” Lennie seizes Curley’s swinging fist and crushes it. Slim notes that almost every bone in Curley’s hand is broken. He warns the boss’ son not to say how it happened, at the risk of becoming the laughing stock of the ranch. Carlson, who had left to get a doctor, comes back in a buggy; Slim leads the wounded man outside. “It ain’t your fault,” George tells the big man, and tells him to wash his bloody face.
COMMENT: The setting in this Part is the same as that in the previous one. However, here the action begins to pick up. Like a good playwright, Steinbeck has introduced most of the important characters to the reader by the time this Part begins, and the narrative can now go forward a little more rapidly.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUM. In both of the major episodes in the Part, the central figure is Slim. He is central in the contexts of morality and authority and self-respect, not in terms of pure physical activity. Carlson’s continuous complaints about the old man’s smelly dog might have had no concrete effect had it not been for Slim’s intervention. In the second event, the dispute with Curley, probably neither Carlson nor Candy would have dared to attack Curley verbally without Slim’s tacit agreement. And it is these verbal assaults which move Curley to take cowardly revenge on Lennie, who had had absolutely nothing to do with the situation.
So we must turn our attention more intensively to Slim, the “prince,” who appears to be involved in the entire Part in a consistent and essential manner. That he is merely the central figure, however, is debatable. Slim’s roles could be effectively compared with those of a psychoanalyst and a judge. The patience and professional passivity of the first can be contrasted with the legal involvements required of the second.
SUM’S CHARACTER. In the beginning of Part III, George finds it possible to tell Slim his most incriminating secret, the story of what happened in the town of Weed when Lennie got into trouble. Slim makes an apparently idle comment expressing interest in the closeness between the two men, but he does not ask any questions. This is the second occasion during which the matter has come up. On the first, early in Part II, the boss immediately communicates his disbelief in George’s capacity for disinterested and sincere concern for Lennie. For the boss, a belief in such qualities would lead to a weakening of those traits which establish him as an owner, hirer, manipulator. In Slim’s ease, such a belief is part of the personality; it also contributes to his use as a primitive, ethical symbol. A “real smart guy,” he says at one point, “ain’t hardly ever a nice fella.” But his main attitude in the early part of this scene is represented by his tone. His comment about the two men is a “calm invitation to confidence.” When George, eager to talk but wary, remains momentarily silent. Slim “neither encouraged nor discouraged him. He just sat back quiet and receptive.” Slim’s comment after a particular disclosure by George is “Ummm.” At one point George starts to tell Slim what happened in Weed. Alarmed at the confidence he is about to communicate, he stops. Slim asks a simple question here, but “calmly.” Slim’s eyes are “level and unwinking”; he nods “very slowly”; again, his “calm eyes” follow Lennie out the door when the big man goes to return the pup. Almost superhuman in his wisdom and detachment, this is the Slim whom the reader can envision in the role of the psychoanalyst. All comparisons fall down somewhere, but this one is useful enough to be considered. The classical analyst will, like Slim, allow the patient time in which to come to a sense of case; he will also adopt a non-directive role toward the patient; that is, the analyst will not impose upon the patient a moral system, approvals and approvals, as a requirement for the perpetuation of the relationship. At this point however, a major difficulty intrudes itself upon the reader’s experience of the section. It is true that Slim’s benevolent detachment leads to some heart-warming results. But Slim’s previously cited comment about the relationship between a “real smart guy” and “a nice fella” emphasizes the presence of a “nonobjective” point of view. This inconsistency, and its tendency towards over-simplification, has been noticed by a number of critics. The situation may become a little clearer in focus if the reader recalls the importance of Edward Ricketts in the life of John Steinbeck. We have seen that a number of important characters in various Steinbeck novels—Cannery Row for instance—arc modeled after the marine biologist. Important among the qualities that the novelist most admires is the scientist’s objectivity. And this objectivity coexists with the awareness and acceptance of biological processes, in which the old must die, the young get old, and one generation must give way to the next. This commitment is impersonal and does not supply a valid basis for such opinions as Slim’s, previously cited. When Slim says, “That dog ain’t no good to himself. I wisht somebody’d shoot me if I get old and a cripple,” he is speaking out of the second half of the paradox which is his nature. His acceptance of biological necessity clashes with his sentimental attitudes of mind.
INCONSISTENCY IS HUMAN. The reader may counter some of these objections to Slim’s inconsistencies by asserting that: 1. A human being is not a philosophy, and does not have to be held accountable for perfectly logical and self-consistent attitudes. After all Emerson did say that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 2. Slim’s attitudes function as synthesizing and binding roles within the structure of this Part. And since the structure of a work of literature implies its own meaning. Slim’s relationship to this structure is informative.
SLIM’S FUNCTIONAL ROLE. As an illustration of the relevance of this second point, we may look more closely at the scene dealing with the problem of Candy’s old dog. What are the arguments which are marshalled by the old man in support of his desire to keep the animal? He’s been around the dog so long that he does not notice the stink; he’s had the dog so long and likes him so much that he can’t stand not being with him; his memory of the old dog’s prowess as a sheep dog compensates for the dog’s present paralysis; he doesn’t mind taking care of the dog; the shot might hurt the dog. Carlson, the animal’s archenemy, counters all these objections: the dog’s no good to Candy; it stinks “to beat hell”; the animal’s all stiff with rheumatism; the dog’s no good to himself; Candy is being cruel to the dog by keeping it alive; the shot would not hurt the dog for even one second. Structurally, Slim’s arbitration of the situation is worthy of Solomon: the dog is no good to himself; but Candy is to get another one. Although Slim is not the first to suggest that the old man take one of the pups, and although he is not the first to suggest that the dog is no good to himself, he does make one very important observation, unique to him. Slim comments that he wishes somebody’d shoot him if he ever gets old and crippled. Thus by including himself in the human situation, Slim effectively counteracts both the harshness of his own biological dictum and the harshness of Carlson’s self-righteous demands. Ironically, Slim himself is the living refutation in this instance, of his previous statement that intelligence and generosity do not go together.
GEORGE AND THE MORAL SENSE. At one point in Part III, George finds it possible to tell Slim a story of the greatest importance in the development of the relationship between Lennie and his companion. The tale is significant not only on the level of human connections, but stands out as a kind of fable of moral propriety, concerned with the uses of power. The growth of an ethical sense implies the renunciation of the use of power in many instances, when such use can be perceived as hurtful to other human beings. George tells Slim that one time a group of “guys” were standing along the bank of the Sacramento River; George, feeling- “pretty smart,” turned to Lennie and ordered him to jump in. Although he could not swim, Lennie immediately obeyed—and nearly drowned before the group recovered him from the water. And then, George adds, Lennie was nice to him for pulling the big man out. “I ain’t done nothing like that no more.” This circumstance holds little ambiguity. Its moral point is clear. Later on in Part III, however, an incident occurs which questions the constant capacity of any man—no matter how full of good-will—to adequately make decisions about the proper and improper uses of power, especially in an urgent situation. After Curley first struck Lennie in the nose, the big man retreated to the wall. Slim, disgusted and infuriated by the illegitimate assault, jumped up cursing Curley, and saying, “I’ll get ’um myself.” George had an important decision to make on a split-moment basis. He had already told Lennie to “get” Curley and the big man had been too frightened to respond appropriately. At this point, would it not have been a sound idea to allow Slim to take care of Curley? George knew that Lennie, once enraged, was uncontrollable; he knew that Slim could dispose of the boss’ son. He did not simply ask Slim not to mix in; he “put out his hand and grabbed Slim. ‘Wait a minute.’ he shouted.” An objective observer might note that George’s personal desire for revenge against Curley, whom he already disliked actively, overruled a more sensible course of action. In addition, since George did not know when Lennie would finally respond to his companion’s permission to strike back, the big man might very well suffer greater punishment than if Slim had immediately interceded. If the analysis is pursued further, a reader might even wonder about the possibility that George’s choice might have been—ever so slightly—determined also by his covert hostility to Lennie. After all the “brainy one” of the two had on several occasions complained grievously about the burden that Lennie constituted. Whatever the truth, and however solid George’s active good-will might appear, the incident suggests the imperfection of the moral sense in a complex and urgent situation. And as we shall see, Curley’s indelible hatred for Lennie, as a result of this incident, plays a very significant part in the tragic outcome of the narrative.
SLIM AS EPIC HERO. We have spoken of George’s confession to Slim as a fable of moral propriety. This fabular, or legendary, sense is also implicit, of course, in the person of Slim; the repeated use of such adjectives as “calm,” such adverbs as “gently,” “kindly,” remind us of much earlier patterned usages, like those of Homer. The old epic poems typically contained a horde of repeated epithets, which helped to isolate and define individual characters. “The wine-dark sea,” Homer would write, extending epithets even to inanimate aspects of nature; and “golden-armed Nausicaa.” The heroes and heroines in old epic poems were a cut above ordinary human beings; they were stronger, more courageous, handsomer, more perceptive. Slim can be identified as a member of such a company. But even the hero is subject to the law of the gods, and the will of the gods—in old Greek epics. And in Of Mice and Men, Slim, helpful, concerned and involved as he may be, is nevertheless another pawn in the impersonal processes of fate. He is the one who immediately thinks of getting a doctor for Curley; he is the one who examines Curley’s hand; he is the one who convinces Curley not to talk about the incident; he is the one who helps Curley out of the door to the waiting buggy. But even he “regarded Lennie with horror,” as if the big man, in some mysterious and paradoxical way, himself represented the unknown machinations of powers beyond analysis.
