Thursday, March 2, 2017

Of Mice and Men

When I finished John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, I couldn't resolve the ending and how it fed into the meaning of the novel as a whole. I understood the novel was about isolation, prejudice, how it serves as social commentary on 1930's America. I just couldn't put my finger on what the author was trying to convey. The novel's meaning was elusive.

As I tried to piece the meaning together, I kept thinking about another John Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath, an iconic work about the dust bowl tragedy and American migration within America. I thought specifically about chapter 3, the tortoise chapter. The writing in this chapter focuses solely on the struggle of a tortoise, first as it climbs a hill striving for "The concrete highway...edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass...Now the hands braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell came slowly up and rested on the wall...the back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement, and it was up."

Steinbeck's writing cannot be taken out of the context of the time in which he writes-the destroyed American dream, the great depression. Communists celebrated, FDR scratched his head and went to work, and the American laborer suffered. His family suffered. Children went hungry. People struggled, and Steinbeck brings this struggle to us through the eyes of a turtle.

But the writing in Grapes of Wrath chapter three is not only about the struggle of a turtle to reach and cross the highway. Once he has reached the road, we meet our first automobile. "A sedan driven by a forty-year-old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. Two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot."

The turtle is safe and will move on to its destination; but the chapter doesn't end with an undisturbed turtle,--after reaching the road, the turtle meets with a nice middle-aged lady who understands the sanctity of all life.

"And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled  over and flopped upright."

Steinbeck conveys: we are acted upon, more than we act independently.  We find ourselves in circumstances solely because of another person's actions. Or simply because of fate or physics, or biology. Because of this, many of our actions are reactions to the circumstances created by circumstances beyond our control.

As a teenager, when I was first and fully exposed to poverty in Egypt, I had an existential crisis. I cried for understanding as to why my life was so different from the children living in mud huts. I was acted upon, placed within circumstances in comprehensible and yet, there I was.

Steinbeck 's works are a testament that in life we are subject to circumstances because we are acted upon: my student struck with leukemia;  the car crash that killed my grandfather. The fender bender on the highway that causes us to miss a plane--all situations changed by no fault or consciousness on our part. There are times when from a person's good intentions we benefit--a driver who swerves to miss a turtle. Yet, I find Steinbeck's driver who swerved to destroy the turtle real: he removed the orange cones surrounding the uncovered manhole my biking friend drove into and which almost took his life.

If we are acted upon, where do we have choices and control? In every single circumstance. My student fights for her life; my mother's family endured and people stepped forward to help in such a desperate time. My biking friend survived and thrives in spite of his head injury. Steinbeck's writing takes us back to the great purveyors of choice and truth, the Viktor Frankl's and the Albert Camus who found in that moment of deciding whether or not to push the rock up the hill, who were acted upon in the cruelest way possible, there lies the moment of conscious choice-which becomes our crowning glory.

The characters Of Mice and Men are all at the mercy of an economy gone awry, or at the mercy of a mental challenge, of a stumped arm, of a bad marriage, of segregation. Throughout the novel, they must make choices based on what is put upon them by their creator. The circumstances Steinbeck gives his characters are difficult, the choices in how to respond even more so... and finally I am at peace with Of Mice and Men.