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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.