TENSION. This Part is characterized by a great deal of tension. Between the discussions about the dog (and Carlson’s act), and the entrance of Curley, intervenes a scene which adds a great measure of poignancy to the sensed overtones of future disaster in the end of the entire Part. On no less than four separate occasions, within the space of five pages, George says, “Me and Lennie’s gonna roll up a stake”; “Me and Lennie’s rollin’ up a stake”; “Lennie and me got to make a stake”; “We gotta get a big stake together.” The reader, unsure as to whether the six hundred dollar house and land really exist, involved sympathetically with the hope newly born in the pair and Candy, reacts all the more actively in the context of the violence at the end of Part III.
The Negro stable hand. Crooks, lives in the harness room, a shed leaning off the wall of the barn. He slept on a box filled with straw. Broken harness and tools of the trade hung on wall-pegs. A number of personal belongings were scattered about the floor. Crooks lived alone and had no need to concern himself with the placement of his belongings. In addition to several pairs of shoes, boots, a clock and a shotgun, he owned some books: a torn dictionary and an old copy of the California civil code of 1905. He owned gold-rimmed glasses, which hung on a nail. On this Saturday night. Crooks is sitting on his bunk, rubbing his spine with liniment. The harness room is dimly lit with one small bulb.
Lennie walks in quietly; he smiles; Crooks tells him curtly that he has no right to be in the harness-room. Crooks understands Lennie’s sense of aloneness—everybody’s gone into town, including George. The Negro hand finally allows Lennie to sit for a while. They talk. Lennie tells the hand his dream; Crooks asks Lennie what the big man would do if George did not come back. Lennie becomes threatening, and the Negro changes his line of questioning, complains about loneliness. He reminisces about his childhood with his two brothers, his alfalfa patch, his berry patch. George and he will have rabbits and a berry patch, Lennie tells Crooks. Nobody ever gets that little piece of land, according to the stable hand; hundreds of men come off the roads, onto the ranches, all dreaming the same dream about the little piece of land; and none of them ever gets it. Candy suddenly comes by, and despite his embarrassment, comes in; it’s the first such visit to Crooks’ room. Only Slim and the boss have ever come into it before. Upon Crooks’ repeated insinuation that the land will never materialize, Candy tells him that the money is already available. Almost convinced, and nearly believing, Crooks asks to be let in on the deal. At this point Curley’s wife comes in, looking for her husband, complaining about the boredom from which she suffers. She asks about Curley’s hand. It got caught in a machine, Candy explains. She docs not believe this story. She’s not a child, to be told lies; why, she could have been “in pitchers.” And now she’s reduced, on this Saturday night, to a conversation with “a nigger, an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep—”
Candy, surprisingly, stands up and angrily attacks her for her lack of understanding. She doesn’t realize they arc not “stiffs.” They will be land-owners. She doesn’t believe it. Candy controls himself and simply advises her to leave; he doesn’t care whether she believes them or not. She looks at Lennie’s face, asks him where the bruises come from. He stammers that Curley got his hand caught in a machine. She says that she likes machines. “O.K. Machine. I’ll talk to you later.” There is some banter about rabbits; she seductively tells Lennie she might get a few herself, whereupon Crooks stands and faces her. He’s had enough. She must leave. Furious, she turns upon him and threatens him with dire retribution if he ever talks to the boss about her. Crooks retreats within himself, blots out his personality. Candy says they would tell that she framed Crooks if she lied about the stable hand; nobody would listen, she says. She leaves, with a final thanks to Lennie for “busting up” Curley. George, returned, calls for Lennie, and comes to Crooks’ door. He disapproves of Lennie’s visit; Crooks says it’s all right: Lennie’s a nice fellow. Candy says he’s figured out how to make money from the rabbits. George’s displeasure is clear when he hears that Candy told someone about the plan. Candy says he told nobody but Crooks, who calls to the old man and takes back his suggestion that he come in on the land. Crooks wouldn’t want to go to any place like that. The three men leave; Crooks rubs his back again.
COMMENT: Here, in this part, we find gathered together the disinherited of the world, the isolated, men born—as is sometimes said—under the wrong star. The scene derives a certain portion of its power from an internal paradox. And it is the figure of Lennie which operates as the center of this paradox. As Slim, in the previous Part, constituted the synthesizing force, so in this Part, the big man operates analogously. The reader senses an almost mystical belief in the social effectiveness—under appropriate conditions—shared by the highest and the lowest intelligences, Slim and Lennie. Both individuals represent in their own ways the reality of goodness as an active principle in the world, the goodness arrived at through the travails of experiences and the goodness of innocence.
