“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”
Kelly Brown, Melissa Madsen, Lisa Gisselquist
Dr. Chris Foss
7 December 2021
Becoming Human: The Progress of Autistic Representation from Of Mice and Men to An Unkindness of Ghosts
Whether consciously or unconsciously, authors tend to write novels and characters reflective of societal views at the time. Books written prior to the American Civil War, for instance, tend to view African Americans in a more derogatory manner than books written afterward. Similarly, novels containing disabled characters have changed their representation as society has learned more about different conditions. As shown through Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Aster from Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, the literary portrayal of autistic-coded characters and how they are treated by people around them is evident of how society viewed said characters at the time the novels were written. A comparison between the two shows how society’s opinion of autism and neurodiverse people has improved in the last eighty years.
Lennie and Aster share many of the same symptoms of autism, as illustrated through their mannerisms. For example, both characters have touch sensitivity: Lennie enjoys touching the fur of soft animals but cannot handle other textures, while Aster dislikes being touched by other people “unless it [is] certain skin” (Solomon 211). Another similarity between the two is a difficulty understanding language subtleties, with Aster not realizing her mother wrote in code until Giselle points it out, and Lennie taking George literally when he uses a figure of speech. Yet, these different portrayals of autistic symptoms indicate how the overall opinion of autism has improved throughout the years. Steinbeck’s characterization of Lennie, with his low perception skills and general naivete, represents the hyperbolic ‘low-functioning’ side of autism. In contrast, Aster has a higher awareness of her disability and her surroundings, portraying a more accurate representation and combating the idea that autism has a ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning level. Because these similar depictions of neurodiversity, and therefore autistic-coded traits, have been reshaped over time to fit a more accepting narrative, society has gradually learned not to fear or chastise people who do not fit the neurotypical norm.
Of Mice and Men’s portrayal of Lennie reflects negative views of autism from the 1930s by constantly emphasizing how Lennie is a victim of his disorder and, as such, needs to be protected by George, a ‘normal’ person. Throughout the novel, Lennie is portrayed as not having a full understanding of what is going on in any circumstance due to his one-track mind, whether he misses social cues or does not respect personal space. One example of this is when Lennie asks Crooks, the only black farmhand, why Crooks has a separate bedroom from the other farmhands and why he is not wanted in the main bunkhouse full of white men, completely missing the racist social understanding of the time. Hence, when Lennie murders Curley’s wife, the text emphasizes how Lennie killed her unintentionally and that his ‘simple-mindedness’ is the real culprit. Lennie’s only goal was to subdue her and stop her from yelling, evidenced by Lennie outright saying that “I don’t want ta hurt you” (Steinbeck 87). Lennie was “bewildered” when Curley’s wife just lay there motionless because he did not understand that he used too much force (Steinbeck 87). And when Lennie finally realizes that he did something bad, he repeats over and over that “George’ll be mad;” the fact that he does not mention anyone else other than George signifies that he does not comprehend that there could be other consequences for his actions (Steinbeck 87). Because Lennie does not understand the gravity of half of the situations he finds himself in, Steinbeck gives him a caretaker that can understand: George. George and Lennie have been traveling with and looking out for each other ever since Lennie’s Aunt Clara died. However, instead of being equal partners, George is the one that holds all the power in their relationship. George tells Lennie what to do and where to go. George secures Lennie a job on the ranch and tells him to stay quiet during the interview, because “if he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won’t get no job” (Steinbeck 6). Additionally, George is the one who decides that it would be better for him to kill Lennie than to allow the angry ranch mob to avenge Curley’s wife, without even attempting to tell Lennie what is going on. Since George believes he is essential for Lennie’s survival, he is the one who decides whether Lennie lives or dies, taking away whatever agency Lennie had. This reflects society’s overall negative views on autism at the time. Because the disorder causes decreased cognitive functioning and situational awareness, those on the autism spectrum were considered not only less intelligent than neurotypicals, but also robbed of the life they could have had if they were born a normal child. Therefore, children on the autism spectrum required a guardian to advocate on their behalf, because society believed they could not do it themselves.
