Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 July 2021
This chapter returns to the question of Steinbeck’s purported failures as a writer by arguing that his novel Of Mice and Men--a book often taught at the middle-school level--is an experimental work that offers a partial alternative to high modernism’s interest in characters with mental disabilities. The novel’s undeveloped themes, clunky characterization, brutal melodrama, sweeping determinism, and easy sentimentalism originate in a curious fact about the book’s genre: Steinbeck intended it as a “novel to be played”--performed as drama in the theater. The book has an uncanny duality, placing readers both in a novel and in a would-be stage performance, whereby characters are also actors, objects also props, spaces also stage sets. Like Lennie, the character with mental disabilities at the center, the novel is formally “disabled” and behaves in ways not unlike Samuel Beckett’s modernist plays, defined by a failure to signify and mean. Comparing the novel-as-play with the actual three-act play version that Steinbeck wrote later, we also see the limits of the argument for a “modernist” Steinbeck, as the book’s aesthetic failures create a novel that does not fully develop as a literary work.