As part of developing our curriculum in KS3, we are placing emphasis on three cross topic components.
For Year 7, we, like most, are focusing on classical myths, which is great when we cover aspects such as the Victorian novel and Shakespeare.
For Year 8, we are looking at fairy tales which makes some great connections with Gothic horror and Charles Dicken’s ‘Great Expectation’.
For Year 9, we are looking at stories from the Old Testament and New Testament. But, in looking at these stories it made me revise my thoughts on the John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. Now, I am not the novel’s biggest fan and like a lot of teachers we just got a little bit fed up of teaching it, but I do have a new appreciation of the book now.
A lot of what I am exploring is interpretation and like most interpretations you are free to think ‘yep’, ‘no’ or ‘ what utter codswallop!’.
The Garden of Eden?
Since the dawn of time, teachers have been making associations between the opening and ending of the novel with the ‘Garden of Eden’. It is so perfect. So calm. So innocent. It even has rabbits and nothing says garden at the beginning of the world like big fluffy rabbits. In fact, so determined are we to extend the interpretation we try to crowbar the serpent in with the water snake. That isn't tree climbing snake.
I believe we have become so blindsided that we make the setting the ‘Garden of Eden’ for simplicity. Aside from Steinbeck’s theme of nature, I feel that there is a different garden we should be thinking about when looking at the novel.
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.
The novel doesn’t make the opening setting a place devoid of humanity. It makes it clear that is frequented by humanity on a regular basis. And, if your knowledge of the bible is a little bit dodgy, then you might have missed that there was only two humans in the Garden of Eden. Not lots of them. Not a few living in a village nearby.
I feel that the opening has more akin to the Garden of Gethsemane. A garden associated with friendship. A garden associated with reflection. A garden associated with betrayal.
The Garden of Gethsemane was a garden on Mount of Olives (I know, California doesn’t have that many olive groves but it does have mounts) outside Jerusalem. After the Last Supper, Jesus goes to pray with his disciples. At this point, he is betrayed by Judas, captured and then crucified.
Let that sink in. After his last bowl of slop, Lennie goes to the brush to seek mental and emotional solace from his disciple, George. At this point, he is betrayed by George and killed. I know that there are no olives, but the similarities are striking. For years, I have sold the idea that the brush was an allusion to the ‘Garden of Eden’ and how sin changed everything. Of course, there are other interpretations. For this blog, I am focusing solely on the religious interpretations.
The Judas Kiss
Now, let’s look at George’s …sob…sob…sob betrayal. The infamous Judas kiss was an act that could be open to two interpretations. One: a kiss is an act of affection and respect. You only kiss the ones you love and respect. Two: a kiss is the signal that the person kissed is Jesus so the soldiers can capture him.
"No," said George. "No, Lennie. I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't now. That's a thing I want ya to know." The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices. Lennie begged, "Le's do it now. Le's get that place now." "Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta." And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head.
If we take this interpretation further, we need to look Judas’ role. George’s telling of the dream is both an act of affection and a betrayal. He is telling the story out of love for Lennie because it mentally and emotionally calms him down, but at the same time it is a distraction for the act of shooting him in the head.
Judas isn’t the only disciple to betray Jesus. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. George often hides the truth about Lennie several times. Although, he doesn’t actual deny knowing Lennie, he fails to tell the truth numerous times in the story.
An' you got it away from him and you took it an' you killed him?"
"Yeah. Tha's how." George's voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.
So is George and amalgamation of Judas, Peter and the soldiers who took pity on Jesus when he was crucified. This for me possibly heightens the complexity of George’s character. Possibly, George even plays the role of Mary / Joseph. He treats Lennie as his own flesh and blood as a promise to somebody– ummm sounds familiar.
And the ending for George. Judas committed suicide after the Garden of Gethsemane. I cannot help but think something similar would happen
“Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Mark 14:21
We know that literature throws up lots of allusions in relation to Jesus Christ. If there was someone presented with Christ-like perfection, it would have to be Slim. I think interpreting Lennie as Jesus Christ figure is complicated given that Lennie kills people. However, there is an interesting relationship between innocence and power. Jesus was an innocent and kind man who was feared because of his powerful influence on others. With Lennie we have a largely innocent and kind man who cannot control his power. His power has a destructive influence. Therefore, both die to prevent their power increasing. They both have visions when travelling through the wilderness. Only one has rabbits.
Now, here is where the story diverges from the crucifixion story. Most certainly Curley would have crucified Lennie and made him walk the streets with a wooden cross. Here, we have something more humane. Judas, I mean, George, prevents the crucifixion.
Added to this is the idea of sacrifice. The sacrifice of a loved one to atone for past sin.
Other interesting religious interpretations
· David and Goliath – a childlike Lennie defeats a (short) powerful figure of hatred Curley
· Samson and Delilah – a man with some interesting hair (might have curls) is obsessed with a woman. Look at how pleased Curley’s wife is when Curley’s power is taken away from him. Who asked Curley to wear the glove?
‘yep’, ‘no’ or ‘ what utter codswallop!’ – I will let you decide.
Thanks for reading,