CROOKS AND THE RANCH HANDS. Significantly we learn that only two men have ever visited Crooks’ room before. The boss, of course, owns the room; it is perhaps not too much to say that he owns Crooks as well. His attitude toward the stable hand, as we have seen, is proprietary. We know, without being told, that the elements which underlie his relationship with Crooks include the vicious sense of racial superiority and power, always present in potentiality, that Curley’s wife brought up as her withering threat against the Negro. We also know, without being directly informed, that this sense of superiority can be transcended only with great moral effort and difficulty, that it is a virulence probably shared by every white man on the ranch, to various degrees. That Slim has been the only other guest of Crooks reinforces the reader’s belief in Slim’s capacity for such a transcendence. Without having been a party to any meeting between Crooks and Slim in the harness room, we can assume, without forcing credulity, that Slim’s innate courtesy and detachment would probably operate as they did in the conversations with George.
LENNIE’S VISIT. The key, or one of the keys, to Lennie’s functional resemblance to Slim is suggested by the very wording of the initial conversation between Crooks and the big man. When the Negro hand asks Lennie what he wants in the harness room, Lennie answers, “Nothing. . . . I thought I could jus’ come in and set,” whereupon Crooks merely “stared” at the big man. Conditioned by decades of rejection and insults and contempt, the Negro hand is ready to meet almost any gambit except the unexpected one of free offers of companionship. While it is true that Lennie goes to the harness-room out of the experience of loneliness, it is equally true that no learned hatreds or stances of superiority forbid that visit. The processes of socialization include the processes of indoctrination; since Lennie remains relatively immune to the first, he continues also unblemished by the second. This aspect of Lennie’s characteristic nature might very well be a romantic invention on the part of the novelist; however by presenting Lennie in this way, Steinbeck again forcibly reminds us of his deep-lying suspicions of social artifice. Thus, we can more readily understand an absolutely basic aspect of Steinbeck’s entire career: his disclination to treat a complex urban setting. He will write heroic historical romances like The Cup of Gold, or novels dealing with men in special, restricted and controlled environments, cells adhering together, one might say. And we come face to face with the biologist’s observed world again.
NO AXE TO GRIND. Since within this biological view of the world, a possibility for good exists, it is interesting to speculate about the conditions in which the good is able to function. A most important clement involves giving up the desire to meddle with others’ lives. This renunciation is a distinct factor in Slim’s make-up; it is equally a factor in Lennie’s arrival at Crooks’ harness-room. But the big man, not through will but through the impersonal processes of fate, docs interfere in George’s life in a continuous and major way. That George shoulders this burden willingly, we know; that he intermittently complains about it, and bitterly, we also know. Consequently, the narrative encloses the reader with more and more foreboding of doom for Lennie. Such a prophecy is implicit in the story of Lennie’s misadventure with the girl in Weed; the interest shown in Lennie by Curley’s wife; the destruction of Candy’s dying dog because the animal is biologically inferior, no good to itself, and a smelly intrusion into the life of the bunkhouse. Nevertheless, insofar as Lennie can be motivated by kindness, to that degree is he not only a man who can initiate human communion, but one who can breed it in others.
CROOK’S CHARACTER. As Slim is a kind of nucleus for the social cell which composes Part III, so Lennie is a sort of nucleus for the world composed of Crooks, Candy, Curley’s wife, and himself. But there are complicating factors, primary among them the resurgence of an almost sadistic malevolence on the part of the stable hand. A man who has almost never been treated as an equal by men will experience enormous difficulty in accepting the offer of friendship. Thus Crooks’ initial invitation to Lennie to “set a while” leads very quickly to a situation in which the stable hand attempts to assert his new-found sense of power by baiting and frightening the big man. Lennie, who begins as a figure of friendship, suddenly becomes for Crooks the perversely defined symbol of white man’s oppression. Crooks is a victim of the sudden departure of his own rational processes; as Lennie’s generosity brings forth Crooks’ invitation, so Lennie’s weakness invites Crooks’ buried furies. The pressures arc great which condition the insulted and the injured. And those pressures unfortunately tend to bring out. not the noblest elements in a man’s nature, but the frightened child and the vengeful self. As an instance of this truth, sociologists have observed departures from the kind of behavior that might rationally have been expected of inmates in German concentration camps during the Second World War. The unbelievably cruel and inhuman treatment accorded to those inmates might make the reasonable man expect concerted and unified action on the part of the prisoners faced with extinction. But the sad truth all too often was the reverse. A significant number of prisoners, pressured beyond their capacity for communal action or even communication, informed on their fellows and even aped the mannerisms of some of their SS guards.