Although there are vague mentions of Aster being treated poorly, An Unkindness of Ghosts focuses on the positive reactions to her disability – with a very subtle mention of autism – that reflects the improving opinions of society. Throughout the novel, Aster occasionally mentions people treating her poorly and calling her names. At one point, when someone calls her a “witch-freak,” “she could not contest [the freak part] and let [it] stand” (Solomon 138). This indicates that she had been faced with such bullying in the past. However, despite this, the subtle representation of autism in the book and the reaction of the people close to her shows how far autism representation has come. Her symptoms are only alluded to, not focused on. She is referred to as “Insiwa” or “Inside one” (Solomon 18), a gentle nickname by the people who have observed her. Her Aint Melusine believes that everything the girl says is “the right words to my mind” (Solomon 175). At the very end of the novel, it is Aster who solves the mystery of their location and sends Matilda back to Earth. She defeats Lieutenant, who called her an “aberration,” thus defeating all of those who see her as such (Solomon 232). Though she faced trouble because of being autistic, there are very light mentions of it in comparison to Lennie being constantly mistreated for being neurodivergent. Published eighty years after Of Mice and Men, Aster’s story is a sign of hope for a better future for autism.
While neither of these novels is a perfect portrayal of an autistic character, there is significant progress being made as time continues. Each novel has its own issues, but Aster from An Unkindness of Ghosts is portrayed positively whereas Lennie from Of Mice and Men is not. Steinbeck’s depiction of Lennie reflects a limited understanding of and disdain for autism while Solomon’s portrayal of Aster reflects a new understanding of autism and a hope for a future that fully accepts neurodiversity. While this ideal future may take some time to reach, one may hope that it will be here soon.
Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic Books, 2017. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.umw.idm.oclc.org/login.aspxdirect=true&db=nlebk&AN=1700262&site=ehost-live.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Covici, Friede, Inc., 1937.
Word Count: 1254
We hereby declare upon our word of honor that we have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Kelly Brown, Melissa Madsen, Lisa Gisselquist
The keynote speaker for Disability Awareness Month was Kenny Fries. He is based in Germany and the discussion was held over zoom. The majority of his speaking time was spent reading several different pieces that he had written. However, what interested me the most was the Fries Test.
The Fries Test, as it has come to be known, is a test Kenny created to determine if a book represents disability correctly.
- Does a work have more than one disabled character?
- Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character?
- Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?
I would like to briefly apply this test to Of Mice and Men.
For the first question, the answer is yes. Candy has a physical disability and Lennie has a mental disability.
I’m not sure about the second question. Lennie definitely seems to be disabled for the education/profit of George. George is the one that must make a life-changing choice at the end of the novel and thus learn a lesson. However, Candy is the wild card. He doesn’t really have his own narrative purpose, but he also doesn’t appear to be disabled for George to learn a lesson.
For the final question, the answer is yes and no. Lennie is killed at the end of the novel, but Candy is not.
All in all, I think Of Mice and Men fails the Fries Test, but it does a better job than many popular books or movies (such as Me Before You) with disabled characters.
14 November 2021
Major Project: Of Mice and Men Vision Board
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”
Word Count: 1,264 (Not including the title and information required for an essay)
The major paper/project is crucial to our comprehensive analysis of text and how disability studies play a role in that text. Of Mice and Men was a requirement during my freshman year of High School and we primarily focused on the idea of the correlation between race and socioeconomic status in the 1930s. With this novel being set in the 1930s, the idea of the American Dream seemed to lose its luster. Although in this class, we approach this book with a more in-depth analysis of disability aligned characters and how the surrounding environment impacts these characters. My project works to incorporate the shared, American dream of Lennie and George in the form of a Vision Board. In this write up, I will also describe the process of creating this vision board. In the novel the environment that is considered “disabling,” is founded in a perception of normalcy where flawed characters reflect trends within society. We will also discuss the Fries Test when it comes to deciding if our disability aligned characters pass or fail.
