A Reader’s Crisis: Of Mice & Men
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I was convinced that everything I knew about justice was a lie. I read the resolution, closed the book, and contemplated life for a while. “Wow,” I said to myself. “Maybe that was the right thing.” I wanted to be mad and heartbroken, but I was completely empathetic instead. When you put it that way, I may do it, too.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is short, sweet, and packed with insurmountable obstacles that roll uncontrollably into tragedy. In about 100 pages or so, he shows us a scenario that makes you love and hate humanity for how much sense it can make to make such a decision.
Is it better to die at peace or live in misery? Is it okay to help someone along the way?
Yup, mercy killing, assisted suicide, human euthanasia–all that jazz. On one end, it makes sense to die in bliss. The two characters in the book–George and Lenny–are constantly fighting an uphill battle because of one’s uncontrollable urges. They find themselves running from job to job, only dreaming of a home to lay their heads. After Lenny, mentally challenged and in need of constant monitoring, gets in trouble again, his companion comes to an impasse: George can let Lenny go to prison and eventually be sentenced to death. Or, he can take him out himself letting Lenny feel like everything will be okay.
Initial reaction: justice is justice, crime is crime; he has to be arrested. But, here’s where it gets sticky: what lead up to the crime was beyond his control. Putting someone docile, like Lenny, in prison does not protect society; it does not punish him when he doesn’t completely understand. Capital punishment follows the same lines. So, what do you do? Some families hide away their family, no matter the crime. Loyalty to your blood; they rather go down together. Others send them away to somewhere that can help them: rehabs, other countries, nunneries. Their motive is to avoid persecution by rebuilding the person’s credibility and life.
All these other things to do. Why does George kill Lenny? What made him think that’s okay?
He put him down like a dog at the vet! He stole a gentle soul and gained credibility for doing so (though there’s a little more to that than how it sounds). Anyway, why not just send Lenny away? Because he’ll never make it. George knew that nothing would change with Lenny, and if they continued on like this, all Lenny’s dreams would be lies and he would suffer more in prison. As bad as it sounds, it’s like looking at a loved one on life-support and knowing that they’ll never be anything more than this. Is it worth living on with no potential?
Uh-oh. Suicide creeps in, right? I know, so much. This is why it’s a crisis.
This is all just stream of conscious. My thought process as I descended between the lines of the story to try and really grasp that theme. Maybe there was no theme that Steinbeck intended. Maybe he just told the story of a dream. Maybe the curtain is just blue. Who really knows? In any case, it really did get me thinking about Kohlberg’s theory of morality (psychology minor).
In this particular case, we would be balancing stage four of conventional morality and stage 5 of post-conventional morality. Essentially, strict law and order versus “genuine interest in the welfare of others”. While we want to have a strict black and white view of justice and murder, Of Mice & Men really brings up the reality that intention really does play a role in justice. The “degrees” of murder and manslaughter really is purposeful. While it’s so easy to assume that someone who murders lacks consciousness, I would argue that George is actually functioning on a higher moral level by committing manslaughter. Weird to consider, I know.
Anyway. I’m not here to answer that question for you. I’m just letting you in on my reader’s crisis. Get you thinking a little deeper about what you read. Good luck with that.