Of Mice and Mein The Dream of Commitment.
Louis Owens The Eden myth looms large in Of Mice and Men (1937), the playnovella set along the Salinas River "a few miles south of Soledad" (Of Mice and Men, p. 1). And, as in all of Steinbeck's Califomia fiction, setting plays a central role in determining the major themes of this work. The fact that the setting for OfMice and Men is a Califomia valley dictates, according to the symbolism of Steinbeck's landscapes, that this story will take place in a fallen world and that the quest for the illusive and illusory American Eden will be of central thematic significance. In no other work does Steinbeck demonstrate greater skill in merging the real setting of his native country with the thematic stmcture of his novel. Critics have consistently recognized in Lennie's dream of living "off the fatta the Ian'" on a little farm the American dream of a new Eden. Joseph Fontenrose states concisely, "The central image is the earthly paradise.... It is a vision of Eden." Peter Lisca takes this perception further, noting that "the world of Of Mice and Men is a fallen one, inhabited by sons of Cain, forever exiled from Eden, the little farm of which they dream." There are no Edens in Steinbeck's writing, only illusions of Eden, and in the fallen world of the Salinas Valley—which Steinbeck would later place "east of Eden"—the Promised Land is an illusory and painful dream. In this land populated by "sons of Cain," men condemned to wander in solitude, the predominant theme is that of loneliness, or what Donald Pizer has called "fear of apartness." Pizer has, in fact, discovered the major theme of this novel when he says, "One of the themes oí Of Mice and Men is that men fear loneliness, that they need someone to be with and to talk to who will offer understanding and companionship." The setting Steinbeck chose for this story brilliantly underscores the theme of man's isolation and need for commitment. Soledad is a very Of Mice and Men: The Dream of Commitment 145
real, dusty little town on the westem edge of the Salinas River midway down the Salinas Valley. Like most of the settings in Steinbeck's fiction, this place exists, it is. However, with his acute sensitivity to place names and his knowledge of Spanish, Steinbeck was undoubtedly aware that "Soledad" translates into English as "solitude" or "loneliness." In this country of solitude and loneliness, George and Lennie stand out sharply because they have each other or, as George says, "We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us." Cain's question is the question again at the heart of this novel: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And the answer found in the relationship between George and Lennie is an unmistakable confirmation. Of Mice and Men is most often read as one of Steinbeck's most pessimistic works, smacking of pessimistic determinism. Fontetirose suggests that the novel is about "the vanity of human wishes" and asserts that, more pessimistically than Bums, "Steinbeck reads, 'All schemes o' mice and men gan ever agley'" [my italics]. Howard Levant, in a very critical reading of the novel, concurs, declaring that "the central theme is stated and restated—the good life is impossible because humanity is flawed." In spite of the general critical reaction, and without disputing the contention that Steinbeck allows no serious hope that George and Lennie will ever achieve their dream farm, it is nonetheless possible to read Of Mice and Men in a more optimistic light than has been customary. In previous works we have seen a pattem established in which the Steinbeck hero achieves greatness in the midst of, even because of, apparent defeat. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck accepts, very non-teleologically, the fact that man is flawed and the Eden myth mere illusion. However, critics have consistently undervalued Steinbeck's emphasis on the theme of commitment, which m n s through the novel and which is the chief ingredient in the creation of...
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