This novella was first published in 1937, shortly after John Steinbeck had become a full-time writer, supporting himself by his pen. It concerns two friends, itinerant farmhands in Southern California, Lennie and George. Lenny is large, strong and mentally underdeveloped, while George is quick-witted and small. Their relationship is the heart of the story, as the reader observes their tenderness towards one another expressed in the rough language of working men. As the story winds to a tragic close, George has to make an awful decision so that he has some hope of a life of his own.
Steinbeck writes the novella featuring closely on the spoken voice, like much of his fiction. He was an acute observer of everyday people and took pride in his ability to recreate their voices on the page. Chief among his tools are non-standard verb forms – ‘he done’ to replace ‘he has done’ or ‘he did’ – and contractions – ‘’em’ to replace ‘them’ and ‘di’n’t’ to replace didn’t. Together these tricks help the reader hear the speech as much as read them.
Much of Lennie’s speech uses repetitive phrases – when he is first introduced we hear him say ‘You drink some, George. You take a good big drink.’ This cyclical mannerism seems at once natural and abnormal. What makes Lennie stand out is not that he repeats himself – all of Steinbeck’s characters do – but that he does it so much. In fact, Lennie also repeats what George does, mimicking him in a pathetic attempt to do the right thing. When he relaxes, he crosses his hands under his head like George before ‘raising his head to see whether he were doing it right.’
As men who work outside, Lennie and George live in an agricultural world. The animals who fill the book – wild, domesticated, imaginary – each have a reality given to them by Steinbeck’s precise descriptions. Whether it is rabbits sitting ‘as quietly as little gray, sculptured stones’ or a heron ‘laboring up into the air’, the writer takes time to show the natural world with a fresh eye. This sets his story in a deeply visual, realised world, even though the setting is a very small area of Southern California, and even though the length of time the events take is only a few days.
George is a simple man with an admirable concern and love for his friend – but what makes him so real is the limit he repeatedly comes up against. When Lennie wants ketchup for his beans, George explodes into a tirade, saying ‘Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want.’ His anger might seem disproportionate until we consider how long he has been looking after Lennie, and how desperate he is to have some respite. In some ways this anger is a symptom of his own loneliness, quite plain when he talks about the life he ‘could live so easy’. Crooks diagnoses it as a ‘loneliness for land’, something Steinbeck would write about time and time again, but when George, and Lennie paint their most detailed picture of the ‘fatta the lan’’ it is in the company of Candy – and the prospect of more company adds fuel to their fire. The men are desperate for a community, however small, where they are valued.
Curley is so dangerous because of his own pent-up anger. We can see it when he unwisely challenges Lennie to a fight, needing some sort of punchbag so that he can work out his frustrations at his wife’s behaviour. Lennie has frustrations that echo these, but of a more childish nature. He shouts at the dead puppy, ‘Why do you got to get killed? You ain’t so little as mice.’ Each character in the story is struggling with their own weaknesses, and without the means to help one another.
George’s attitude towards Lennie’s accidental killing is truly remarkable. Admittedly, neither he nor Candy had any liking for Curley’s wife, but they both focus on how they can best help Lennie. And George notes that ‘Lennie never done it in meanness.’ He continues, surely thinking back to all the accidents and mistakes he has seen: ‘All the time he done bad things, but he never done one of ‘em mean.’ Although George will become Lennie’s executioner, we realise that he considers his friend entirely innocent, and will willingly forgive him for all the ‘trouble’ he has made for George. However, there’s no victory in this, for in killing Lennie, George loses his own best friend, destroys his own dream and throws away the one thing that made him different to the other swampers: his pity and his desire to provide for others.
‘Jesus Christ, Lennie! You can’t remember nothing that happens, but you remember ever’ word I say’. Lennie’s memory, including the rote-learnt ‘fatta the lan’’ recitation and the words of Aunt Clara, is a confusing obstacle to both him and George. Without the ability to think for himself, Lennie is utterly dependent on George’s guidance. We never really know what happened in Weed, but George remembers it and Lennie remembers the results: ‘We was run off’. He also inconveniently remembers much of George’s monologuing, his conversation the girls ‘on Howard Street’ and anything else that will prick George’s conscience. And without these reminders, perhaps George is right to be hopeless, and he will sink into an alcoholic cycle of work and waste.
Steinbeck has really written a domestic tragedy in the novella, although the household is an unconventional one. The scale of the emotions involved is really dictated by the little world he creates: we know what Lennie’s death means to George, and we know that Slim and Candy have a little sorrow, but other than that, his passing will be unmourned, meaning that the reader has an obligation to be moved and to act differently in response to what Steinbeck has shown us.
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More GCSE analyses: Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies