Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

I got to see Fathom Events' film version of this Broadway stage play of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. This is another classic I read in high school and got nothing out of, except that I remember it turning my stomach. It's a good thing to come back to later in life, because you can't help but respond to a classic differently with more life experience.

I had a keen appreciation this time for what a tightly constructed piece it is, a tragedy akin to Oedipus: once the setting has been established and the main characters introduced, there is an feeling of inevitability. Lennie, pure as his motives often are, is a time bomb, and because George cares about him, he will be dragged down in the tragedy when it happens.

But this time, instead of seeing it essentially as a human tragedy, I was conscious of it as a social tragedy. This is what happens when there is no social "safety" net, no provision for mental health care. And people are perpetually poor, scraping by at a subsistence level with few alternatives. Any infirmity, illness, old age, leads to death, as Candy the aging farm-hand recognizes. Old dogs are shot, runts of the litter are drowned, and people don't fare much better.

The director of the Broadway production, Anna D. Shapiro, talked about the piece during an intermission clip. She emphasized the illusory nature of what I would call the "pioneer" promise: work hard, you'll get ahead, own something of your own and escape poverty and endless work. Steinbeck saw this was a false hope for most, but Shapiro says he offers something in its place: human connection. What makes George and Lennie different, they keep telling themselves, is that they look out for each other in a environment where most men live only for themselves.

I think the key, though, is that they have a plan, even if it is a pie-in-the-sky hope, that gives them something to work for and save towards. The other men they describe as being not like them are solitary, yes, but also seem to be living transitory lives: make money, blow it in a weekend, repeat - always at a subsistence level. I am persuaded by Viktor Frankl's analysis of human experience in Man's Search for Meaning, where he identifies a sense of purpose as being critical to human thriving. It seems to be easier, for some reason I haven't figured out, to care about a future when you have human connections, like George and Lennie, but I don't think human connection is required.

I want to say this delicately, because it is controversial, but I believe the crucial piece is the goal of the farm (or whatever the equivalent is), even if the goal is next to impossible, more than having a human bond. They both reinforce each other, and life without either is certainly less than optimal, but I think purpose takes priority.

This theme of false promises, the carrot in front of the donkey's nose, resonated with me because I think Americans, by in large, buy into an updated version of the same myth: anyone can "succeed" or "get ahead" through hard work. Only it often doesn't work out, and there is an implicit, nasty Puritanical reverse: people who are not "succeeding" must not be working hard enough.