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Limits of simple stories: Real Lennie didn’t get shot in the head

“Of Mice and Men” may be a strong story, but it’s got very little to do with the world that we live in.

I’m teaching the Steinbeck novel to my high school sophomores this semester, and I was not looking forward to it. I read the book for the first time a couple years ago, and I thought it was a rich novel, with compelling characters, powerful scenes, and symbolism a-plenty. It’s the kind of dramatic narrative that feels sublimely moving, like a Shakespeare tragedy.

But as I started reading “Of Mice and Men” for the second time a few days ago, with the knowledge of how the book ends, I felt like the foreshadowing was heavy handed. In the first few pages. George talks about how Lennie just got them in trouble for how he treated a woman, and how he always seems to kill the mice he picks up to pet. And then they get to the farm and meet the flirtatious “Curley’s wife,” and some of the ranch hands talk about shooting a dog that “ain’t no good to himself” and that by shooting the dog “right back of the head,” “he wouldn’t feel nothing.” We get it, John Steinbeck: Lennie’s gonna die. As Key and Peele recently said, “Steinbeck, y’all!”

Fate closes in — the story funnels Lennie to slaughter like cattle in a chute on the kill-floor. (To add one more Lennie-as-animal metaphor to the “bear” and “terrier” Steinbeck uses in just the first few pages.) This is a grim world Steinbeck shows us. Life is hard, life is harsh, life is unfair, and then you die.

I just don’t accept that worldview. The experience of being alive can be harsh, but being alive can also be fun, glorious, and beautiful, and sometimes hard experiences arrive right after fun ones, and vice versa.

But certainly our world is not as tidy as a story. I spent years wishing that my life were more like a story, had more “perfect moments,” etc. It took me years to accept the idea that the way stories unfold is seldom the way life unfolds.

Even in Steinbeck’s story, life wasn’t so tidy, if this anecdote is accurate:

Steinbeck explained the origins of the story in an interview with The New York Times in 1937: “I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.”

So the real-life Lennie wasn’t shot in the head by his friend-protector. But the logic of the story requires Lennie’s death. Comedies end with marriages, and tragedies end with deaths, I heard someplace. If the story-Lennie doesn’t die, we audience members might feel shortchanged, somehow, which is weird, because having that feeling seems to make us audience members akin to the crowds who would demand to see a gladiator put to death. Perhaps readers know the tragedy story-form well enough that we want to see it fulfilled — we want “Of Mice and Men” to follow the familiar pattern, and we might feel mildly annoyed if it doesn’t. We would be deprived of the catharsis we began to expect as we read from the beginning of “Of Mice and Men.” If story-Lennie doesn’t die, then the story hasn’t been properly framed, and needs to be retold differently.

And if story-Lennie doesn’t die, there’s no divine justice, there’s no sense of a world purified by a death, each beginning matched to an ending, amen. I’m not trying to be facetious by using “amen” there: I get a feeling that John Steinbeck (there seems no evidence to separate the narrator from the author in this novel) tells this story as if he were the Creator, the dispenser of fates to characters that aren’t fully real but are symbols themselves. It is only Steinbeck’s voice and vision that is carried out in the story — this can be seen by juxtaposing the current text of “Of Mice and Men” against a version of the text that would, say, have an unreliable narrator. If there were narrative “tricks” (for lack of a better term) such as that, the spell cast by the story of “Of Mice and Men” would be broken.

I want to suggest here that “Of Mice and Men” pleases readers in that it delivers a story that is, in a sense, a fable, a myth, or a dream: the plot is simple, the characters are more like one-note strawmen than fully conscious humans, the text repeats (the foreshadowing mentioned above prophesies and echoes the later action) in an almost incantatory way, and the theme or message is made as plain and obvious as that of a parable.

But what wraps all these elements together is an authorial voice that is strong, swift, and sure. There is no unreliability in this narrator: if we’re told “Slim’s opinions were law,” then we are to understand Slim’s opinions were law (of course there’s the possibility that the entire narration is done by a character who had a worldview that allowed for no nuance or possibility, but that would render the entire book as partial, biased, and thus, moot). The narrator is in charge here, and maybe it’s not an accident that this is the same sort of narration as conveys some of the stories in the Old Testament of the Bible.

