The Necessity of Companionship: Re-Reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

Everyone’s lonely in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I found it very telling of some thing really quite tragic that life in the West was really, quite lonely. The few monologues in the book, taking up precious space in the book’s few pages, contemplate Edenic America, not just as a place of plenty—primed for livin’ off tha fatta’ the land!—no, more important than its natural abundance is its camaraderie. These monologues make clear: There is no joy in plenty without camaraderie. The rugged individualism that so often is used as the virtue that defines the American character, that of the bold entrepreneur in the East and intrepid gold or oil seeker in the West, is a benefit to the silhouette of the American mythic but clearly a misery for the real, living individual.

Going in reverse order, George catches up with Lenny at the green lake that George told Lenny to go to if Lennie ever did something bad.

Lenny did do something bad. Lenny snapped the neck of Curley’s Wife, who, by way of name, we only know as “Curley’s Wife.”

There sit Lenny and George, and this time, in juxtaposition to the book’s beginning where Lenny eventually remembers they got run out of the ranch in Weed—but doesn’t remember why—Lenny knows that Lenny did something bad. To us, it was murder. But to Lenny, best I can tell of what Lennie recognizes is that he scared women. In the events that first caused George and Lenny to run, we’re told he scared a woman, but she was otherwise unharmed. In this latest incident, recall that Curley’s Wife approached Lennie in the barn as Lennie sat there, holding another dead pup that he “petted” too roughly. Lennie told Curley’s Wife that he shouldn’t be talking to her, because George told him not to. Curley’s Wife didn’t leave. So the last act Lennie would have seen and recognized as bad was Curley’s Wife beginning to pull away and starting to scream when she, in increasing panic, regretted offering her head for Lennie to touch. I of course have to grant that Lennie acknowledges Curley’s Wife’s lifeless body. But what he verbalizes is that he done another bad thing.

Why did Curley’s Wife go into the barn? Why did she stay with Lennie? Loneliness. We know from Candy that Curley—as a reminder to the reader, Curley is Curley’s Wife’s husband—instructs Curley’s Wife to stay in the house. Curley’s wish for his wife is that she be sequestered from the other men, so that, seemingly, lust doesn’t get the better of anyone. But we know from Curley’s Wife that she is miserable in this arrangement. She tells us she could have been in movies. She might have been content with the adoration of fans and attention from the press. She might have seen through their affections as unfulfilling, shallow envy disguised as love—who knows? What we do know is that any alternative would have been better than her current situation, that of pretty prisoner in her own home. So she seeks company wherever she can find it, which in this scene was with Lennie.

Lennie breaks her neck.

At the green lake, Lenny seeks comfort from George by asking George to describe the future they’re working for, at least that Lennie believes they’re working for—a piece of land that’s theirs. Despite previous protestations when George continually recounted their near future, George knows the land won’t mean anything if Lenny weren’t with him. We’re shown early in the book George exploding in anger at Lenny, decompressing in piping hot verbiage a bellicose speech so shocking that it instantly leaves Lenny suggesting he leave so that George will not be, not just bothered by him anymore—no, no, Lenny understands the concept of the burden. It’s a concept so absurd to Lennie that Lennie jokes about it in his suggestion that he go off into the woods and leave George–which George understands would mean alone.

George would never cast Lennie away—George knows it. He tells us so himself. He says so to the future member of their soon-to-be three merry men, Candy. Their companionship even attracts Crooks, the black worker who is profoundly aware of the racism he endures every day that he is on that ranch. Profoundly aware because, we’re told, Crooks reads. Comparatively speaking with the rest of the ranch hands, he has it best of all because he has his own room! And, despite the intolerable racism only he is aware of, we’re told that he is otherwise treated “well.” And yet, this rare courtesy in post-Civil War racist America of Crooks being treated as a human being—though still subject to the objectifying, racist vitriol of Curley’s Wife—is not enough. Crooks would give it all away for companionship. When Lennie steps into Crook’s space and disarms Lennie after initially “supposing” that George might not come back, Crooks tells Lennie:

“Maybe you can see now. You got George. You know he’s goin’ to come back. S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunkhouse and play rummy ‘cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”

Crooks can’t stand it. Crooks tries to leave. Candy tries to leave. The both of them with their limited means and health yearn to become part of a whole to live for something better. Neither achieves it.

The book’s end implies that neither does George, either by himself or with Candy or Crooks. George decides to commit vigilante justice by killing Lennie, before the State or Curley get their hands on him as retribution for the killing of Curley’s Wife. This is tragic, of course, not because Lennie and George were family, but because it might have been Lennie’s enthusiasm for George’s vision that kept the both of them from falling by the wayside, as was apparently common among Westerners who, it turns out, superficially aspired to something better. In the beginning of the book, Lennie says to George enthusiastically, denoted by italics, that, while others had no future to look forward to, or anyone who cared about them, George and Lennie were different:

“‘But not us! An’ why? Because . . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.” He laughed delightedly.”

With the killing of Lennie came the loss of their dream. George might always have known the true financial difficulty, if not impossibility, of attaining land. He is quick after all, barring some initial hesitancy, to allow Candy into their vision because of the added funds that Candy was willing to provide. But Lennie always wanted to hear about what their future farm or ranch would look like. It was Lennie who made the fantasy real, if only during the time when George recounted the tale again and again. Without Lennie, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that George fell into the trap that befell so many others—in the American West, this meant transient living with disposable income spent on disposable joy, namely in the form of gambling and brothels. Crooks gives us a sense of how pervasively the dreams of Westerners were crushed:

“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hundreds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.”

Of Mice and Men is, unfortunately, a microcosm of the American West unique in its circumstances, but not in its outcome.

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