I’ve been helping a friend’s daughter who is now taking classes in Canada via an online portal. She’s preparing to move there come January. I’ve been helping her with her English and Biology. Recently, I insisted that we start looking at classic books and analyzing them the way high school students do in North America. I didn’t want her to go to Canada and not know books like Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, etc. I also wanted her to familiarize herself with the analytical tradition of studying as well. I notice that most Korean students are trained to memorize and regurgitate facts instead of analyzing them and generating new truths. It was a fortunate if not serendipitous move on my part then that we learned that she’ll be studying Of Mice and Men in a few weeks, a book that we already started discussing.
One of Steinbeck’s themes in the book is the death of a dream and how one becomes part of meaningless cycle of toil and hopelessness. The book was written in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression. In the beginning of the book, it describes itinerant workers toiling during the week and spending all of their money on liquor and women at the local brothels, the cycle continuously repeating, and the men being trapped in the hopeless lifestyle. In contrast, the protagonist of the book, George and Lenny, dream of someday saving up enough money to buy their own farm and raising animals, and most especially, rabbits. By the end of the book, the dream is dashed, and George, not having a dream, presumably becomes just like the other men in the farm, trapped in a cycle of endless labor.
I see where Steinbeck is coming from, but I believe despite his very dour description of life in the 1930s, what he paints is a very idealistic, almost Norman Rockwellian view of how life in America should be, a view that basically hasn’t changed throughout all time. In order to have a successful life, you have to own a home, an idealized home, whatever that means. In George and Lenny’s case, it’s one with animals.
The thing about homes and the dream of homes is that it gives a sense of permanence, literally a shelter that will be there for you and one that will presumably be able to be passed to your children and grandchildren, a legacy that will outlast your very short existence. But how is that dream, or any dream for that matter, any different from the existence of the men in the farm? You work for most of your life, you pay off your mortgage, you spend a few years enjoying retirement, you die. The house and all of your legacy will eventually be whittled away by your descendants until you are but a faded memory. And these descendants will continue on with their own dreams. Maybe all of the work you did made their life a bit better; at least, the house you bought gave them shelter, but you still ended up working everyday and spending most of your life doing something you would rather not do.
Maybe the dream is working in a farm all of your life? Maybe the dream is going to brothels every weekend? That’s not what we have been trained to want all of our lives, but I suspect the dream that Steinbeck envisioned in the book is simply the traditional long-term delayed gratification we’ve all been educated and conditioned to want, as opposed to the short term gratification cycle that the men in the farm enjoy. It’s quite religious almost. Endure the toils and suffering on earth for now; later, you will be rewarded in heaven. Looking back, and since I myself an a recipient of a lifetime of programming and biases, I don’t think I’m qualified to tell which one is better.
I’ve touched up on the topic of death many times before. I remember one time talking about the all too common and simple way of dying by colliding with a planet (basically jumping to your death) and another time talking about how easy it is to harvest cherry seed pits. Recently, I’ve been thinking that all death comes down to three categories: death by evolution, death by biology, and death by physics. Death by evolution is basically all death that involves being eaten by another animal, basically taking part in the food pyramid. It’s probably the most exotic of all deaths since not many people die from getting eaten by animals compared to other forms of death. Where am I supposed to get eaten by wolves in Seoul?
Death by biology is death caused by the failings of our own physical bodies, be it aging, cancer, or any sort of disease. Looking at statistics, it’s what most deaths are: cancer, heart disease, and in 2020, coronavirus. Death by biology is the slowest of deaths and probably the most natural, but it is far from being kind. The atheist argument to the non-existence of a benevolent God is the fact that he allows the existence of childhood cancer and all sorts of natural and unavoidable maladies to fall onto children.
The last category is death by physics. This is death caused by our bodies’ inability to survive the powers of physics, be it the kinetic force of a bullet, or the marriage of mass and gravity when we fall to our doom. I suppose most homicides, at least violent ones, are death by physics. Most people dream of a slow death by biology. Death by physics are often the most jarring of deaths.
Lenny from Of Mice and Men died from physics. George will probably suffer a long death by biology.