The Predatory Nature of Human Existence
Written by John Steinbeck in the year 1937, Of Mice And Men illustrates the harrowing, heartfelt, and somewhat controversial tale of George Milton and Lennie Smalls, two migrant workers, as they attempt to navigate the complex societal struggles faced by ranch workers during the Great Depression. The novel has, since its time of publishment, become quite notorious for both positive and negative cognitions, but one point for which no argument can surround is that of Of Mice And Men’s memorability. It is without a doubt that Of Mice And Men purveys many messages throughout its 187 pages, but arguably the most pervasive is the cynical lesson on the nature of human existence. From the way in which the characters interact with one another to the symbolism of the water snake, John Steinbeck informs readers of the predatory nature of human existence present throughout society.
Almost immediately after the commencement of the novella, it is made evident to both characters and readers alike that human existence is built on the premise of predatory instinct. Upon settling into the bunkhouse, George and Lennie are introduced to the somewhat infamous individual that is Curley. Curley proves to be a hostile and disagreeable figure, specifically towards Lennie. “’Well…tell you what. Curley’s alike a lot of little guys. He hates big guys. He’s alla time picking scraps with big guys. Kind of like he’s mad at ’em because he ain’t a big guy. You seen little guys like that, ain’t you? Always scrappy?’” (pg. 26). As seen in the previous quote, Curley’s aversion is the result of misplaced insecurity. Curley has forever been considered a “little guy,” and his constant need to prove himself through physical aggression is the consequence of his feelings of inadequacy. By constantly fighting, and quite frequently defeating, the “big guys,” Curley is attempting to make up for his lack of height, only confirming the belief that the most visible of strengths, that used to oppress others, is in of itself born of weakness. It is almost as if the men are not ranch workers, but animals in the wild, having to prove their worth through the volatile oppression of others. To successfully exist within the society of the ranch, the men, as well as Curley’s wife, resort to the degradation of their fellow associates to uphold their own statuses, only furthering the theme of predatory nature within human existence.
How it works
Much like in the prior paragraph, the belief that strength is born of weakness, an idea correlating to the overarching theme of man’s predatory nature, emerges, once more as a result of man versus man conflict. Throughout chapter four, readers observe the budding interconnection between Crooks, the black stable hand, and Lennie, the mentally disabled figure around which most of the story circulates. The following is an excerpt from the conversation held between the two characters. “’Cause I’m black. They play cards in there, but I can’t play because I’m black, They say I stink. Well, I tell you, all of you stink to me.’ … ‘I said s’pose George went into town tonight and you never heard of him no more.’ Crooks pressed forward some kind of private victory. ‘Just s’pose that,’ he repeated. … Hundreds of them [men]. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it.” (pgs. 68, 71, & 74). As made obvious through the previous quote, the oppression of others is the immediate result of weakness and insecurity. Crooks is rendered helpless by his isolation, and yet, he feels the need to destroy Lennie, an individual that is quite obviously weaker than he. Shortly after declaring his own dissimilarity from the other men, he feels it necessary to intimidate Lennie, as if to prove that he is superior to Lennie. Within the society of the ranch workers, one is neither predator nor prey, but a combination of the two. In many cases, Crooks is the prey of the others; however, when given a chance, he opts for the role of predator. Due to the lack of intimate connection between the men on the ranch, most are subjected to the predator-prey relationship they know so well. These connections only amplifying the ever recurring theme of the predatory nature of human existence.
Not only is the theme expressed through conflict between characters, but it is also made evident through the imagery and symbolism of the water snake. After the accidental homicide of Curley’s wife, Lennie returns to the predetermined location decided upon by him and George at the start of their journey. Here, Steinbeck depicts much of the natural splendor revealed to readers during the opening pages of the book. The images of the Gabilan mountains, rosy hilltops, and shaded pool suggest somewhat of a natural paradise, much like that of the Garden of Eden. “A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from sided to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.” (pg. 99). With the inclusion of this excerpt, all remnants of the paradise that once was is lost. The presence of the snake recalls to the story of Eden, in which evil is expressed through the form of a serpent. Steinbeck’s masterful use of symbolism employs the snake and heron as representations of the predatory nature of society, as well as indicators of Lennie’s imminent death. In addition, the struggle between the water snake and the heron depict the way in which some individuals are simply better suited for survival. The heron was forced to prey upon its weaker counterpart, much like the individuals on the ranch do with one another. The constant need to oppress another can be seen within this particular quote, only exacerbating the apparency of the predatory existence of humans within society.
Be it through conflict between characters or the symbolism of an animal, the predation of others as a trait of human existence is made excruciatingly clear throughout John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice And Men. As seen in many scenarios, the need for oppression and other predatory mannerisms is the immediate result of weakness and insecurity, only furthering the idea that human existence is built on the premise of predatory behavior. John Steinbeck, although possibly unintentionally, leaves readers deliberating and considering the many complex and engaging ideas found throughout his captivating novella, Of Mice And Men.