STEINBECK AND CHILDHOOD. Another interesting aspect of Steinbeck’s feeling about social artifice relates to the novelist’s attitude toward childhood. Soon after Lennie’s entry into Crooks’ harness-room, the Negro stable hand tells the big man about his childhood. Crooks was born in California; his father had a ten acre chicken ranch. White boys and girls would come to play at the ranch and “some of them was pretty nice.” Crooks tells Lennie that his father did not like such camaraderie, but Crooks asserts that he did not know till much later why; “but I know now,” he adds. When he was a boy, his family was the only Negro family for miles around; and now, he says, he is the only Negro on this entire ranch. With the comparison between the society of his childhood and that of his present situation, Crooks evokes a Steinbeckian belief clearly or covertly present in many of the novelist’s works. It is the belief in a kind of purity of motivation in the child’s world. Black and white children can play together, perhaps even love each other, but black and white adults must of necessity hate each other. The point goes further than merely an indication of sickness between races; the entire adult world is accused of guilt and complicity. The careful reader of Steinbeck’s works can find, besides Lennie, at least two other characters of that level of intelligence and of chronological age, creations which might be another indication of the novelist’s continuous concerns. Although Slim proves that it is not a general rule; the reader often feels that as a man becomes good, so he also becomes a child. There are overtones of Christian doctrine implicit in such concepts. “And a little child shall lead them.” Indeed a paper has been written on Steinbeck’s use of Christian symbolism. But it is certainly not sufficiently consistent, particularly in this novel, to warrant further attention here.
It is Sunday afternoon; in the great barn the horses are resting, nibbling wisps of hay; the flies buzz, cutting through the lazy afternoon. Outside the men play horseshoes. In the barn Lennie is stroking the puppy, dead by the thoughtless force exerted by the big man’s hands. Lennie is talking, both to himself and to the dog; he is by turns both sorrowful and angry at the puppy for having gotten killed. Curley’s wife enters the barn; she is wearing her bright dress and the shoes with red feathers. He sees her and panics, shovels hay over the puppy. He rejects her offers of conversation, quoting George’s admonitions, but finally shows her the puppy. She consoles him. But Lennie is miserable: George won’t let him have any rabbits now because he did a “bad thing.” She moves closer, first getting angry at Lennie as she hears him give George’s warning about talking to her. Then she switches gears and tells Lennie about an actor from a traveling show, and another man “from pitchers’’ who would have put her into the movies. The trouble was that her mother probably stole the letters from the latter. So she married Curley. She comes yet closer as she tells Lennie a secret she never had communicated to anyone: “I don’t like Curley. He ain’t a nice fella.’’ Lennie keeps talking about rabbits; she feels insulted: doesn’t he ever talk about anything except rabbits? He tells her about the dream house and how he likes to pet soft things. That she can understand; who doesn’t like to pet soft things? Like velvet, for instance … or hair. She invites him to feel her hair. He does. He strokes harder. She cries out. She screams. His hand closes over her mouth and nose. She writhes violently and as his hand lifts a bit, she screams. Lennie grows angry, afraid she’ll get him into trouble, just as George had said. He shakes her. She struggles. He shakes her again. He breaks her neck.
He partially covers her up with hay. He remembers about hiding down by the brush near the pool in case of trouble. As he creeps out of the barn, he picks up the dead pup and puts it under his coat. A sheepdog catches the dead scent of Curley’s wife and whimpers. Old Candy comes by looking for Lennie, to talk about possible profits from the rabbits. He blunders onto Curley’s wife, apologizes; no answer; he tells her she shouldn’t sleep there. And then he jumps up and leaves the barn quickly. The horses stamp, chew their bedding, clash their halter-chains. Candy comes back, with George—who asks the purpose of Candy’s bringing him. George sees the body. What should be done? George thinks they have to go get Lennie; “the poor bastard’d starve.” Maybe “they” will just lock him up and be nice to him. But Candy thinks they should let Lennie get away; Curley’s going to want a lynching. George agrees. Candy now asks about the dream ranch; could the two of them go? It’s all off. George says he’ll work his month for the fifty dollars and then go either to a cathouse or to a poolroom.
George plans now. He won’t let anyone hurt Lennie, but says no more about that. He asks Candy to announce the news after George has got quietly back to the bunkhouse. George wants no shadow of suspicion to fall on him. Candy does as requested. When George is gone. Candy mutters angrily to the dead body of Curley’s wife. It is her fault; everyone knew she’d mess things up; he could have worked in the garden, with the animals; he could have gone to a ball game if he felt like it; his place. . . . His eyes fill with tears as he leaves the great barn. Suddenly everyone is running to the barn, after Candy’s alert: Slim, Carlson, Whit, Curley, Crooks, then Candy and last George, who has pulled his black hat down low over his eyes. Slim is the first to reach the body, touches her check, her neck. Curley suddenly cries out: it is Lennie; Curley knows that; he must get a shotgun. Carlson says he’ll get his Luger. They both run from the barn. Slim tells George there’s no choice; they must get Lennie. Carlson comes running back; he can’t find his Lugcr and accuses Lennie of theft. Curley carries a shotgun in his good hand. George asks Curley not to shoot “the poor bastard,” pleading insanity for Lennie. Oh yes, they will shoot him; Curley says Lennie has Carlson’s Luger, and Curley cannot be dissuaded. Candy stays with the corpse.
