When I think back to the furore last year about the sudden demise of the novel from the curriculum, I am confused. Part of me adores the book and its subtleties and nuances. Another part of me despises the book because of the exam focus that surrounds it. Then another part of me, because I am a man made of many parts, thinks it is so important that people read the book’s ideas on friendship, disability and outsiders. Finally, a part of me is frustrated that this is the general ‘go to’ book for most teachers when there are others next to it in the stock cupboard. The fact that I have so many conflicting parts is probably one of the reasons I walk funny.
Recently, I sent ‘Of Mice and Men’ off on holiday. For a year, I cleansed my palate with Harper Lees’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Then, I came back to the little old novella I have been teaching for what seems years and I discovered a few things. I don’t think they are mind blowing, but for me, they were gaps in the curtains of something deeper in the novel.
‘those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’
When looking at the description of the bunkhouse, one student piped up, looking for a way to avoid doing work, ‘Can we watch a Western?’ Usually, I skim over this, but this time, looking for an opportunity to do some more work, I said: ‘Yeah.’ Now, I am not a big fan of Westerns and, to be honest, I have never read one or seen one. Therefore, I got researching.
These points I discovered:
· There is very little moral ambiguity in the story. The villains and heroes are clear from the start. Often the hero wears a ‘star’. The purpose of the story is to purge the bad elements from the community or story.
· There is an ongoing battle with nature. The Western tends to set in physically harsh environments. Men try to live in barren and inhospitable places and if they succeed they have beaten nature.
· They tend set in the furthest reaches of humanity. The further away from mankind you are the closer you are to discovering something new.
· There is usually a power struggle at the heart of the story. Let’s call it a showdown. Two people have to meet at midday in the centre of town to shoot it out. Only one person can win.
· There is a big contrast between the barren external environment and the exciting places inside – brothels and bars.
· Oh yeah. They always feature horses, hats, guns and nice boots.
The simple throwaway comment from a student made me see the novel in a new light. What is the novel’s link to pulp Westerns? They were incredibly common and popular at the time, so people reading the books would have known the reference and the allusions that maybe fly straight over my head.
It is interesting to note that, in way, John Steinbeck’s story can be seen as an ‘anti-Western’ story. The characters aren’t clearly defined as heroes and villains. We are made to feel sympathy for Curley’s wife, and in some ways, Curley. They show unpleasant characteristics in their behaviour, but these usually stem from an insecurity or a fear and not out of pure hared or greed. The heroes commit bad deeds, but for good or misguided reasons.
Then, look at the way that nature is used in the book. Mankind rules nature throughout the story. It farms it and controls it, but the start and opening contain dominant images of nature in control. The world is beautiful yet man is dangerous. Compare this view of nature to that of a Western. The world is ugly and dangerous and man has to fix things and make it habitable.
We even have a showdown in the form of Curley and Lennie. It isn’t a gun and quickness that defeats the other person. It is pure physical strength. In a Western, the fastest gunslinger is the winner in society. In Soledad, the strongest and smartest is the winner in society. Lennie sadly learns this lesson.
In fact, if you look at the book from a ‘Western’ perspective, you see how the novel is an inversion of the typical cowboy story. It is often commented that Steinbeck worked hard to be realistic with his storytelling. However, I’d suggest that he isn’t being realistic, but writing a Western with humanity. Or, a modern Western.
There are usually seven types of Western stories.
- The Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories probably fall into this category.
- The ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners. – Curley clearly fears this happening.
- The empire story. The plot might involve building up a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot. – The dream of the farm
- The revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. – Curley search for Lennie / the death of Curley’s wife
- The cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around taming the wilderness for white settlers. – There is the constant farming on the ranch, but also the taming of characters such as Lennie and Curley; they make the ranch inhospitable
- The outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. – Curley’s actions go against the natural law of the ranch
- The marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. – George
The characters make an interesting point of comparison too. I think that we can safely establish that Slim is the typical cowboy. He is a foil for the other characters. We see how Curley fails to meet the typical view of a cowboy. Look at some of the adjectives Steinbeck used to describe his and Slim’s physical appearance:
Slim: tall, long, black, damp, hatchet, ageless, slow, large, lean, delicate, calm
Curley: young, thin, young, brown, brown, tightly curled
Our image of a cowboy does not feature a tight perm. The curly hair of Curley highlights how biologically he is on the losing path already. (I suggest he invests in a pair of GHDs.) Then, there is the body. One is ‘lean’ while the other one is ‘thin’. Then there is experience. One is ‘young’ whereas the other one is ‘ageless’. I could go on with the comparison between Curley and Slim. In fact, all the characters contrast with the typical view of a cowboy. Even, George is short. They show how the ‘normal’ man cannot ever match up to this idealised view of cowboys. Look at how Slim is presented as a divine being. He represents what the others want to be. It is quite telling how the character of Slim is never really developed beyond being the nice guy that calms the situation down. Yes, he is the Sherriff of the set up, and, isn’t…. he ….dull. That is the problem with Westerns: they don’t make interesting characters. They make great cardboard cut outs, but very limited characters. Does Slim have a wife? Does Slim have a hobby? Does Slim have an interesting backstory? He doesn’t. He fixes things and that is it.