The shared American Dream of George and Lennie was focused on working unfulfilling jobs and making wages until they had enough saved to buy a couple acres of land. In my project, I set up the vision board like a timeline that portrays the influence of our characters’ physical surroundings and affects whether or not they achieve their dream. At the top of the project, I set up the end goal that George and Lennie wanted to achieve. I included quotes from when our characters discuss how they are different from everyone else, three-dimensional objects to bring the vision board to life, and photos and stickers that represent a progression and organization of events. In the process of creating this vision board, I used the images and footsteps to show how George’s personality is more detailed and goal oriented. In choosing objects, I hoped to show how Lennie is more free-spirited and enjoys nature specifically rabbits. Another reason I chose certain objects was because they appeal to Lennie’s sense of touch which is mentioned a various times throughout the book. I also included the environment and experience these characters must undergo by drawing their journey through an antiquated map image that shows a potential journey through the Midwest, beginning with them escaping Weed, going to the Ranch, and lastly the possibility of the farm.
In the top portion of my vision board, there are all different breeds of rabbits, alfalfa for those rabbits, a vegetable garden, striped cats, a smoke house, a kitchen orchard, chickens, and cows for fresh milk. The middle portion of my dream board shows the character’s time at the ranch. For this section, I wrote the names of the characters at the ranch, showed Candy’s Dog, the puppies (a sticker and a plush dog), and a picture of how hairstyles were done in the movies in the 1930s to represent Curley’s wife. Candy’s Dog is where we see the perception of age as disabling to what society validates as “the able-bodied employee.” I wanted to indirectly include this detail because it brings to light how complex disability in literature truly is and making assumptions can be damaging to the overall intent of disability studies.
As we see throughout the novel and what I tried to incorporate in my project was the idea that the socioeconomic environment of our characters can be considered “disabling” to the growth of our characters. In my vision board, I map out a potential route that Lennie and George took from Weed to the Ranch, and to their future place one day. Let’s address how our character’s environment could be damaging to Lennie and George. The journey that George and Lennie must take from Weed to the Ranch is one rooted in fear and hiding and this creates a negative atmosphere to begin with. Lennie even offers to live in a cave so George would not have to take care of him anymore. The role of George as a friend and some say caretaker is an incredibly important one because Lennie feels safe around George especially when they talk about their dream. Their time at the ranch in the viewpoint of George is a necessary evil because they need the money to get the farmhouse, but it is not a place that can be trusted. There is even an interaction between George and Lennie where Lennie tells him that he doesn’t feel safe here or doesn’t like it here. Both our characters throughout the novel are either concerned with the financial or physical security of this middle ground. Lennie feels safe in the instance of the puppies and how if he can take care of one, he will be able to take care of the rabbits but does not feel safe in his interaction with Curley. George feels a lack of security when it comes to their plan. He wants to ensure that every detail is set in place, their finances, leaving the Ranch, and including Candy in the plan. Since George is a friend to Lennie, we see him worry about how Lennie is perceived by outsiders and tries to reassure other characters that Lennie is not mean, he just doesn’t understand the impact of his actions. In this explanation, I am not saying whether this is right or wrong, but it is just how I comprehended this part of the book.
Lastly, we will discuss The Fries Test and how it relates to our story. As most of us know, the ending of the book can be perceived as tragic. Before I continue, there are spoilers ahead which I am sure most everyone in this class knows, our characters in this novel do not pass The Fries Test. I wanted to make a correlation between this novel and the seminar I attended with a keynote speaker being Kenny Fries. “The Fries Test,” focuses on what role characters who are disability aligned have within movies, tv, and literature. In our book, none of our characters passed this test; they were either killed off or used to move the story along. Lennie was killed and I subtly show this when the footsteps and yarn go off to the side. Crooks named for his disability brought up the intersection of race and disability in a brief interaction with Lennie, but there was not a significant amount of progress for his character. Candy who experiences a disability based on his age and injury hopes to participate in the dream of George and Lennie, but it never worked out. Finally, George killed someone he considered a friend and that is tragic in and of itself. If he was not a disability aligned character to begin with, hypothetically, he may be now due to the emotional and psychological toll of this action.
