“When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.” Tennessee Williams
“…guys like us, that work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong to no place”-George Milton, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
“Social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia.” ― Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” ~David Bowie
If the recent movies Revenant and Martian are any indication, the topic of man alone requires your attention. Such red-in-tooth-and-claw-and-planet-solo-man left-behind-against-tremendous-odds loneliness reminds me of each New Year’s social landscape just ahead of me.
I have encountered bouts of loneliness during my many years. These bouts have occurred during extended business trips across the globe and even at home within relationships. During such times and now as I live alone, I find myself talking to myself, interrupting solitude with human voice accompaniment. (Sorry Henry the parrolet, your tiny voice doesn’t supply the needed effect.)
Loneliness, like the universal force of gravity, pulls down on our demeanor and our hope. This has been so since first man Adam. God spoke to the condition: “It is not good for man to be alone.” And modern man is no different. He wants to be “Liked” on Facebook. Our frowning loneliness beckons for someone to put a smile on our Facebook.
Accompanied by your imagination, written fiction I believe captures loneliness better than any in-your-face movie could ever do. So take a brief look with me at John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
The drifters of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men depict the loneliness of the dispossessed. Using a backdrop of the Depression era 1930s, jobless migrants, lonely people, as Steinbeck’s short novel reveals, find ways to deal with their loneliness. Most will try to find comfort in their situation. Lonely bindle bums carry their dreams with them from relationship to relationship.
Loneliness’ antidote, camaraderie, is also conveyed in the story Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck had a special appreciation for friendships. His empathy toward others and a life shared comes through in his writings as you will see if you should read this short novel.
Lonely people’s lives often intersect with others who are lonely, whether it is with a fellow laborer or a passing stranger. Several characters in the novella depict loneliness. Let’s look at two briefly: George Milton, a migrant farm worker, and Crooks, a stable hand.
The nagging loneliness George Milton deals with is due in large part, as he relates, to his constant travel in search of work. His relationships are subsequently transitory, except for one. Along the way George gains a travel companion, Lennie. But the caretaker relationship George has with his traveling partner also isolates George. Lennie is a mentally feeble adult who is unable to have an adult relationship with George. Lennie’s nature, as described elsewhere by Steinbeck (The Pastures of Heaven), is “one of those whom God has not quite finished.”
Loneliness makes strange bunk mates. In the beginning of chapter 3, Slim and George, both hired ranch hands, sit down in the bunk house. Slim, the ranch’s top skinner, notices the oddity of two men traveling together:
“Funny how you an’ him string along together.” It was Slim’s calm invitation to confidence.
“What’s funny about it?” George demanded defensively.
“Oh, I dunno. Hardly none of the guys ever travel together. I hardly never seen two guys travel together. You know how the hands are, they just come in and get their bunk and work a month, and then quit and go out alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody. It jus’ seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart guy like you traveling together.”
“He ain’t no cuckoo, said George…”
At this point George doesn’t go into Lennie’s recent troubled past which prompted both of them to run away from the “bad things” done in Weed. But while playing solitaire George does tell Slim his reason for his relationship with Lennie:
“I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him”
For George, Lennie is a make shift friend. Lennie, both a bane and blessing to George, is coming along for the ride. For now George’s dreams of a normal life are put on hold until he makes some cash. But his desire for friendship is not on hold.
Let’s turn to Crooks. Crooks the African-American stable hand could be described as the loneliest man in this story. Though surrounded by fellow ranch hands he remains an outsider. Shunned by the rest of the ranch crew because of the color of his skin Crooks is told by them in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t belong with them. Because of this exile from the others Crooks is not able to establish a relationship with anyone.
Along comes trouble in a skirt. The bosses’ son Curly has a wife, who is also lonely. She, the jealous type, barges into Crooks’ private space looking for her husband. Crooks tells her she has no right to come into his private space. She then retorts her hostile insecurities toward Crooks. “Well keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.” Her words are meant to put him in his ‘place’, a place of social isolation.
Crooks, named for his crooked back, had been physically disjointed from the rest of the ranch hands. As an African-American Crooks is forced to bunk by himself. This isolation accounts for Crook’s consequent loneliness, bitterness and insecurities. As does Curly’s wife, Crooks directs his hostilities towards others and at someone in particular, someone who is even more isolated than him – Lennie.
Loneliness can bring out the worst in us. Crooks plays a mean joke on the dim witted Lennie by telling him that George is not coming back. But Crooks finally relents from his cruelness when he sees the pain he has caused Lennie.
The sense of the loneliness could become overwhelming for someone locked up in a prison or an asylum and exiled from one’s peers. In this story, Crooks returns to his books each night for companionship. One time he spoke of his deep loneliness to Lennie:
“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that? S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books. Sure you could play horseshoes till it got dark, but then you got to read books. Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody-to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”
Each of the main characters in Of Mice and Men displays loneliness to some degree. Each carries with them a dream of some better life. Loneliness and dreams. They are everywhere present in Steinbeck’s Depression era story.
The storied relationships are shown to be transitory as with the “bindle bum” George or as non–existing as in the case of Crooks or as simply remembered.
Whit, a ranch hand, wonders if Slim remembers a friend who used to work together with them and whose letter was now posted in a recent magazine. “Do you remember Bill Tenner. He worked here three years ago?” This prompting by Whit shows that men in these situations don’t usually develop lasting relationships. As such they remain lonely, just remembering the past as a form of present comfort.
Steinbeck’s short novel conveys the sense of loneliness that can overtake any of us. In each of us there is that longing for companionship and a need to be known by someone and to know them. Overcoming loneliness and dreaming both require looking outside ourselves to what could be.
George and Crooks both expressed their negative feelings about loneliness. And, when they had a chance, they shared their tale of woe with someone or took comfort in some extraneity. As the story illustrates lonely people may seek solace in wine, women, playing cards, dreams, reading books and by petting live rabbits or dead mice or a satin dress. Our put-on-hold dreams are better shared, one could infer from the story.
The bindle bums and the vagabonds, the drifters, the isolated and the wishful – all of us – want to assuage our loneliness. One way or the other we will find a way to do this or, as Crooks reminds us, go nuts trying.
But little Mouse, you are not alone… the best laid plans of Mars and Men/Often go awry.