So, if Slim represents the typical Western character, the position he holds in the story is to highlight how real the other people are in the story. He also symbolises the idea that Westerns are something to ‘scoff’ at. Slim is too good to be true, yet all the characters ‘believe’ in him. This blind acceptance is at the heart of the story. We accept things when we know that they can’t possibly be real, true or possible. Nobody can be like Slim. He is just too good to be true, but nobody can blame a man for trying. That’s what society does. It puts images of things that look attainable and achievable, but the reality is that nobody can attain to that level of perfection. We can try, but we will never get there.
‘those Western magazines ranch men love to read and scoff at and secretly believe’
Every Year 10 / 11 student remembers what magazines were in Crooks’ ‘room’, but interestingly he doesn’t have a Western magazine. Why? Maybe Crooks doesn’t ‘secretly believe’ in the Western stories. He is constantly reminded by others of his non-conformity in a world. Crook is the complete opposite of Slim and so has to travel the most to become like him. However, his routes of escapism is probably more realistic than any of the other characters. And, that is a tough thing to say given the historical context. I always teach my classes to see that Crook’s is the most intelligent character in the book. He reads books to improve himself and escape from the world he finds himself in. The classic Western story is a world not populated by black people, so not only is the world not accepting of black people in those days, but the dreams and ideals are also not accepting of Crooks.
Then, we get to Bill Tenner.
“’Dear Editor,’” Slim read slowly. “’I read your mag for six years and I think it is the best on the market. I like stories by Peter Rand. I think he is a whingding. Give us more like the Dark Rider. I don’t write many letters. Just thought I would tell you I think your mag is the best dime’s worth I ever spent.’”
This is always one of the oddest things in the book and don’t get me on to the talking rabbit. One day I will solve that ‘elephant in the room’ or ‘talking bunny in a dream sequence’. The men see this letter as a sign of success. There is one person that has made it. But, what has he made. He has written a letter. That’s all. Bill has not made a family. Bill has not started his own ranch. Bill has not won a million pounds. No, the sign of success is a letter that has been published. Not a farm. Not a ranch.
It is interesting to see that success is closely linked to the Western again. He is successful because his name is printed next to a Western story. The closest thing to being in the story. He has achieved his dream by being linked to a Western story in a magazine. Bill hasn’t become a cowboy, but he has become the next best thing. So is that what John Steinbeck is teaching us in the book: You cannot achieve your dreams, but if you can settle for the next best thing, you will be happy.
I am sad that I will not be teaching at GCSE ‘Of Mice and Men’, but I am happy because I can teach this rich text with another year group. But, do you know what? There are benefits to having a break from studying a text for a bit. You get to see things again in a new light….
The saloon bar doors swung open. A girl was standing there looking in. The piano stopped. Heads looked up from their table. The sunlight silhouetted the girl.
She had full, rouged lips and widespaced eyes, heavily made up. Her fingernails were red. Her hair hung in little rolled clusters, like sausages. She wore a cotton house dress and red mules, on the insteps of which were little bouquets of red ostrich feathers. “I’m lookin’ for Curley,” she said. Her voice had a nasal, brittle quality.
Nobody answered her.
The two new strangers to town held their heads down, avoiding any contact. The larger of the two men couldn’t help but look up. The other man punched him hard in the arm.
She looked around again. ‘Any of you?’ An old man with his lame dog hidden at his feet by the bar continued wiping the bar down, ignoring her.
The Sherriff was at the back of the room. His head was down covered by his Stetson. His ageless face obscured by the hat. His hand gently went to gun on the table. He sensed trouble. It always walked into his town, his way, his life. This time it wore red.
The sunlight held dust in the air and painted the room with like a thin layer of gauze.
Thanks for reading,