Posts Tagged ‘temptation’

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

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I am a sucker for a good title. I know, in my current straitened circumstances I oughtn’t to be buying more books, but I was investigating a used store in the new area and couldn’t resist this one. To prevent myself succumbing to temptation again, I’ve marshalled all the books I own but haven’t read yet out in the open, on a temporary parade ground, so that I don’t forget them. I had forgotten how many of them there are; I’m not yet brave enough to count. The crowd includes everything from The Decameron to The Madwoman in the Attic, so I should be busy for quite some time.

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This is a story about temptation. Harvey is ten years old and bored in the greyness of February; then someone comes along who offers to deliver him from it.

The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter.

He didn’t think much of his chances. More than likely he’d become so bored as the hours crawled by that one day he’d simply forget to breathe. Then maybe people would get to wondering why such a fine young lad had perished in his prime. It would become a celebrated mystery, which wouldn’t be solved until some great detective decided to re-create a day in Harvey’s life.

Then, and only then, would the grim truth be discovered. The detective would first follow Harvey’s route to school every morning, trekking through the dismal streets. Then he’d sit at Harvey’s desk, and listen to the pitiful drone of the history teacher and the science teacher, and wonder how the heroic boy had managed to keep his eyes open. And finally, as the wasted day dwindled to dusk, he’d trace the homeward trek, and as he set foot on the step from which he had departed that morning, and people asked him – as they would – why such a sweet soul as Harvey had died, he would shake his head and say, “It’s very simple.”

“Oh?” the curious crowd would say. “Do tell.”

And, brushing away a tear, the detective would reply: “Harvey Swick was eaten by the great gray beast February.”

Frankly, I’m kind of glad Barker didn’t use November here. Writers often have such horrible things to say about November, but it’s the month I was born in, so I’ve always thought it was special and nice. I also like rain and heatless humidity and days that are sort of warm without being sunny, which is the best we can hope for in November.

Harvey is taken to a magical house where all your wishes come true and all the seasons happen in the course of a day. Every morning is springtime, every afternoon is summer, and every evening there’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, one right after the other. Of course, it’s all tricks and illusion, but most of the kids don’t worry about that. Harvey is a little less easily fooled, or maybe he just has a stronger need for things to be real. And in some ways, they’re more real than he thinks.

“Yes, but it’s a game,” Harvey said.

“A game?” said Jive. “No, no, boy. It’s more than that. It’s an education.”

Indeed, Harvey learns about the importance of truth when we’re tempted by pleasant illusions, but there’s more than that. Harvey sees within himself the potential to become like the magician who keeps the house going and consumes the souls of the children he traps there, and then he chooses to be something else: a hero. Harvey learns that evil consumes itself, and that death is nothing to be feared.

This novel is Barker writing a kid’s story, so it lacks the sexual content of his other books and is dramatically shorter, but it’s just as effective. There’s also his turning-point trope, that moment halfway through when things could end, but the universe hasn’t really been set right yet, so the characters have to return to the conflict in order to defeat the evil. Barker also illustrates; I mean, on top of the writing and the moviemaking, he does this too? I think he’s my new literary crush.

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