I will admit this was a significantly long write up for my project, but there is so much to unpack regarding disability that I hope I accomplished in my project. I wanted to present George and Lennie’s dream in a way that focused on both their personalities, their environment throughout the story, and how close they came to realizing their dream. Although, realizing their dream never happened due to societal expectations and how people with mental and physical disabilities were treated. I hope that I created a vision board that does their dream justice because Lennie and George should have been able to realize their dream, and I wanted to create a representation that shows how beautiful their dream was from the beginning.
Fries, K. (2021, October). Disability Awareness Month and Gender & Sexual Minorities & Allies cultural celebration. Keynote Speaker.
Steinbeck, J. (2010). Of mice and men. Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor.
The Animalization of Disabled People:
Boo Radley, Lenny Small, Julia Pastrana, and other “Freaks of Nature”
Positive representations of disabled people are a modern notion often overlooked in the current social climate. Society, and standards of beauty, are not inclusive so accurate representations of any person who is not white, and not able bodied, are hard to come by. However, the disabled community still fights for just and positive portrayals in popular media, and works to include themselves in political protests and intersectional debates. Some protest the often offensive depictions of people with disabilities, comparing a piece of literature to the Fries test- the Bechdel test of this community. Positive portrayals in a piece of literature would include a disabled character being central to the plot, rather than just an object of pity or ridicule.
Young students read books with potentially problematic depictions of disabled people, in opposition to the wishes of those in the disabled community. Authors uses the “r” word and overcommitt to the supposed hilarity of dumb or feebleminded disablity aligned characters. With such widespread depictions, it is hard to break free of the representation so prevalent in our favorite classic books, such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. While both of these works were revolutionary in their time, and have truthfully been eye-opening in many ways, it is essential to move forward and recognize the harmful connection of disabled men and women to simple or violent animals. Afterall, both previously mentioned titles quite literally have animals in the name.
To Kill a Mockingbird has acted as a mode of “wokeness” for white saviorism, and the animalization of characters like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson have reflected the true impact of the text. Of Mice and Men, often seen as a problematic work in Disability studies, goes as far to equate Lenny Small, the gargantuan and small brained man to a disabled dog who gets shot in the head- a fate similar to Lenny’s at the end of the novel. It is not uncommon to have a crazy dog shot in a book with disability aligned characters- a character in To Kill a Mockingbird also shoots a rabies-infected, crazy dog. And in fact, those dogs often act as a metaphor for those “animal” characters. Of course, popular books are not the only example of the raw animalzation and connection to the disabled body- it is extremely apparent in twentieth century freak shows and the gawking of a man who looks vaguely lobster or bear-like. It is essential to discuss the impact of such depictions, and offer a more inclusive view of the disabled body and mind. It is time to forego the offensive characterization of the disabled man to animals.
Many older white women of the baby boomer generation claim that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a literary piece essential to the newfound inclusivity of discussion. However, Atticus Finch, the father and lawyer central to the plot and central to “saving” Tom Robinson, is often seen as too powerful, and as though the black characters would flail pointlessly without his strength. Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, is compared to a harmless mockingbird, but only after his death. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains that it is a “sin to kill a mockingbird”, and later, Mr. Underwood, the town news source, states “it is a sin to kill a cripple” (Lee, 220.) The juxtaposition and relative sentence structure shows that these two phrases were meant to be compared- Lee encourages the audience to see Robinson as a bird. Robinson is a disability aligned character who injured his hand at a young age in a cotton gin accident, rendering it essentially useless. When trying to escape from this wrongful imprisonment, Robinson is shot many more times than necessary, showing the racism and ableism of that time period.
