John Steinbeck: Development And Portrayal Of His Characters Essay, Research Paper
“And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand and he lay without quivering. George shivered and looked at the gun and then he threw it from him, back up on the bank, near the pile of old ashes.” This excerpt from and the climax of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is one which demonstrates the complexity and power of a moral and social force over an ordinary man. Throughout Steinbeck’s novels and stories, he generally portrayed working-class characters who were controlled or manipulated by forces beyond their understanding or control. He isn’t saying that an ordinary person does not have a chance but is stating that people or rather the lives of people can be influenced, thereby shaping the outcome !
of their life whether for the better or the worse, by circumstances over which they have limited knowledge or control. For example in Cannery Row an enemy that Steinbeck attacks is a destructive force, one which manipulates people into acting a certain way to attain a sense of security by disregarding feelings for others (French 120). By analyzing Steinbeck’s writing style and influences on it, forces and themes present in his writing, and the portrayal of characters in his stories, one can understand how and in what ways John Steinbeck represents his characters as common people who are driven by forces which they cannot comprehend.
First, let’s look at Steinbeck and any influences on him and his writing style and as a consequence, how they contribute to the concept that his characters are manipulated by pressures which they do not understand or are able to control. Steinbeck was positively fond of people, more than any other writers were and especially fond of men who work for bread in the open air in the fields or mountains (Beach 1). He was interested in people from the beginning, long before he had any theory to account for their ways (Beach 1). With this, Steinbeck chose novel writing as a career, despite his family’s insistence for a more prosaic career (Millichap 3153). This traumatic rejection of middle-class values would be an important factor in shaping his fiction (Millichap 3153). He grew up in a frustrated modern America and witnessed the most notable failure of the American dream in the Great Depression (Millichap 3152). During this decadent period, many of Steinbeck’s writings of!
fered detailed accounts of social problems, particularly the plight of migrant agricultural workers in California’s fertile valley (Millichap 3157). From this idea the design for The Grapes of Wrath emerged, which follows one family from Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl to California in search of a better life (Millichap 3158). Of Mice and Men also shows the persistence of the American dream and the tragedy of its failure (Millichap 3156).
Several other points which helps elucidate the idea that some omnipotent force has an imperceivable grasp over Steinbeck’s characters are the forces and themes found throughout his literature. “Many times to him modern life itself is the enemy in which his characters find themselves lost in a world they never made and want nothing to do with (Folsom 2276). At their best, Steinbeck’s stories tell of lives which have turned out far differently from expectations, and the very modesty of these initial expectations allows the author ample scope for discussing that vague malevolence he sees at the heart of life itself (Folsom 2277). The villains which he creates are almost always faceless generalizations which can not be quite understood by his characters (Folsom 2276).” A good example of this can be drawn from The Grapes of Wrath where “the bank” represented an evil which drove the Okies from their farms and had also replaced the “lovable existential mule with the malevole!
nt tractor” (Folsom 2276). This system of production and finance involves innumerable instances of cruel hardship and injustice (Beach 5).
In addition, the depiction of environment and nature in Steinbeck’s stories also help to illustrate his characters as those who are being forcefully controlled. In The Red Pony, nature plays a very important role. The main character Jody learns more of nature’s ambiguous promises when his father has one of his mares put to stud to give the boy another colt. The birth is complicated and the mare must be killed to save the colt, demonstrating that life and death are inextricably intertwined (Millichap 3157). Another event in this story occurs when Jody accidentally leaves his pony out in the rain where it takes cold and dies, teaching Jody of nature’s cruel indifferences to human wishes (Millichap 3156). Steinbeck often creates vivid portraits of the landscape and demonstrates how people are shaped and manipulated by their environments (Folsom 2276). In the short story “Flight”, the environment is what ultimately destroyed Pepe. According to Steinbeck, the environmen!
t can “animalize” a human, as happened to Pepe. Pepe had acted instinctively and when he left his home he knew he would never return.
Finally, the representation of Steinbeck’s characters unifies the idea that they in fact were manipulated by forces beyond their understanding or control. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George are laborers and they are little people, the uncommon “common people”, disoriented and dispossessed by modern life yet still yearning for a little piece of land (Millichap 3156). Symbolically, “Lennie is this visceral, inarticulate land-hunger, while George becomes the poet of this vision showing how their dream blossoms and then dies and how their fate represents modern America (Millichap 3156).”
As mentioned earlier, Pepe was an example of how Steinbeck brings a human down to an animal level, and he does this with Lennie also. Lennie has the impulse of a killer in him but in a form which is almost innocent (Wilson 529). This plainly shows how something uncontrollable can effect the outcome of one’s life.
In both The Pearl and The Grapes of Wrath, families must struggle at once against an indifferent natural order and a corrupt social order (Millichap 3160), these being outside forces in which none of the characters have the ability to change. The aspirations of Kino, the head of the family in The Pearl, are the same drives to better himself and his family that took the Okies to the California valleys (Millichap 3160).
In conclusion, Steinbeck masterfully demonstrated that his characters were controlled by forces that they could not handle or were not able to perceive. His writing technique, effective use of modern life and man pitted against nature, and how he introduced and developed his characters all played a significant role in the development of this theme.