Of Mice and Men: Banned Books #3

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and run deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sand in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.”

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: 8/10

I was not a hundred percent sure that I should include Of Mice and Men in my Banned Books series despite the fact that it gets taken off school reading lists and banned from school libraries all the time. It’s not a book I would consider particularly suitable for anyone under twelve. It’s full of racial slurs, swearing, a brothel, sexism and violence.  So taking it off your school reading list might be a legitimate matter of judgement. But I’ve included it anyway because first, it was banned from high schools as well, and secondly I’m not sure that what I mentioned just now were the only reasons that it was banned.

It also says hard things about the American way of life, or the “American Dream”. It says that it isn’t just a case of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” because the world isn’t fair and dreams don’t always come true even if you work hard. It shows that people are cruel and prejudiced and that life is never simple. It questions simplistic morality, that things are always good or always bad and the book certainly make a convincing case for a kind of euthanasia. Is a quick, clean death sometimes the best way out? An interesting philosophical question, one that has been argued for over two thousand years, but not one many Southern American school-boards want their students debating.

It also asks the question of whether having a dream can be an evil? US culture is based on the fact that anyone with a dream can work their way to it but Steinbeck seems to shake this philosophy at its core in a way. Candy and Crooks were my favourite characters because they got caught up in George and Lennie’s dream and had it shattered for them. They had never tried to look beyond their “station” in life until meeting Lennie. Lennie was George’s connection to the dream too even though he blamed Lennie for them not having the money to buy their farm yet. So in some ways Lennie is the dream and so it could certainly be argued that Steinbeck is saying that dreams, for some people in society at least, are only destructive.

But I’m not convinced that is what he was saying.

In a way he’s saying the dreams for the poor and the disenfranchised can be more destructive than helpful but I think what’s he’s really getting at is not that this is the reality but rather that it’s one way that people at the top might think. There is a sense that George and Lennie’s dream threatens the status quo because it is just not something that grafters do. The ‘dream’ gives them access to something that those above them in society, while they do not outright say it often, do not believe they have a right to.

Of Mice and Men was not what I expected. It was sad and soft and hard and real and fantastical all at the same time. The language of the last section was particularly powerful. George’s description was so moving, so beautiful and comforting that I find it hard to accept that Steinbeck was cynically denying the purpose of dreaming altogether.

It showed the power of hope for good and bad. It balanced it and did not try to simplify the complexity of the moral choices made. It offered few judgements but instead told a story and left the rest up to us.

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