Boo Radley, is described as “frightening” and “animal-like” in his mannerisms. The Maycomb county folklore centering around Boo does little to depict him as the careful, kind, and empathetic character the readers find out he truly is. Jem, Scout’s older brother, and Atticus’ son, emphasizes the horror involved in the crime of Boo stabbing his father with a pair of scissors- then later explains that Boo “dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained” (Lee, 10).
While the differences between Tom and Boo are apparent, the two animals that they are represented by does little to reflect them in a positive light. Tom is the innocent, sweet, little, weak, bird, but only after being shot seventeen times and unfairly imprisoned based on racist falsities. Representing Tom as something that can only be helped by the able bodied white man furthers his animalization as a delicate mockingbird. Boo, depicted as a wolf-like, dog-like, and bear-like dangerous man, can not elegantly break free of the restraints Lee places on him as a violent animal and freak of nature.
John Stienbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a classic tale of “friendship” and farmhands, commits to the idea of Lenny as a poor, innocent puppy. Lenny is viewed as both harmless, as he is unintelligent, but also as harmful, as his body is towering and extremely strong. Steinbeck takes little time to compare Lenny to an animal- on page four, the first time the audience meets Lenny- he describes his walk as similar to “ the way a bear drags his paws”. This is not the only time Lenny’s movements are described as bearlike. On page hundred, Stienbeck does it again, outlining Lenny’s stride as akin to a “creeping bear moving.” Lenny is also described as a terrier, a small but mighty dog, when George Milton, his best friend, makes him set a mouse free from his grip. George is described as his master, as any loyal dog should have an able bodied master. George often infantilizes Lenny, and in the end of the book, makes a life or death decision for him, much like Candy, another farmhand, does for his old sheepdog.
Because Lenny is both strong of muscle and weak of mind, it is interesting to compare the differences in the wide array of animals Stienbeck compares him to. It is no secret between the characters of the book that Lenny could easily kill any of them- but those same characters treat him as one would treat a small, idiotic terrier. Stienbeck goes as far to equate his personality as both bear-like and tiny puppy-like. Those two animals could not be any farther apart in terms of size and capability. However, Lenny is both meek and boisterous, as are both the animals stated.
The connection of able bodied people and the racism affecting our world is also apparent in these connections. While some wish to “reclaim” their animalazaion as a disabled person, we must recognize the racist roots that animalization clearly has. It is not uncommon for black men and women to be described as ape-like, and in blackface shows, the actors would often make monkey sounds or pretend to throw their feces. Much like the reclamation of the “q” and “n” slur in LGBT and black communities, some disabled people involved in freakshows took advantage of their inherent “animalness”. Percilla Bejano, a notable example of such reclamation, was involved in many freakshows and exploited her hairy body and freak of nature appearance. She later married the “the alligator” man, and the two had a happy life together, working as two animals in love. It is possible that Bejano was insulted by her animal name, but at least maintained some autonomy.
Otis Jordan is another example, a black man billed as amphibian-like, who wished to be referred to as “frog boy”. He enjoyed his life on the road as a disabled performer. Jordan pointed out that, given his condition, there wasn’t much else work he could get, therefore, the freakshow was a positive, money-making experience for Jordan.
Animalization in freak shows can be an overly negative thing. P.T Barnum, whose name is synonymous with the circus, was at the forefront of exploiting disabled people, making them an “animal” entertainment, rather than a human. Circus shows, like the one Julia Pastrana was in, perpetuated the animalization of people with disabilities and placed them in unsafe environments in order to pursue their career. Pastrana, described as the “ugliest woman alive”, had a case of hypertrichosis, which covered the body and face in copious amounts of hair. Pastrana was billed as the “ape-women ”, because of her hair and naturally feminine figure. Because able bodied humans found her so enticing, after her death, she was embalmed with her recently deceased son, to be gawked at for years to come. Even after her death, Pastrana had no peace.
