Recently, my twelfth grade students have been reading, discussing, and writing about Steinbeck’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men, a dramatic little tale about friendship and the American dream and what it means to keep a promise. We’ve been focusing on what I believe to be the central question of the book – the question upon which all else turns.
[INSERT SPOLIER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, STOP READING THIS, FIND A COPY, AND READ IT. IT’S NOT LONG, IT’S AN EASY READ, AND IT’S WORTHY OF SOME CONTEMPLATION]
And that question is this: Should George have killed Lennie?
On the surface the answer seems obvious to most people. Of course he shouldn’t have; murder, after all, is wrong whatever the circumstances. That’s what most of my students said anyway. But we’ve also spent a lot of time considering the hypothetical consequences had George chosen not to do away with his handicapped friend. What would have happened? Lennie likely would have died at the hands of folks less interested in diminishing Lennie’s suffering or Lennie would have grown increasingly more violent. As my students noted, Lennie’s actions displayed a disturbing pattern: first, he squeezed a mouse to death, then he pinched a puppy to death, then came the woman. All were accidents, but they were killings nonetheless and Lennie was growing more and more dangerous.
The poor man had to pay. That’s more or less the jist of it. Justice demanded it and so did the other ranch hands.
So what should George have done? Should he have ushered Lennie into the surrounding foothills, hidden him in a cave somewhere, left him to fend for himself? Or perhaps he should have turned Lennine over to the ranch, to allow Justice to be served by the husband of the woman Lennie killed.
As the lively conversations in my classroom suggest, we were a divided class, virtually down the middle, and each side offered compelling, reasonable, thoughtful points. We’ve discussed the Biblical stance on post-murder Justice, whether mercy killings are okay, and what the difference is between killing and murder. We’ve attempted to define Justice and we’ve discussed concepts like fairness, friendship, authority, law, and much more.
And this is the beauty of great literature. All these ideas are right there at our finger tips. All that we have to do as readers and thinkers, as teachers and parents, is ask the right questions.
Every book – and indeed every historical event – turns on the question of whether someone should have done what they did. Should Bilbo have taken the ring? Should Brutus have killed Caeser? Should George have killed Lennie? Everything depends on this question. In books, in history, and in our lives, everyday.
Of course, it’s the kind of question that demands imaginaton. It demands that we, as readers, assume a setting and a role, that we stand in the shoes of another man, what Atticus Finch would argue we all must do regularly.
But this isn’t some sort of stance towards fairness. We don’t do this so we can broaden our horizons.
No, we should engage with such questions imaginatively because in them Truth is revealed and in so standing we open our eyes and our arms a little wider to the universe of Truth around us. We should read with imagination because the world is too big not to.
Reading isn’t about criticism or New Year’s resolutions or, dare I say, hipster cred. Well, it shouldn’t be, that is. *Takes a moment for introspection…* Reading is about Truth.
One of my students told me this week that she is considering majoring in English in college but that she’s been wavering of late. I think she said she was questioning the practicality of it, just as every English major does every time someone asks “so what are you going to do with that?”, a question I heard nearly every day of my college experience. I used to say, “Well, I’ll write or teach I suppose.” Today I wish I’d said, “Well, sir, I plan to think about things that matter”.
I told my student—and I firmly believe this—that she should become an English major only if she believes in Truth, if she believes that, through imaginative interaction with good writing, Truth can be known and felt and loved and cared for. As soon as we make it about something else we diminish it. And far too much is at stake to allow that to happen.
So read on, and ask the big questions along the way.