COMMENT: This Part contains the dramatic high point in Of Mice and Men, the catastrophe toward which the entire novel has been building. The author has prepared the reader for this moment by sketching in individual character traits, attitudes and symbolic situations in the course of the first four parts. Such preparations make it possible for the reader to accept the goings-on with a sense of the inevitable.
We might examine this section in some detail therefore, looking first at the interchanges between Lennie and Curley’s wife, and then attempting to understand the reactions to the tragedy of all the other characters. If the behavior of the various members of the ranch strains the reader’s credulity at this point, it would be clear that the inconsistency of individual reactions will nullify the dramatic power of the climax. On the other hand, if the reader can find no major fault with the narrative continuity, he will be able to applaud the achievement of the novelist.
THE SETTING AND THE TIME. The setting is not the bunkhouse, but the barn. Steinbeck had to provide an isolated spot for the meeting between Lennie and Curley’s wife. But it had to be a place whose relevance would not seem forced. Why the barn? The reader will recall that Lennie had made an effort earlier in the course of the novel to bring his gift puppy into the bunkhouse. George forbade such an action, among other reasons because Lennie was not to be trusted with those small living things which he so loved to pet. So the big man had been relegated to the barn, where he was allowed to make occasional visits to the dog. It is dramatically a very appropriate maneuver to have Lennie commit his ultimate folly in a place that his own character structure made necessary. Again, why was Lennie alone? He had to be alone, certainly, for the adequate resolution of the plot. But this isolation, too, was completely consistent with what we know of his habits and temperament. Lennie is by necessity a loner. He cannot socialize on equal terms with other men. Where arc the other men? They are outside, pitching horseshoes. This is not the first time we hear of the hands pitching horseshoes; and we have also been told, in passing, earlier, that small bets ride on the game’s results, that the men get all involved with their pastime and concentrate. We remember as well that in the previous Part all the men with the exception of Crooks, Lennie, and Candy had gone to town for men’s recreation. Perhaps the murder could have occurred then, if it had not been for the presence of the Negro hand and the old man. The entrance of Curley’s wife into the harness-room, and her clear interest in Lennie, had prepared the reader for danger, as have the repeated warnings by George interspersed throughout the novel. George’s influence upon the big man is weighty; thus the novelist had to provide a context within which Lennie would be sufficiently relaxed to allow him to be touched at his most vulnerable point—the obsessive desire to pet soft things. The stable, where the ,• bitch had her puppies, is such a context. And the presence of Curley’s wife assuredly does not surprise the reader either. By the time that the fifth Part begins, he knows all about her secretive haunting presence around the ranch, and even has come to expect it. We do not know whether she is looking for anybody in particular. But we do know that she has no doubt as to the cause of her husband’s mangled hand; and we know that the “accident” has been a realization of her own covert wish to get even with Curley for his meanness. Indeed, one of the first things she says to Lennie in the barn is that the big man need have no concern with Curley—after all, he could break her husband’s other hand, she says.
LENNIE AND CURLEY’S WIFE: What is the quality of the relationship between the two doomed people? Each is the direct agent of the other’s downfall; with one exception, however, each one is so immured in his or her own fantasies that the two do not even communicate with each other. They talk, yes, and they even may share the illusion that they are speaking to each other—but it is only illusion. Each one is talking private thoughts aloud; each one is projecting nostalgia or hope or fear, but no exchange takes place. This absence of any meaningful rapport renders the scene almost unbearably moving. Two isolated creatures, each locked in his own subjectivity, pass by each other in an almost complete human darkness. Lennie’s predicament of course is clear. But what about Curley’s wife? Why is she doomed? It is true that she bears no particular physical or mental brand. But she is clearly part of that unconnected floatsam of social decay which has long attracted Steinbeck’s attention. She is adrift from the moorings of the middle-class society for which Steinbeck has little sympathy. But she has not met the challenge posed by such drifting in the manner typical of, say, the paisano subculture of which we spoke in the Introduction. So she is nowhere, supported by no family, nourished by no fortifying values, defined by no realistic ambitions. For the past hopes for a career in “pitchers” on which she largely bases her tawdry attractions and her insecure sense of self are as illusory as her “conversation” with Lennie.