In the theory piece, Beasts of Burden, Sunaura Taylor describes hands as “human” and mouths as “animal.” Her point in detailing this is that able bodied people often view the use of one’s mouth to open things, or to move objects around, as disgusting and improper. Taylor’s ideas are revolutionary- as she does explain in further detail the essentiality of some disabled people using the animal to describe oneself. Much like some overweight people are fighting for the word “fat” to be used as a descriptor rather than an insult, Taylor admits that some of her movements are rather animal-like, and it would not necessarily be unfair to describe them as so. However, she does recognize her privilege in being a white woman comfortable in her animalization.
Essentially, the problem then lies with the able-bodied making decisions for the disabled. George places himself in the role of executioner for Lenny , and Lee and Stienbeck take on the important role of describing a person with disabilities. Pastrana had her whole life planned out by a man of more power, capability, and “normalcy”. This is simply not the job for an able bodied person. All people, including disabled people, must have a say in their depictions, be masters of their fate, especially their mortality. Taylor, Bejano, and frog-boy can do whatever they like with their bodies and physicality, but authors and able bodied characters can’t decide for them.
Animalization is popular in modern media, and even in the books that every child reads in order to pass a required class. It is ingrained in our minds to compare man and animal, and even more so when the man is overly hairy, or his appearance is otherwise aberrant,and thus, doesn’t fit into the abelist ideals of America. Aversion to normalcy is seen as wrong, offensive, and unsuitable, and this is prevalent in classic literature.
It does not matter how it makes the able bodied feel when talking about the disabled body. The disabled body should have say over their bodies and reflections in art and books.
For some reason, the quote where George answers Lennie’s question about the cards stuck out to me:
“‘Both ends the same,’ he said. ‘George, why is it both end’s the same?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said George. ‘That’s jus’ the way they make ‘em,’” (52).
I saw connections to “both end’s the same” throughout the rest of the novel. It seems as if Steinbeck wants us to consider whether the continuation of Lennie’s life, following George from ranch to ranch, is really any different than the ending of the novel. Would Lennie’s life have ever been better had he lived? I also saw this “both end’s the same” mentality in the conversation Crooks has with Lennie when he stops by his room:
“‘They come , an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven… Nobody ever gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land,’” (70).
Here, Crooks reaches even beyond physical disability to a state of social debility like Puar explains in “Preface: Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”. No one in this story is able to make something different, something better, out of their lives. It all just ends the same. Even with the “far rush of wind” in the opening of the final chapter, “As quickly as it had come, the wind died, and the clearing was quiet again” (95).
Just something I found interesting.
Dr. Foss began class on Tuesday, September 14th by announcing that our class had the option to be dismissed fifteen minutes early due to meetings of the search committee for a new Chief Diversity Officer. This was said to be an effort to keep us on-track with another section of the class, although we quickly cleared up the confusion that there is no other section. Irene also made some announcements about activities relating to Latino Identities Month before we launched into a large group discussion of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men. We analyzed the representation of Lennie’s disability, the relationship and power dynamic between Lennie and George, and how these culminated to explain the final scene of the novella, including our intended and actual reactions. We also briefly explored the disability of the novella’s other characters. Through this discussion, we concluded Lennie is portrayed in a way that both gives him agency and revokes it, but we struggled to categorize George’s relationship with and actions towards Lennie as either entirely merciful or selfishly motivated. Rather, moments of both were clearly articulated.
Dr. Foss started off the discussion by asking about the class’ prior experience with the novella. Many members had previously read the work, although the lenses through which they viewed it varied. Jamie’s high school class considered all viewpoints while reading the novella, while Miranda’s class focused almost entirely on issues of class rather than those of disability or race. I had also read the novella in high school and remember focusing extensively on class, some on race, and very minimally on disability.