And perhaps what readers of “Of Mice and Men” — itself a title that could fit one of Aesop’s Fables — appreciate about the story is what we also appreciate about Bible stories, and even dreams: that we listeners can surrender responsibility for a time to the storyteller. Perhaps even we adults enjoy, for the duration of the story, feeling like the world is simple and knowable and that there is a single correct way to understand life and reality, and that there are good and bad things in the world, and we can be told what these are, and then we will know them.

Being told a simple, rich, resonant story maybe takes us back to a childlike mentality where we could trust absolutely the parents and grandparents who told us or read us these stories. These simple stories can soothe, can ease — we just can accept and not have to think too much. Like many people, my wife reads genre fiction as a way to relax in the evenings, and she has said she wants to read stories that are not too similar to real life (she prefers supernatural and historical romances). She has said that she has to spend all day at work confronting complicated realities, and so she wants some relief from that in the form of tidy fiction.

I don’t mean to be too hard here on genre fiction or Biblical stories or fables, etc. I’m not saying we should never read these. However, I’m not sure that these stories are of very much use to us. Maybe we need to take these simple stories and shelve them and not expect them to tell us anything about the world in which we live.

The world in which we live seems a complicated place, where there are definitely many voices, many points of view, from which come a lot of testimony and opinions about what did or didn’t happen, what is or is not good/healthy/optimal, etc, a lot of text that we audience members need to evaluate. This is a good thing, I think. A recent Slate article praised some Life magazines from 1945, but the writer noted that

“The magazine could get away with a universal we that no magazine would dare today. (This is not to say we has vanished from journalism. But what persists is an ideological we, a we of the left or right that’s opposed to a wrong-thinking them—not a we that includes all Americans.)”

Likewise, the voice in which Steinbeck narrates his story is not one that acknowledges that the real world is filled with people who see events and who judge events from unresolvably distinct perspectives. Acknowledging this, and allowing more diverse voices to be heard in the larger culture, has perhaps been one of the ways our modern culture has matured in recent decade. (For one example, in “Of Mice and Men,” we see how “normal” people think about Lennie, but we never get a good understanding of how Lennie sees things. In contrast, the recent novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” also features a character who has a distinct worldview, but this character does the narrating.)

Assuming a monolithic narrative tone that doesn’t even allow for the possibility of its own fallibility seems an act of hubris. Novels that have unreliable narrators or multiple narrators (such as epistolary texts) at least allow for the world to be uncertain, not fully knowable, beyond human understanding. And allowing the world to be unknowable also means that the world contains possibilities, that we have more to learn, that none of us real people are trapped in fates we cannot change (as the characters in “Of Mice and Men” seem to be).

And this isn’t just a matter of Steinbeck being from an earlier era — Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and Joyce’s “Ulysses” demonstrated the limits of perspective and the limits of traditional story structure in their use of stream of consciousness narrative technique more than a dozen years before Steinbeck published “Of Mice and Men.” Sure, Steinbeck may have held different artistic and aesthetic goals than these other writers, but Steinbeck’s texts perhaps gain resonance and accessibility to readers at a cost of pertinence to the actual lives of those readers. And there’s some irony there, in that Steinbeck’s ostensible subject was the real lives of average working people.

Steinbeck may have been more interested in creating a lovely object of art, a perfect story (a Faberge egg — exquisite, but useless), than he was in tackling the underlying questions of what and how texts mean, how they work, how reliable they are, and how weird it fundamentally is that we can use texts to communicate with other minds across great separations of time, space, identity, and even language (through translation). In other words, Steinbeck elides many of the issues involved in telling a story, and just tells his story. He can do that, but doing that doesn’t mean the issues go away. I want to say it’s OK that Steinbeck does this — I don’t want to say that every artwork is flawed if it doesn’t conform to what I think ought to be artistic and philosophical priorities. I can just think of these as two distinct kinds, two different categories — story-stories, and real-stories (or people-stories? reality-stories? I don’t have a good label yet) — and I can then teach “Of Mice and Men” while also teaching its limitations as art and text.

P.S.: Here’s another “Of Mice and Men” post I wrote a year ago but forgot about having written. Apparently even then, before I knew I’d be teaching it this year, I was skeptical of the book.

‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.