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.