Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Y11: Chapter Summary of Of Mice and Men and some notes on Steinbeck's style

Steinbeck's chapters are unnumbered. They are numbered in your copy to make your life easier!

Hot Thursday late afternoon. George and Lennie spend the night by the Salinas River, a few miles south of Soledad. They plan to start work the next day and dream of a future farm where Lennie can tend rabbits.

Friday morning at the bunkhouse. George and Lennie sign up to buck barley. Curley tries to pick a fight with Lennie. Candy tells George Curley's wife is a tart. George reminds Lennie where to hide if there's trouble. They meet Curley's wife, Slim and Carlson. Lennie wants one of Slim's dog Lulu's pups.
Friday evening. George tells Slim Lennie grabbed a red-dressed girl in Weed. Lennie gets a pup. Carlson shoots Candy's old dog with his Luger. Slim goes to the barn to treat a horse. While the rest go to see if Slim's with Curley or Curley's wife, Candy commits his $350 to George and Lennie's $600 dream. When everyone returns, Curley beats on Lennie until George tells Lennie to "get him." Lennie crushes Curley's hand. Slim orders Curley to say it was a machine accident.
Saturday night at Crook's room in the barn. All but Candy and Lennie go to town. Lennie drops in on Crooks who philosophizes about companionship. Candy drops by and talks of their dreams. Curley's wife shows up and insults them all. Candy brags of their ranch. She infers that Lennie is the machine which got Curley. She threatens Crooks with a lynching. George arrives and all leave Crooks' room.
Sunday afternoon. While the rest play horseshoes, Lenny kills his puppy in the barn. Curley's wife shows up. Lennie explains his fondness for soft things, and she encourages him to stroke her hair. When she wants him to stop he breaks her neck out of fear. Candy finds her and brings George. When the men find out Curley goes for his shotgun. Carlson goes for his Luger, but it's missing and he assumes Lennie took it. Whit is sent to Soledad for Al Wilt. Candy stays with the body while all go after Lennie.
Late afternoon. Lennie comes to the river. His dead Aunt Clara appears and scolds him. A huge imaginary rabbit tells him George will leave him. George shows up and reassures Lennie. While they talk of their dream, George puts the Luger to the base of Lennie's skull and fires. When they see Lennie everyone assumes George took the gun from him and shot him. Slim says "You hadda, George," and takes him for a drink.

Steinbeck's style in the novel is conversational and direct. People are talking throughout most of the book. They talk in the natural language of the ranch-lots of cursing, name calling, and slang. The style fits in well with the themes of the common man and Steinbeck's naturalistic style.

While Steinbeck's language and style are natural and simple, his sentences are carefully constructed. His descriptions of the natural world are almost like poetry. Here is a sentence from the first paragraph of the novel: "The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool." Notice how the author has repeated w sounds in the first clause and s sounds in the second. This is called alliteration. Steinbeck also uses similes to create pictures in the reader's mind: the rabbits sit on the bank "like gray, sculptured stones," and Lennie snorts into the water "like a horse."

An important aspect of Steinbeck's style is that he lets the story develop one step at a time; he doesn't jump ahead or flash back. This gives the action a dramatic quality. We know Lennie has a potential for violence, so we are a little afraid when he confronts Curley in the bunk house or begins petting Curley's wife's hair in the barn. But Steinbeck lets each of these scenes start off slowly then build quickly to a powerful climax. We, as readers, get caught up in the drama because of the way he presents the scenes to us.

The point of view of the novel is clearly third person objective. We never enter a character's mind (unless we count Lennie's hallucinations in the final chapter): all the characters are described only by the way they act and what they say. This choice of point of view makes Of Mice and Men relatively similar to a play for the theatre, as do his description of man-made settings like the barn and the bunk-house, which are plain, direct and precise, like set design.

It can be argued that Steinbeck's style enacts the experience of the ranch hands themselves for us as readers: the ranchers are suspicious of one another and, despite their cramped living conditions, emotionally very distant from each another, and in a similar way the reader is emotionally distant from the characters: we hear their voices and observe their behaviour and their appearance, but we know little of how they think or feel unless they choose to reveal their feelings in dialogue. Of course, in the hostile and suspicious environment of the ranch, such expressions of emotion are taken as signs of weakness and an invitation to bullying: think about how Curley's wife bullies Crooks when he dares to express his pride and enthusiasm for the dream of owning his own place, and how she in turn is bullied by her husband and has all her hopes of a better, more glamorous life swamped by his possessive authority over her.

In the same way, just as the ranch hands have no real connection to the bunk-house- it is simply a place to sleep and rest, and resolutely not somewhere any of them would call 'home'- the reader is alienated from it too. The description is so precise we could easily draw an accurate diagram of the place and its sparse furnishings, but there is no warmth or vivid detail in the description. It is an emotionally cold, alienating piece of writing for an emotionally cold, alienating place.


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