“Of Mice and Misogyny”

As I mentioned here, I’ve been planning to read some John Steinbeck books.   I haven’t gotten to The Grapes of Wrath yet, but I recently read Of Mice and Men.  It’s very well-written, and effective at describing the scenes and characters. The first and last chapters especially do a good job painting an evocative scene for the reader.  The dialogue is also very good—Steinbeck captured rural, uneducated dialect convincingly while still making it flow naturally, so as to be readable.

The story itself is tragic, and indeed, I was duly depressed at the end of it.  But I couldn’t get past one thing about the tale: the vague undercurrent of misogyny. Curley’s wife—no name, just “Curley’s wife”—is treated as not really even a person.  By Steinbeck’s own admission, she is “not a person, she’s a symbol.” This dehumanization is quite evident in the book, and I found it rather disturbing.

There also is a heavy implication that her ultimate fate is her fault. I mean, who can blame her for flirting with the farm workers, considering what a jerk her husband is? And yet George, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character does blame her for it.  I can’t really decide if this is author’s perspective, or just the character’s perspective, though.

Steinbeck’s quote above notwithstanding, there is some attempt to humanize the character at the end, so it may be the point is just that the farm workers have misogynistic attitudes.  (Interestingly, I notice that the Of Mice and Men article on Wikipedia is in the category “misogyny”, even though no reason for this is given in the body of the article.)

However, it is still a very well-written and powerful  book.  I read that Steinbeck wrote it so that it could be either read as a novel or performed as a play.  That’s a very interesting idea, and I can definitely see how it could be easily adapted to the stage, although I don’t know if the quiet, melancholy nature scenes at the beginning and end could be translated to the stage effectively.

6 Comments

  1. It’s also been made into numerous movies. One part of the movie Hunt For Red October is a ripped off plot line where the executive officer wants to live in Arizona and raise rabbits.
    I’ve never understood the need to cram this book down school children’s throats. Maybe it’s because there’s so much opposition to it from those who see it as an appeal to mercy killings.

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  2. I think she is initially set up as a common female stereotype, but Steinbeck twists it at the end, to reveal depth to her character. Perhaps he was trying to say that even people you least expect, have hopes and dreams too.

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    1. That could be. It certainly can be interpreted that way; and that definitely ties-in with the larger theme of loneliness.

      The quote about her being “not a person” but “a symbol” actually seems to sell the characterization short. She is more complex than that. I guess that leads into the whole question of the significance of authorial intent.

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  3. Yikes! This is what I love about book reading. Everyone sees something else. Cram it down children’s throats? Thank the powers that be that it has been.

    I think Steinberg was what they called, ‘a man’s man’. Don’t know much about his life. I don’t care, but interesting thought about misogyny.

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