We turned our discussion to the topic of Lennie’s disability and Steinbeck’s portrayal of it, where we found instances of both stigmatization and infantilization because of Lennie’s mental disability. However, we also saw that, in many ways, Lennie is not infantilized as much as may be expected given he is ultimately held responsible for all of his actions. Moreover, Lennie also garners a great deal of respect from characters like Slim, Crooks, and even Curley, although it was mixed with intense hatred. One example of this comes after Lennie easily breaks Curley’s hand (60). In a male dominated world like this novella, strength is immensely valued, and this is one of Lennie’s biggest assets. We even postulated that his strength and willingness to work hard is one of the reasons George continues to travel around with the big lumbering bear (2).
This led us into an examination of Lennie’s relationship with George. Here, we raised the question of whether George truly respects Lennie. While George cares for Lennie, allows him to join him on his travels, and defends him in front of Curley and others who question his competency, he is also downright rude to Lennie on many occasions. Often, the things he says about him, including how much better his life would be if he did not have to worry about Lennie, are surely extremely psychologically damaging. This was likened to a sibling relationship where “No one can be mean to my brother but me!” However, there is certainly an unequal power dynamic at play between the two characters where George is seen as the master and Lennie as the “terrier who doesn’t want to bring a ball to its master” (8). Regardless, Lennie and George’s relationship is, indeed, reciprocal. Lennie needs George to keep him out of trouble, and George needs Lennie to enable himself to dream like a child and inspire others like Candy.
From here, we posed the question: “Did Goerge give up on Lennie?” We are clearly supposed to see the end of the novella as a mercy killing given the setup to this event where Carlson kills Candy’s old, miserable dog. Here, Candy laments he “‘shouldn’t ought to have let no stranger shoot my dog,’” (58). This is intended to make us feel the same way about George killing Lennie. With input from many class members, we felt strongly that George should not have performed this “mercy killing” without Lennie’s understanding and consent because this only solidified the issue of the power imbalance between the two. However, it was questioned whether there was enough time to explain the situation to Lennie in a way he could understand, and it was agreed upon that the mob would certainly have killed Lennie if given the chance. The idea of infantilization was again mentioned as leaving Lennie out of this final decision is one last act of babying him and rendering him incapable of controlling his own life.
Dr. Foss brought up an interesting point, asking why George wants the burden of killing Lennie himself rather than letting him run away into the woods. This is, of course, the opposite scenario of that between Victor Frankenstein and the Creation. I think the answer has to do with genuine love and respect, which also lends evidence to the earlier point that George truly does respect Lennie, even if it is sometimes hard to see through his actions. There was no affinity between Frankenstein and his Creation, only disgust and fear, which is what causes Frankenstein to run initially and continue running after the Creation to his eventual downfall. Dr. Foss also mentioned a list of questions that teachers often ask their students regarding this novella. These were examined by a student doing an individual study. This student found the questions always asked what a student would do in the end if they were in George’s shoes, automatically assuming the reader would give themselves the custodial role. There was never any consideration of how they would feel if they were Lennie or how the final scene might be different if the figure was black and disabiled like Crooks.
Lastly, we had a brief discussion on the unifying characteristics of some of the other minor characters. Crooks and Candy are both old and lonely, and Crooks is also physically disabiled and black. In many ways, Crooks is similar to Lennie, but there is no one there for him, no George-figure to guide him and take his side. Curley’s wife is also lonely; in her conversation with Lennie preceding her death, the two speak to each other about their various musings and concerns without ever really hearing each other or connecting about anything. Just when they start to connect, Lennie kills her, leaving the two isolated and lonely yet again. With that, the time had reached 1:30 pm. Dr. Foss offered to let us stay for the rest of class to discuss Puar in small groups, but, after a few somewhat awkward moments of silence, Hollis spoke for us all when he said we had had enough, and we all departed.
