Sunday, 3 March 2013

Of Mice and Men - Character Ideas

I love Steinbeck's novella about two guys so much, that I fancy writing about it on a grim grimy morning. So here we go.  If this is useful for revision, then that's obviously very good news indeed.  If it's useful for teaching, then all the better.

Character - beyond the basics

George is a very complex character who suffers from a permanent clash of motives.  He is a young man, working itinerant ranch labour, and yet he is also essentially a parent of a very difficult child.  This is a totally impossible situation which tears the man apart, as he simultaneously loves and hates Lennie.  His flashes of temper, as seen in part one, are a symptom of this internal strife.  His self-isolation is another manifestation of this.  He plays solitaire at all times, never seeming to play a competitive game with others (the game of euchre in part three never really gets off the ground, due to the tension building as they wait for the gunshot) and speaks in terse, thin sentences to the majority of characters (especially Curley's Wife, Carlson and Whit).  Despite this, the novella gives us a fascinating window into a transitional phase in George's life: he meets new friends in Slim and Candy, and his long-held pipe-dream seems, startlingly and disorientatingly, to be on the cusp of becoming reality.  As such we see glimpses of warmth, sorrow and shame in George: particularly when talking to Slim in the opening pages of part three.  His decision to kill Lennie is not inevitable, though.  There are other options open to him, and I believe there must be some sense of relief in pulling the trigger.  Relief that is submerged under a tide of misery, but it would be a simplistic reading to assume there was no sense of final rest from the stressful life he's been forced to live for so long.

Lennie is scary.  There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that when Lennie gets annoyed, he is a tremendously intimidating character.  The 'fish'-like flopping of his victims, and the repetitive 'bear' imagery present us with a monstrous being - a Jekyll and Hyde - that is usually docile and calm but occasionally lethal and wantonly aggressive.  Simple readings of Lennie as a victim are inaccurate.  It is fair enough to a point, but his disability (whatever it is) makes him something of an anti-hero who does choose to do horrific acts of violence.  Evidence for this is in the petulance with which he 'hurls' around the dead puppy: the intense flash of hatred that the dead animal sparks is an insight into a deeply troubled character who is far more than just 'stupid'.

Candy is a troublesome gossip, and not as great a guy as some may suggest.  His glee at sharing his disgusting information about Curley's glove shows a man who thrives on rumour and scandal, and his reaction to his ticking off by George in part two - 'He had drawn a derogatory statement from George.  He felt safe now' - shows a man comfortable in the role of disciple rather than leader: he is very easily led and has little power of his own.  This is most clearly displayed when the men bully him into killing his dog, though Candy's insistence on keeping it alive could be viewed as selfishness.  Candy's relationship with Curley's Wife is fascinating.  He clearly hates her, behaving brutally when she joins the three 'weak ones' in Crooks' room.  He changes when addressing the only woman in the tale, becoming more assertive and aggressive.  Clearly, this emphasises the level at which women operate in this story - below even the weakest of the 'weak' trio.

Curley is a simple plot device, really - a simple antagonist with a coincidental hatred for the very physicality of Lennie.  George is right about him, in that there is nothing Lennie can do but wait for the boot to eventually drop onto him.  Steinbeck offers a little more insight, but it is all third hand: the vaseline glove, the boxing...even his position as boss's son is never fully explored.  He is, therefore, unknowable, which is exactly how Steinbeck wanted it - a mysterious, blank presence whose raw energy and hatred acts as a catalyst for the plot.

Curley's Wife is the only woman in the book, apart from the hallucination of Aunt Clara and the mentioned floozies and jailbaits of the town.  She is an exotic addition to the novel, multi-coloured and feathered like a rare bird ('ostrich feathers' on her 'red mules'), and so she is always centre of attention.  Her posture and habit of standing in doorways adds to the idea that she is inescapable: it is impossible to avoid her as she moves randomly through the ranch, like a ghost in Pac-Man.  The danger signified in her red colouring and her 'brittle, nasal' voice means that she is a source of incredible tension - totally unpredictable and capable of causing infernos of anger wherever she goes.  Every major bout of aggression has Curley's Wife at its core somewhere.  Despite this, she is not an antagonist.  Instead she is misunderstood, but prone to bursts of childlike and petulant behaviour, just like Lennie.  And just like Lennie, she cannot simply be a victim, though as a woman she is certainly prejudiced against.  Her naivety in believing the man from 'the pitchers' create some sense of culpability, but as a whole she is simply a bumbling character, desperate for love and warmth in a world where these things barely exist.  Her treatment of Crooks is fascinating, as it shows a more assertive side to her character.  Again, though she is low down the pecking order, she is still higher than Crooks, and enjoys her moment of power in part four.

Crooks is the only black character in the novel.  This highlights the unusual nature of racial relations in California at this time.  It would be dangerous to assume that California was akin to the Deep South of Alabama and Kentucky (the racism in Of Mice and Men is of a different nature to that in To Kill a Mockingbird).  As Crooks himself says, he grew up on his 'old man's chicken ranch', in a position of reasonable security.  Racism in the North and West was generally de facto, rather than enshrined in law.  The infamous Jim Crow laws were only a factor in the Southern States, where racism was an institution.  In fact in the 1930s California was most famous for its prejudice against the Filipino population that led to scenes of terrible violence in Watsonville in 1930.  This is not to say black people were not prejudiced against: they certainly were, and California had a system of segregation in place.  The Ku Klux Klan had a great many members in various areas of California at this time, too, with Orange County alone having 1200 members in the 1920s.  This lends weight to Curley's Wife's threat of lynching - it would probably have led to that.  Crooks is a quiet, embittered man who reads to pass the time when not working.  He literally shares his home with the animals, to the point that his medicine, and the medicine for the horses, are stored in the same container.  His collection of books is fascinating.  It contains an out of date copy of the California Civil Code, presumably to create the impression that he is familiar with his rights.  He has some ambiguous 'dirty books', suggestive of pornography.  Considering he can't go into town with the boys, this is not unreasonable to presume.  His tattered dictionary is the most interesting possession, as it is 'tattered', suggesting great use.  His interaction with Lennie and Candy is an emotional high point in the book, as we see the three misfits bonding over a common dream after initially hostile posturing.  Steinbeck seems on the verge of creating an Eden for these loners and 'weak ones' when Crooks asks to join them on their ranch, and society seems on the verge of inversion, with those on the periphery becoming those who have succeeded in the pursuit of happiness.  Of course, Curley's Wife's intrusion destroys all of this, as this Eve is placed below even them, worthy only of scorn and distrust.
More later on...

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  1. It was good is because of the depiction of love.
    George loved Lennie enough to kill him before he could be killed violently at the hands of 'strangers'. This is paralleled in the incident of Candy's dog, and Candy's regret of not killing the animal himself....all in all, great symbolism and touching which made the novel a great success.

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    1. It's definitely that core of close bonds and love that makes the book work. I suppose that's why characters like Carlson and Curley stand out so much: they have no capacity for it; Steinbeck made damn sure of that.