THE OTHERS. Now let us examine the reactions of the various other members of this small society to the tragedy. One of the elements which strikes the reader as somewhat * harsh, perhaps cruel, conceivably inconsistent, is the degree to which cold objectivity and even self-seeking characterize the reactions of various people. But we know that such responses are often defenses against the pain of feeling. And Lennie’s act was not of that sort which carries with it cataclysmic surprise. In addition, we remember an aspect of Steinbeck’s world, in which the impersonal processes of life do not stop or delay in the face of individual tragedy. In fact, it is the representative of that sense of the world who is the first to examine Curley’s wife’s body. Slim goes over to her “quietly” and feels her wrist. He touches her cheek; his fingers explore her neck. Only then does the silence break and do the rest of the men start talking or shouting. Curley is the first one to cry out for vengeance. He has not even a split second of visible regret, mourning or sorrow. His entire vendetta appears to be one which is merely taking advantage of the death of his wife in order to avenge his destroyed hand. Even at that, his anger and righteous outcries do not seem to come from any deep well within, even if it is only the well of vengeance. Curley is such a coward that he must excite himself into activity. “He worked himself into a fury,” the text reads. And all the covert hostility which Curley had felt in relation to George now can afford to express itself; he gets pleasure from making sure that George becomes part of the lynching posse. And he docs not even use George’s name when he addresses him: “You’re cornin’ with us, fella.” His shrewd mind is even able to furnish an apparently rational excuse for his urging his colleagues that they “give ’im no chance. Shoot for his guts . . .’’To George’s plea that Lennie, not being sane and thus not responsible, should not be killed, Curley counters that Lennie has Carlson’s Luger, a supposition for which no one has any proof. As for Carlson, he is very much the same man who hounded Candy about the old man’s dying dog. Carlson’s immediate response to Curley’s call for a killer mob is, “I’ll get my Luger.” No other considerations, no intermediary thought processes come between his view of the girl’s body and his running for the weapon. Candy’s world has fallen apart; whatever hopes he might have had of living in the dream ranch alone with George last only a few seconds. His first thoughts are for Lennie; he wants the big man to get away; he even argues with George about that point, stressing Curley’s vindictive cruelty. But the old man’s “greatest fear” prompts him directly afterward to ask George pleadingly whether the two of them could still go to the “little place.” So it isn’t clear whether Candy’s concern for Lennie is as gratuitous as it seems; in the dim recesses of the old man’s mind might have strayed the idea that if Lennie were helped to escape, the three men might still find peace together. Ironically it is Candy who is chosen by Slim to stay behind with the girl’s body; and although the old man is bereft now of all his lately wakened hopes, he can go beyond his own unhappiness at this instant. He squats down in the hay and looks at the dead girl’s face, and he thinks of Lennie, now the doomed quarry of a hunt. “Poor bastard,” Candy says, softly.
DEATH AND RELEASE. Both George and Slim agree that a caged Lennie is an impossibility. The big man simply could not survive such conditions. At least this is their impression, and it makes possible their part in the hunt. But it is of course George who is the great sufferer. A certain ambiguity, however, pervades his suffering. Since Lennie alive exists in the cage of his own limitations, and demands the special attention of the weak, death is a kind of release. It is a release in the same sense that Curley’s wife’s death enabled her to become “very pretty and simple” in the absence of “the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention.”
The pool of the Salinas River is still; it is late afternoon. Lennie appears from the brush, silently. He kneels by the pool and drinks, then sits on the bank, embracing his knees. He talks to himself, pleased that he remembered this place, castigating himself for his actions. If George doesn’t want him. he thinks, he’ll just go away. Then he experiences two extremely vivid fantasies, one involving his Aunt Clara, the second a gigantic rabbit. His Aunt upbraids him; how nice has George been to him, and how irresponsibly has Lennie behaved; what a good time George could have had without Lennie on his back, and how poorly Lennie has responded to such care. She disappears, followed immediately by the great imaginary rabbit, who insults Lennie, casts doubt on the big man’s ability to care for any animals, to remember feeding schedules, warns Lennie that George will beat him with a stick. Lennie cries out for George, who appears out of the brush. The big man pleads with George not to leave him; George says he won’t. Lennie asks if George will give him hell, but all that happens is the recital of The Story, with Lennie again crying out the punch line in triumph. George asks the big man to look across the river, up the mountains. He will tell Lennie The Story with such clarity that the ranch will become almost visible. As he speaks, George takes out Carlson’s Luger pistol; he looks at the back of Lennie’s head. A man’s voice calls from up the river; another voice answers. George raises the gun, but drops it again. He goes on with the story. The footsteps arc coming nearer. He raises the gun again; the hand shakes but he pulls the trigger. Lennie falls; George throws the gun down. Slim’s voice calls for George. Curley sees Lennie on the sand; he looks at the fatal wound. Carlson asks how George did it. George, limp and exhausted, simply answers affirmatively to Carlson’s suggestions that George had wrested the gun from Lennie and shot the big man. Slim takes George up the trail. “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda,” he says. Carlson wonders what is “eatin’ them two guys.”
COMMENT: The first pages of this Part contain a series of interesting and dramatically very effective parallelisms. As musical compositions often return at the end to some of the material typical of the beginning, so this Part VI repeats some of the language and the setting of the first Part—with significant alterations. We will detail these appearances.
