Today all the leaves got undressed in our yard and expected me to pick up after them. And let me tell you, it looked like those trees had invited their friends and relatives to do the same – a variable tree orgy. And I had the best of intentions. I was going mulch all of those leaves and use them on the lawn and in the gardens. That’s what all the websites say you are supposed to do. But there are so many leaves. And to be fair, most of them came from the forest behind my house. So three hours into my five hour leaf project, I made a decision. Some of the mulched leaves would be just as happy in the woods where they came from. Others would be even happier in those brown bags that I can just leave at the curb and someone else figures out what to do.
Yesterday, I participated in a podcast with the folks at Great Discourses about “Of Mice and Men,” and, as it obviously happens, I think Steinbeck’s novella has a lot to do with my leaves (which continue to fall even as I type this). Steinbeck’s story is about George and Lennie, two migrant workers in California, who travel around together looking for work, hoping to be able to save up enough money to buy a place of their own, and, eventually, “live off the fatta the lan’.” Their story is complicated because Lennie is developmentally challenged, and while strong and good at the work they are required to do, he depends on his friend to navigate the world. In the course of the story, Lennie unintentionally kills a young woman, Curly’s wife, and George, knowing that Curly and the other men will be seeking vengeance or perhaps justice, decides that he must kill Lennie first. He “ain’t going to let’ anyone hurt Lennie.”
Images of and references to the Garden of Eden, the fall, and even the crucifixion appear throughout the text. For instance, the story opens and concludes in a natural setting, one so beautiful that you are tempted to see it as a kind of Eden, a reading that is strengthened when Steinbeck references a snake that makes it way down the river. Further, the story is set close to the town, Soledad, which, when translated to English means solitude, and is in reference to a mission for the Lady of Solitude – also understood as the Virgin Mary in the three day period between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This story then takes place over three days. And, then we are told that George’s last name is Milton, and with everything else in play, it does not seem to be a stretch to see this as a reference to John Milton and then his great book, Paradise Lost. Steinbeck thus asks us to consider the story he tells in light of this Christian background.
In the Garden of Eden, Eve and Adam are tempted to choose their wills over that of the divine. In essence, they choose themselves and their desires over those of God. As Satan says in Paradise Lost, it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. And, make no mistake about, Milton goes along way to make the position of Lucifer, the fallen angel, as persuasive and tempting as possible, leading many scholars to think of Lucifer as the hero of the book. Seeking freedom from his governance, God gives Lucifer, Adam and Eve exactly what they want. They have chose their own wills and their own natures. As it turns out though, human nature, apart from divine grace, participates more in the finite realm than the infinite. Thus, Adam and Eve are sent out of the Garden, having now to labour for their continued sustenance, but evetunally succumbing to mortality. Choosing their own wills, Adam and Eve ultimately choose death.
In the landscape of Mice and Men, one character stands out as having a kind of authority over the rest. Slim is a jerk line skinner and he drives the mules. His authority is so great that whatever he says, be it about politics or love, his opinion is take as truth. Now there is no explicit reference to Slim as an image of a Satan-like figure. He is however described as a prince and one who has authority over all the workers on the ranch. Milton reminds us that it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Further, while our narrator only describes Slim in seemingly positive terms, the three things we actually see Slim do in the course of the story each authorize and conclude in death. Hence, Slim decides to kill some of the puppies his dog has had, allowing the larger ones a better chance at survival. He also decrees that it is time for Candy’s dog, a dog Candy has had since it was a pup and which Candy says he happy to take care of, to die – it may be suffering, but it is certainly stinking up the bunkhouse. Finally, after Lennie has killed Curly’s wife, Slim counsels Lennie, “I guess we got to get him,” and later consoles George, “A guy got to sometimes.” While there is no explicit refenrec to Slim as a snake, do you know what else is slim? A snake.Except after it has eaten a mouse or a man.
Yesterday in the podcast, I said that I indicted George, . I don’t really. He had no good decision. His friend, Lennie, was going to die, as we all are ultimately going to die. And of course, Lennie’s death would inevitable not be as easy as what George gives to him. His killing of Lennie is, in many ways, an act of mercy. Nonetheless, George has been tempted to think that the only possible outcomes are the ones that humans have control over – either Curly will kill Lennie, or he’ll be put in a cage or lynched, or a George can kill him. George has no hope or faith in a better end for Lennie. The dream they have of a plot of land, just across the river, that dream is Lennie’s hope and faith, not George’s – a point that is clear when Candy asks George if they are still going to try to buy the farm they have planned, and it is clear that George has no intentions of seeking that end. In the end, George despairs. He believes he has betrayed his friend, and further, has no sense, that anything awaits Lennie across that river. Further, George lies about how Lennie died, suggesting that George acted in self-defence against Lennie – a pragmatic decision that serves only George.
The temptation of the book is to see our obligations to others as just one more inconvenience that we might pragmatically overcome if we can somehow deny the obligation that is owed. In Of Mice and Men whole classes of people are pragmatically defined so as to lessen our obligation to them, and, instead, have them serve us. Crooks, Curly’s wife and Lennie are all effectively reduced to nothing by this kind of pragmatism. This is a lesson that we might well keep in mind.
The trees got undressed in my yard because that is the nature of the finite order. Things and people come into being and then they ultimately decay. Pragmatically or practically, we cannot stop this. And yet, we can withstand the temptation to be merely pragmatic in our relationships with others. And this is what is truly great about Steinbeck’s story. Like Paradise Lost it moves you to the same the temptation as its protagonists. After all, “a guy got to sometimes.” And yet, the people I love (drat, I admitted it), are not the same as the leaves in my yard.
In the sprit of full disclosure, I was the only one in the group yesterday who read the text explicitly this way. But choosing my own will over others, I still think it … hmmm.