This novella was first published in 1937. It is the story of two friends, George Milton and Lennie Small. They are migrant farm workers, or bindlestiffs, going from ranch to ranch in order to earn money. They are complete opposites, with George a small, intelligent, sharp featured man. Lennie is a large, exceptionally strong man, but mentally deficient.
On the way to a new ranch the pair are dropped, deliberately, by the bus driver many miles away from their final destination. They stop by a pool of water and camp overnight. It is during this passage that we learn about George and Lennie’s past experiences and why they are coming to this ranch. Lennie idolizes and relies heavily on George, this is clear from the start when he mimics all of George’s actions at the waterhole. But we also are shown here what George takes from an otherwise troublesome friendship with Lennie.
The following morning they arrive at the ranch and the other key characters are introduced. Slim is the jerkline skinner, a wise man and clearly the leader of the workers on the ranch. Candy is an old ranch worker who lost a hand in an accident but is kept on as a swamper. Candy’s old and decrepit dog, whom he has had since he was a pup. Carlson, another ranch hand. Crooks the coloured stable buck*, so named due to his crooked back. Curley, the boss’ son and Curley’s brand new wife.
Curley is a small man who likes to fight. And he likes to have good odds on his side, so he picks on big men in order to be “the big man” should he win, and the recipient of sympathy that a man that big “should have picked on someone his own size”. Lennie is like a red rag to a bull for Curley. Curley’s wife is a flirt and appears to the ranch hands “looking for Curley” in order to “give them the eye”. George is disturbed by the feeling of the ranch, he can see that Curley is a danger to Lennie and that Curley’s wife is a danger to all. Lennie can feel this too, and begs to move on. But George knows that they need the money to raise their stake.
It isn’t really possible to go into too much more of the plot without giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that both Curley and, in the end, Curley’s wife destroy the “best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”.**
The minute I began to read I felt a great sense of foreboding. A big, strong, simple man in the 1930s who has some sort of impulse control issues is not leading down a promising path. Not only did I feel foreboding, but I began to feel sad at the sort of life these men had to lead, especially the need to “hide” Lennie’s deficiency and because of the clear bond the two men share.
Unlike many of the bindlestiffs, these men are travelling together and giving each other support and encouragement. This is rare and brings many comments on their arrival at the ranch. It is this bond that makes this story so poignant as this quote from Lennie shows.
Because…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.
George and Lennie share a dream of gaining a stake and having their own land. It is this dream and story that binds them and keeps them upbeat in the face of what could be a dead-end cycle of work, cathouses and whisky. Candy joins them in the venture mid-way through the story, and George relaxes his vigilance around leaving Lennie on his own. While George is in town Lennie is too rough with the puppy that Slim has offered him, and Curley’s wife finds him sitting alone, lamenting his roughness. Unfortunately Curley’s wife is lonely, despises her husband and is rueing her lost future. It is while she is telling Lennie all of this that she makes a fatal mistake that not only ends her future but also that of Lennie and George.
I found the whole story to be heartbreaking. Even a week after finishing the story it is still with me. The sense of meaningless loss. Loss of friends, loss of a future, loss of a dream. The despair that brings.
It is truly a tragic story, yet beautifully told. I am taken by the simplicity of the writing, yet there are patches of beautiful imagery.
At about ten o’clock in the morning the sun threw a bright dust-laden bar through one of the side windows, and in and out of the beam flies shot like rushing stars.
Or the very evocative slang of the era,
What the hell kind of bed you giving us, anyways. We don’t want no pants rabbits.
And describing Curley’s wife as she lays in the barn,
And the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple, and her face was sweet and young.
I can highly recommend spending the time to read this. It is evocative, heart-warming and tragic all wrapped up in one very well written package. So, off you go… the library catalogue is waiting for you… don’t put it off, you won’t regret it.
And yes, Candy’s dog’s demise does have significance. And so does Candy’s comment to George afterwards.
* again this is a novella using the language of it’s time.
** taken from Robert Burns’ To A Mouse, from which the title of this novella is believed to have come.