PARALLELISMS AND ALTERATIONS. The setting is the same as the one which began the novel, the Salinas River pool. Even the adjectives, which are the second and third words in Part VI—“deep green”—can be found in the same order in the first sentence of Part I. Such specific and pin-pointing details, which might be somewhat irrelevant in a novel by Balzac, say, are quite appropriate here; we have discussed previously the poetic elements inherent in the constructions of this novel: and poetry is the concern for the right word in the right place, and for the symbolic word. As in Part I, Steinbeck’s feeling for nature is manifest in the description of trees and animals at the pool. They are not merely generalized descriptions, but involve such specific names as sycamore, and willow, lizard, snake, ’coon and heron. It is evening in both Parts —the novel opens as darkness comes on, and it plays itself out as well in the coming of darkness. But whereas nature is beneficent in Part I—skittering lizards, sitting rabbits, deep-lying crisp leaves—the animal symbolism of Part VI suggests the continuity of those impersonal biological processes which we have discussed previously. A water snake, gliding the length of the pool, reaches the legs of an unmoving heron, who instantly grabs the reptile and eats it. As snakes eat insects, so herons eat snakes. It is simply the truth about the animal world, to which man also belongs, man in the shape of Curley, or George, or Lennie. The wind suddenly rushes, as the heron makes its catch, then all is quiet again. It might not be too much to see in this complicity of nature. The heron stands again in the shallows, “motionless and waiting.” Another little water snake swims up the pool.
MORE PARALLELISMS. Now Lennie, in his sudden approach, is compared to a bear. But where in Part I he was seen walking “heavily . . . dragging his feet” as a bear does, in this scene he comes as silently “as a creeping bear does.” He is still a bear, but a frightened one. In Part I Lennie “flung himself down” to drink from the pool, snorting into the water “like a horse”; but in this last Part, the big man “knelt down” to drink; there are no horse-like noises now: he is “barely touching his lips to the water.” In the first instance his animal passion for water was so concentrated that he would not have noticed any noise; as a matter of fact George had to shake him free of the water. In this scene, however, the sound of a little bird skittering over dry leaves causes Lennie immediately to jerk his head up, all attention focused on the source of the sound. When he finishes drinking, he sits on the bank; he unconsciously emulates his posture in the first Part, when he embraced his knees in imitation of George. In fact the entire scene is largely composed of restatements of past events and attitudes. In this case we discover not only the parallelism between the beginning and the end, Parts I and VI, but also recapitulation of elements from other Parts of the novel. Among them two are most important, and in the context of this final scene most poignant. They consist of the two stories which constitute the symbolic polarities of George’s attitudes toward Lennie. Again, as in the case of the shifting parallelisms described above, the effectiveness of the repetitions is enhanced by subtle variations. George, miserably full of the knowledge of his eventual act, is unwilling to scold Lennie. But the big man, who is attuned to scoldings no less ritualistically than he is to The Story, actually begs George to tell him off, to recount again how easy life would be without Lennie, how George could take his fifty dollars a month and do what he wanted with it. But George cannot finish this scolding, and at Lennie’s behest goes on to the final telling of The Story.
SCENE AND SYMBOLS. Thus the entire last scene, until the entrance of the men, proceeds by way of indicating symbols. There is no direct foretelling of the killing, and the movement unwinds itself almost like a grave, heartbreaking pageant. In this connection, it is interesting to observe that just before George makes his first effort to kill the big man, he takes off his own hat and suggests that Lennie do the same. “The air feels fine,” he tells the big man. On a practical level, George may have made the suggestion in order to have a clear target. But he could have probably done without this last order. There is another overtone here, vague echoes of the symbolic usage which dictates that men remove their hats in church, that they remove their hats in respect. George, as it were, starts mourning for his friend from this point.
LAST WORDS. The final words of carefully contrived fictions are usually written with care. They constitute an important part of the last impression got by the reader, and must consequently communicate the author’s sense of a deep-lying appropriateness. Steinbeck could easily have ended this novel at one of several points and still have established a dramatic finish. He might have concluded with the conversation between George and Carlson, in which George tiredly assents to Carlson’s version of the killing. Or Steinbeck might have ended the book at the point of George’s departure with Slim, as Slim assures his companion that there had been no choice, that what is, is, that what had to be done was done. However the novelist chose to finish the novel with Carlson’s comment to Curley, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” Thus the book ends on a jarring, harsh, cruel note, typified by lack of understanding and empathy. The statement is a token of extraordinary moral denseness, and perhaps by using it in final position the novelist was attempting to get across to the reader a sense of the implacable and dark disinterest of the world in the tragedy of an individual. Whatever Steinbeck’s intent, this last comment leaves the reader with a powerful sense of the world’s iniquity.