Overall, the class discussion led to productive discourse about Steinbeck’s representation of disabled character(s) and their social standing in his society. We focused on instances in which these character’s rights were usurped and how readers are conditioned to respond to the novella’s end as a compassionate act. However, when viewed through a disability studies lens, these actions are far from entirely merciful.
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.
Word Count: 813
On September 14th, our class was almost entirely focused on the novella, Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. After mentioning the University’s new COVID policy regarding seating, we moved into a large group discussion of the novella, which lasted the entirety of the hour allotted for class. To get the discussion started, Dr. Foss began by prompting us to think about the title of the piece. The title is an allusion to a poem called “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns and parallels can be drawn between the themes of the novella and the poem. Both are centered around the harsh nature of life for those who are most vulnerable and how people have hopes and dreams that often don’t come to fruition. Dr. Foss then asked the class who’s read this work before and to what extent it’s been used to talk about disability, in everyone’s personal experience. While the majority of the class had read Of Mice and Men before, it had only been utilized to discuss race and gender, with the exception of a couple of people.
The large group discussion then moved to converse about Lennie’s character and its representations. We began with material from page eight of the novella in which Lennie is compared to a dog. Similar comparisons are seen throughout the novella, in which Lennie is likened to a dog or a bear. Although people felt that it was a dehumanizing comparison, there are similarities, in that Lennie is often subservient and does not have his agency. Furthermore, more similarities can be observed when looking at the relationship between George and Lennie. In many ways, George holds power over Lennie, as a dog’s master would over a dog. However, it could be said that Steinbeck is prompting readers to see that others may perceive Lennie as an animal but to critique and question that perception.
In discussing Lennie and George’s relationship as it pertained to the dog comparison, that allowed us a segue to have a more in-depth conversation about Lennie and George’s relationship and George’s overall treatment of Lennie. While many of us saw their relationship as extremely toxic and George’s treatment of Lennie as problematic, we also realized that the time period the book was written and set in must be taken into consideration. There was far less knowledge regarding disabilities, which can be seen in how George did not understand Lennie’s disability, nor did he know how to properly communicate with Lennie. While it appears that George loves Lennie, he gets extremely frustrated at times and we eventually came to the conclusion that George’s approach was flawed but his intentions may have been in the right place. We also concluded that, as Steinbeck portrayed their relationship, it was inherently problematic.
The conversation then moved to the disturbing final scene of the novella, which took up the remainder of the class. Dr. Foss asked the class to consider how it would feel to be Lennie and to have that kind of ending. Likenesses can be seen between Lennie’s death and the death of Candy’s dog, as both were supposedly “put out of their misery” and shot in the back of the head. Additionally, just as Candy remarks that he wishes he was the one to have killed his dog, rather than letting a stranger be with his dog in his last moments, everyone else wanted to kill Lennie, but George makes sure he is the one to do it. This raises the question: is Steinbeck ultimately wanting readers to sympathize with George and having to kill his companion or does he want readers to pause and consider that Lennie’s death is not the same as that of a dog’s?
We then discussed a question that Dr. Foss raised, about how the ending would change if it was Crooks that George shot, instead of Lennie, without warning. If that changes readers’ perception of the ending, what does that mean for how we view Lennie? Does that mean we see him as less than? It’s a difficult question to answer and the class was unable to come to a clear consensus. However, we did agree that Lennie should not have been killed for something that he didn’t understand was happening, especially considering the accidental nature of Curly’s wife’s death and Lennie’s lack of ill intent.
Overall, the class had a fruitful and thought-provoking discussion about Of Mice and Men that offered insights into Lennie’s status as a disabled character and how he was perceived and treated as such. What readers draw from this novella depends on how they interpret Steinbeck’s portrayal of Lennie and Lennie’s death, as well as his portrayal of Lennie and George’s relationship. This class functioned as an introspective view into the identity of disability in this time period and offered a valuable portrayal of characters who could be considered disability aligned.