Because I am a slave to the Internet’s algorithms, I spent some time Saturday afternoon hopping here and there on YouTube, where I ran across part of a long interview Adam West gave some years ago to the Archive of American Television in which he discussed working with many of the actors who played the villains on the Batman TV series. During the interview, he mentioned Burgess Meredith’s long and notable career, including playing the role of George in Of Mice and Men in a Hollywood movie from 1939 and on Broadway. I thought to myself, “Of course, he did,” and kicked myself because I had missed a chance to see the movie on TCM some months back. If the channel runs it again someday–as surely they will–I won’t need a second invitation.
My first experience with Steinbeck’s great short novel came during during my high school years, at church on a Wednesday night. Normally, I sat in the center section, two or three rows from the front. Not so this night. I sat near the back, on the right, crouching as I read, because I couldn’t put the book down. I also remember crying at the end.
Some years later, the subject of Steinbeck came up among my colleagues. I mentioned a fact we all knew, that the book had been banned from libraries several times, but I confessed that I couldn’t figure out why.
Julie Amberg spoke up from the corner. “Because George shoots Lennie. It’s a mercy killing.”
I was like, “Oh.” It had never occurred to me–then or now–that there could have been anything evil or immoral in what George had done. He did it to save Lennie from an even worse fate: a beating, a lynching, and finally, a death at the hands of savage men, for reasons the big man could have never understood.
Steinbeck contrived Of Mice and Men very carefully. It is essential that Lennie be the simpleton, the innocent. The story wouldn’t have worked any other way. Readers would not have believed in a didactic tale in which Lennie is put on trial for murder, as Bigger Thomas is in Native Son (1940); nor would they have believed in the moral dilemma George solves had Lennie been one whit smarter, more aware, more conscious of right and wrong.
Yet, there’s a subtext to the novel through which all of the fully conscious, fully aware characters must work. The problem of powerlessness with which Steinbeck is so deeply concerned applies not only to Lennie but to George, too, and to his fellow workers. They work each day toward achieving their own dreams, laboring, it seems, without hope and without choice, but part of the shock of the end of the novel is in George’s realization that he does have a choice, terrible and bitter as it is.
It is doubtful to me that I could ever hear a sermon about right and wrong as morally complex as the one Steinbeck set down, nor am I ever likely to hear a minister offer a solution to a life-and-death situation that is as courageous and compassionate as the one Steinbeck offers us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the book of Matthew tells us, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Such people understand that poverty has little to do with a lack of material possessions, or the lack of a moral sense. They understand that genuine poverty has most often to do with a lack of choices, yet they also know they must make do every day with the choices they have. In straightened circumstances, the choices we make are always terrible, always costly, but the difference between one choice and another often comes down to who we think we are at the core of our personalities, and the value we place on human dignity–our own, or other people’s.