Tag Archives: teaching of mice and men

Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

So many stories, fiction and non-, seem to take a moral stance, to teach a lesson, as if character or person gets what one deserves. But when my dad’s life story ends with his being killed as a passenger in a car accident, it doesn’t seem like there was anything he did to deserve that outcome. Perhaps what some stories teach is that the world is an arbitrary place. Perhaps what I learned from my dad’s story is that stories fail to explain real events. [17 August]

Why should I get the fun and satisfaction of writing and then hope/expect others to do the less-satisfying reading of what I’ve written? Maybe the reason one writes is just to write, and readers are missing out on that fun. And what if readers don’t want all the stories writers might want to tell them? [18 August]

Narratives could be conceived as a way of picking pieces out of experience in order to find a bigger pattern. But that pattern itself has little connection to physical reality, or perhaps there’s no connection. At its core, a narrative is a cause-effect relationship (an effect without a cause, like my Dad’s death by car accident, isn’t a satisfying story), but so many aspects of one’s life-experience aren’t cause-effect. [19 August]

In the first page or two of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the clause “[the] hill curves up.” But this is a metaphorical verb, because the hill isn’t doing anything. The only one doing anything is the human narrator whose mind is perceiving the a curve — which is a noun — but the mind interprets that visual as an action, “curving.” Perhaps many — or all? — verbs are metaphors, or are, at least, interpretations by the observer or storyteller. Even to say “See Dick run” is to gloss over the particular muscle contractions, body movements, and forward motions that are what running physically is. [19 August]

After school, as the cross-country squad at the school where I teach got on its bus to a meet, I heard the coach say to a student, “No, you can’t go with us ‘cuz you’re not on our team.” [19 August]

Reading parts of a Tomas Tranströmer poetry book (I think it was The Great Enigma), I’m almost a little angry that these poems are so vague and dull, going nowhere — maybe they sound cooler in Swedish and I can just blame the translator. But why would any poem need to be so ponderous? Why wait until there’s some intersect with Meaning to elevate some lived experience? Why not just write our concretenesses? At least Charles Olson’s “Maximus Volume 3” is weird. [20 Aug.]

To use (refer to, etc.) Hemingway as some ur-writer, as some model of The Writer, is to flatten down what he was into a role we in culture at large need to be filled. “Hemingway,” then, becomes a common shorthand (in that it may seem clever to use a particular name) for The Writer: the most-respected, well-known, etc., writer. I recently read someone say that something similar is happening to the reputation of David Foster Wallace, that who he was is losing nuance as his name starts to refer to him as an icon. [20 Aug.]

I don’t think the book I’m teaching to sophomores, Of Mice and Men, is racist and sexist — though of course, the racist and sexist words and descriptions the book uses to show certain characters’ racism and sexism are racist and sexist. But my question is, why make a book with such bad characters? Why would I want to spend time with these rude idiots? I suppose the book could be said to be depicting conditions of certain people in a particular setting, but how are readers to react to this? If a book is claiming that these particular characters represent people generally, that claim can’t be believed, and if a book is claiming that these particular characters are just reprehensible, then why would I bother? There’s no doubt ugliness and beauty that could be found anywhere, so why choose to prioritize the ugly? In other words, why would a read a book with a sad ending? I tend not to enjoy crying. [21 Aug.]

Of Mice and Men is like a snow globe: when we start reading, there’s a past already in place, then the author repeats it (Lennie grabbed a woman in Weed, then in the story he grabs Curley’s wife), like shaking a snow globe and letting the snow fall once again. It’s a closed world, with the setting of a ranch that seems closed off from the world once George and Lennie arrive. George reacts to what Lennie does, but never really tries to intervene to try to get Lennie some appropriate mental health treatment. So it seems that George and the other characters are content to let the set-up play itself out. And so it goes. Perhaps a fiction like this book recreates a scene so as to relive it, to study it, so as to make meaning? In real life, whenever I’ve had to make a tough decision, as George does at the end of Of Mice and Men, (though I’ll admit that I’ve decided to shoot a man in the back of the head), I don’t go back to dwell on that moment as being special. But I might tell a brief story about the decision afterward. [21 Aug.]

The value and fun of having one’s own ideas rather than reading someone else’s ideas! How strong and fresh seem the ideas we ourselves come up with! [21 Aug.]

I’m skeptical of any text assigned in a class. I feel a need to not-affirm, to question, any claim asserted by Of Mice and Men. Today I told my students that it’s a “weird book”: Curley’s keeping his hand soft for sexing up his wife, George praising whorehouses, Curley’s wife not even getting a name, Crooks being called the n-word, all these brusk, brute characters. I hope I’m teaching my students to be skeptical. It’s even valuable to be skeptical of my own ideas, as fun as it is to have new ideas. [21 Aug.]

Maybe it’s kinda weird that teachers direct students to read books that the students may not care about. I’ve told my students that we have to read the books in the curriculum, but that I hope my students question the claims that these assigned texts make. Maybe the skills students learn from analyzing literature can also be applied to analyzing any claims they hear in their lives. [24 Aug.]

I wouldn’t want Joan Didion’s career (not that anyone’s offering it to me). It’s lame to write about other people (and by “lame,” I don’t mean only “uncool,” but also “lame” in the sense of “not whole, not in working order”). All definitions of others, fiction or nonfiction, are, at least potentially, condescending — maybe in the basic idea of thinking that any person can be adequately represented by another person. Fiction writers can imagine and describe characters that are very unlike the writers themselves — but as a reader, I’m under no obligation to accept these characters as real or as representative of real people. Joan — well, all nonfiction writers who propose and try to defend theses, claims about the world, do something that may not need doing. Even scientists, who try to model the physical world in concepts, are doing something that seems too limited to me. Can’t there be a writing that’s not judged merely on the correspondence of its claims? Why does fiction, an endeavor defined as factually false, need to have realistic characters? Not all fiction is, of course, but why is “I don’t believe a real person would act like these characters” a legitimate criticism of fiction? Can there be fiction without characters acting like they have human consciousness? Or do we readers tend to equate willful agents with humans? A counter example would be the novel Wild Season, where animals are doing animal things rather than doing human things. [26 Aug. and 27 Aug.]

Why tell stories portraying other people (who aren’t like you) when you could tell your own stories with new forms? [27 Aug.]

There’s so much repetition in Of Mice and Men, as if Steinbeck were trying to teach something instead of just telling a story. Steinbeck is treating us as if we’re simple, or as if he’s giving us a speech and we’ll quickly forget what he’s said, with this repetition. Perhaps, like patterns in music, repetition (motifs, symbols, foreshadowing) in fiction is satisfying, but in this book, at least, it’s too simple to be deeply satisfying or intriguing. [27 Aug.]

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.