In re-reading John Steinbeck’s rather second-rate, miserable “Of Mice and Men,” I couldn’t help comparing it to Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Both feature murderous misfits, but Steinbeck and O’Connor treat the phenomenon in astonishingly different ways, revealing their own deeper philosophy and religious views.
Browsing my bookshelves recently, I plucked out John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. One of the most prescribed works of fiction at the high school level, the story of two migrant workers in California is a classic of American letters. As such, it is also a potent tract for American utilitarian secularism.
Shrewd George Milton travels from ranch to ranch with his lumbering, imbecilic sidekick Lennie Small, who likes to “pet soft things” like mice and rabbits. Unfortunately the thick-headed, soft-hearted brute too often ends up killing the mice and bunnies. On the run after Lennie alarms a young woman by stroking her soft, red dress (while she was wearing it), George and Lennie roll up at the next ranch. When an old bitch pups a litter, Lennie claims one of the puppies, which also ends up dead from an excess of his attentions.
Meanwhile, Candy, an older ranch worker who lost a hand in a farm accident, allows his smelly, old sheep dog to be euthanized— shot in the head by one of the bunkmates who is annoyed by the blind, old hound.
Eventually Lennie gets into a conversation with the lonely wife of Curly—the pugnacious boss’ son. Predictably (for Steinbeck has foreshadowed the event rather heavy-handedly), Lennie starts to stroke her soft hair, and when she becomes alarmed he accidentally breaks her neck. Realizing that he has done wrong, the imbecile runs away and hides, at which point George follows his friend and gets to him before the lynch gang does. Then, in what is portrayed as an act of mercy, George puts a bullet in Lennie’s head—effectively treating his friend like Candy’s smelly, ancient dog.
In re-reading Steinbeck’s rather second-rate, miserable story, I couldn’t help comparing it to Flannery O’Connor’s most famous short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. Both feature murderous misfits—Lennie and the serial killer in O’Connor’s story. Steinbeck and O’Connor, however, treat the phenomenon in astonishingly different ways, revealing their own deeper philosophy and religious views.
O’Connor’s misfit kills all the members of the vacationing Bailey family willfully, whereas the pin-headed Lennie kills by accident. Steinbeck has George kill Lennie to spare the mentally-deficient brute further suffering and presumably to keep him from killing again. O’Connor’s killer gets away with it. However, there are other, deeper themes operating within each story—making Steinbeck’s ostensibly-compassionate story grimmer than O’Connor’s seemingly-calloused tale. Steinbeck seems to condone euthanasia as a grim, but necessary act of mercy. O’Connor reveals a more severe order of mercy at work.
In The Habit of Being (the collection of her letters) and in her published talks on fiction (Mystery and Manners), O’Connor said the characters in her stories are invariably brought to a moment of revelation about themselves and ultimate reality—and this she perceived as a working of divine grace in their lives.
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, the grandmother, just before she is murdered, sees her killer as “one of her own babies.” Brought to the threshold of reality, she sees truth, and this is recognized by the killer saying “she would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The moment of truth at the heart of O’Connor’s story is absent in Steinbeck. Although at first reading George’s murder of Lennie might be a shock, there is a gritty sentimentality running through the tale that makes George’s choice of euthanasia unsurprising. Steinbeck’s work is notable for its compassion for the poor and a heart for the vulnerable and weak, but it is this superficial tenderness that keeps his work from penetrating much deeper than social commentary. Indeed it is the tenderness of his work that O’Connor, in a famous quip, said would lead “to the gas chamber.”
George’s mercy-killing of Lennie proves O’Connor’s controversial observation. Rather than true loyalty and support through whatever trials Lennie might face, George resorts to euthanasia. Raised as an Episcopalian, Steinbeck fell into agnosticism and denied the possibility of life after death. With such a belief system, euthanasia makes sense. If there is nothing after the bullet in the brain, why not treat the imbeciles like smelly old dogs and put them down for their own good and the good of society?
Steinbeck’s title was prompted by a line in Burns’ To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)
The Bailey family and George and Lennie’s plans certainly “go awry” and end in murder. Steinbeck solves the problem with the utilitarian solution: more death. O’Connor, on the other hand, sees the mysterious workings of a wise Providence in mankind’s schemes that go awry—even in the sick mind of a serial killer and the the casual murders of a vacationing family.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.